Slave-owner to Socialist

Week 45: #52 Ancestors – Bearded

By Eilene Lyon

The Slave Years

My 2nd great-grandfather, Melville Cox Davis, was the oldest of five children born to Dr. Hamilton Cunningham Davis and Christina Mock. Hamilton married Christina in their home state, North Carolina, and shortly afterward moved to Lafayette County, Missouri, along with their parents and siblings. Christina gave birth to Melville in Missouri on April 24, 1835.1

Dr. Davis bought a substantial amount of real estate and also built one of the early gristmills in Lafayette County along with Andrew Livengood.2 In addition to land, his assets included enslaved persons. His parents and siblings also had enslaved people.

The doctor died suddenly at age 45, in 1847.3 The following year, Christina, his widow, lost her youngest child, a toddler named Charles. Hamilton and Charles share a headstone in the New Hope Cemetery.4

The 1850 census listed Melville as 15 years old. His 37-year-old mother still owned four people that year. In addition to her four surviving children, her household included a 24-year-old “gold hunter” and his wife and baby. Mordecai M. Cooke, age 28, who would become Melville’s step-father two years later, lived next door.5

Headstones for Hamilton C. Davis, Charles Davis, Christina Mock Davis Cooke, and Mordecai M. Cooke. New Hope Cemetery, Lafayette County, Missouri (E. Lyon 2012)

Melville C. Davis married Sarah Rebecca Livengood, daughter of Andrew Livengood and Mary Taggart. Not long after, Melville’s sister, Elizabeth, married Sarah’s brother, John M. Livengood.

Melville also owned people. In the 1860 census, he had a 65-year-old male and a 12-year-old female, but the girl was listed as a fugitive.6 Livengood didn’t own anyone, but family lore indicates his father, Andrew, had been a plantation overseer in North Carolina, but he farmed and worked the mill in Missouri.

The drums of war began pounding in 1861, and the Davis and Livengood families were soon to be drawn into the conflict.

The War of the Rebellion

John Livengood enlisted in the 5th Cavalry, Company F, as a corporal on August 11, 1862.7 Though prisoner records list Melville as being with the 1st Missouri Cavalry, they are likely in error. Other records indicate Melville enlisted as a corporal in the 5th.8 The Confederates formed the 5th Cavalry in Lafayette and Johnson counties in 1862, and Melville probably joined at the same time and place as his brother-in-law. There is also an Andrew Livengood listed in Company F, undoubtedly John’s father.9

“5th Cavalry Regiment (also known as the Lafayette County Cavalry) was organized during the late spring of 1862. The unit was assigned to General Shelby’s Brigade in the Trans-Mississippi Department. It skirmished in Missouri and Arkansas, served in Marmaduke’s Missouri expedition, was part of the operations against Steele’s expedition from Little Rock to Camden, then was active in Price’s Missouri operations… It disbanded in mid-May, 1865. The field officers were Colonels B. Frank Gordon and Joseph O. Shelby, Lieutenant Colonel Y.H. Blackwell…”10

Gen. Sterling Price commanded the Confederate troops in Missouri. After the war, he became state governor. Two months after Price’s death, Melville Cox Davis named his newborn son Sterling Price Davis in the general’s honor. (Wikimedia)

The Livengoods may have served until war’s end, however Melville took a different path. He faced the Union forces at Newtonia (southwestern Missouri) and Helena (Arkansas).11 After that, he most likely deserted and headed for home. Perhaps word reached him that his grandmother had died on September 26, 1863.12

In Sedalia, Missouri, he went to the Union garrison and surrendered to the commanding officer on October 6, 1863. They took him to Jefferson City, and tried him on November 6. The government sentenced him to hard labor for the duration of the conflict.13 They sent Melville to prison in St. Louis, Missouri, then in January 1864, transferred him to the Union prison in Alton, Illinois.14

When Alton had been closed as a state penitentiary in 1857, it had 256 cells. During the Civil War, 11,764 prisoners passed through over a 3-year period. Conditions were extraordinarily harsh and diseases such as smallpox were rampant. Over 1,500 prisoners died – a higher proportion than other Union Army prisons during that time.15

All that remains of the Alton prison is this small section of wall. (Wikimedia)

Fortunately, two intervening factors cut Melville’s stay there short. First, his wife, Sarah Rebecca, filed a petition to President Lincoln to have her husband pardoned. Second, due to the fact of his voluntary surrender, Major General J. M. Schofield, under General Order No. 86 Department of the Missouri, directed Melville to be released upon signing an oath and placing a $1000 bond.16 His release order came on February 29, 1864 and he was discharged on March 15, 1864.17,18

After the War

Melville returned to his family, settling near Elmwood, Saline County, Missouri, and resumed life as a farmer.19 He and Sarah had 10 children, who all survived. Melville’s mother, Christina Mock Davis Cooke passed away on November 29, 1873 in Lafayette County.20 They laid her to rest next to Hamilton Davis. When Mordecai Cooke died in 1896, he was buried on the other side of Christina.21

