The Overseer

Week 2: #52 Ancestors – Family Legend

By Eilene Lyon

My grandmother, Clare (Davis) Smith, left this typewritten note regarding her paternal ancestors. I want to learn more about the first one, but I’m going to address them all, beginning at the bottom. (Typos have been corrected.)“The Davis family moved from Missouri to Texas Ridge, Idaho. They chose that land because they wanted wood and water. They could have had Genesee land. The family was large enough to have a Davis threshing crew. The move was made via railroad, to Moscow, Idaho.”

Grandma’s father was part of this migration, and she wrote a bit more about it. The basic facts are true. The railroad did reach Moscow at the time they moved and they homesteaded on Texas Ridge. It was a large family, so the threshing crew is plausible. The property did have trees, and probably water, though the trees are gone now.

The Davis homestead on Texas Ridge.

“Great grandfather, Hamilton Cunningham Davis, was a doctor in Pennsylvania.”

Hamilton C. Davis died in 1847, before the census began recording occupations.1 Local history books in Missouri call him Dr. Davis. He also owned a mill and a lot of property in western Missouri, and prior to that in North Carolina (including enslaved persons). He was born in North Carolina and I have no reason to believe he ever spent any time in Pennsylvania.

“Grandfather Davis, Melville Cox Davis, was a confederate soldier (drummer) in the Civil War and a drifter afterwards. He met Sarah Rebecca in North Carolina on the plantation. He probably learned carpentry there.”

Clare never met her grandfather, Melville, who died eight years before she was born, but she certainly knew her grandmother, Sarah Rebecca (Livengood) Davis. I suspect that the Davises, like many people, were tight-lipped about their wartime experiences. In the absence of facts, fantasy ran rampant.

Melville C. Davis did serve in the Confederate Army. None of his service records