In 1885, Melville and his oldest son, Charles, took a train to Idaho and staked a homestead claim on Texas Ridge in Latah County. The following year, the rest of the family loaded up a boxcar with all their possessions, including livestock, and arrived at the station in Moscow, Idaho.22 They built a fine residence on the ridge, but Melville and Sarah later purchased a home in Moscow and moved there prior to 1900.23

In 1903, Melville C. Davis ran on the Moscow Socialist ticket for First Ward chairman, but he did not win the election.24 Melville worked as a carpenter during the Idaho period of his life. In 1906, he was working on a project in Asotin, Washington, when he received a blow from a hammer – did he hit his own thumb? The bruise soon turned into a blood infection destined to kill him.25

Knowing the end was near, all ten children and his wife gathered at his bedside from as far away as Santa Cruz, California. He died on June 8, 1906 and the family took his body to Moscow for the funeral and burial.26


Feature image: Melville Cox Davis from the 1893 Davis family portrait. According to 1863 – 1864 prison records, he was 6-feet tall with dark hair and hazel eyes.

  1. Birth date engraved on headstone at Moscow Cemetery is consistent with census records. 
  2. Young’s History of Lafayette County, Missouri by Hon. Wm. Young, Illustrated, Volume 1. 1910. B. F. Bowen & Co., Indianapolis, Indiana. p. 352 
  3. Death date on headstone in New Hope Cemetery is consistent with his probate record. 
  4. Personal visit to New Hope Cemetery, including photographs of headstones. 
  5. Davis, Christina. Year: 1850; Census Place: District 46, Lafayette, Missouri; Roll: M432_403; Page: 237A; Image: 470. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Davis, Christina. 1850 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004. 
  6. Davis, M C. 1860 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010. 
  7. Livingood, John M. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Missouri; Series Number: M322; Roll: 39. U.S., Confederate Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011. 
  8. Davis, Melville C. Corporal, 5th Missouri Cavalry. Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009. 
  9. 5th Missouri Cavalry CSA, Company F roster by Missouri Division Sons of Confederate Veterans at 
  11. and 
  12. Davis, Sarah Hamilton. Cemetery Records of Saline County, Missouri Volume III. Saline County, Missouri, Cemetery Index, 1840-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2001. 
  13. Letter to Major General W. S. Rosecrans from the War Department Adjutant General’s Office dated May 7, 1864.
  14. Davis, Melville C. M 598_72. Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861-1865; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M598, 145 rolls); War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109; National Archives, Washington, D.C. U.S., Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. 
  16. Letter to Major General Rosecrans. 
  17. Davis, Melville C. M 598_14. Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861-1865; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M598, 145 rolls); War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109; National Archives, Washington, D.C. U.S., Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. 
  18. Ibid. Roll M598_15. 
  19. Davis, Melville C. Year: 1870; Census Place: Elmwood, Saline, Missouri; Roll: M593_804; Page: 80A; Family History Library Film: 552303. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. 
  20. Date on headstone in New Hope Cemetery, personal observation and photograph 2012. 
  21. Ibid. 
  22. Family records compiled by Clara Ransom Davis. 
  23. Davis, Mallvill C. Year: 1900; Census Place: East Moscow, Latah, Idaho; Page: 10; Enumeration District: 0069; FHL microfilm: 1240233. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004. 
  24. “City Elections.” Idaho Statesman (Boise), March 24, 1903. p. 5. 
  25. “Nurses Dying Father is Now Seriously Ill.” Moscow (Idaho) Evening Journal, June 9, 1906, p. 1. 
  26. Ibid. 

26 thoughts on “Slave-owner to Socialist

Add yours

    1. No diary, or anything at all. We actually know very little about this branch of the family. I’ve only very recently gotten in touch with some Davis descendants. Idaho doesn’t have many digitized newspapers, but someday they might reveal a little more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I’m sure they were kept until the war forced them to be released. There were some slaveholders in certain areas that did free their slaves, but the ones in Missouri seem to have been real diehards to the practice.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I enjoy reading your family history stories and this one is particularly interesting. I cannot get my mind around owning slaves, but realize that good people did. And then to make it through war and prison camp only to be done in by an infection, it’s amazing really. Such different times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Slavery is hard to fathom. Things didn’t change for many blacks after the war; they started getting paid for their labor and had to take responsibility for buying what they needed. They still lived in dreadful circumstances in many places. For a while in the 1870s and 1880s, life improved as they learned to deal with freedom, then Jim Crow laws took it all back.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I broke my mother’s liberal heart some years ago, when I found that an ancestor of hers was the largest slave owner in Pike County, Missouri. Thankfully, things change. History doesn’t lie. However, it should not be repeated.

    Liked by 2 people

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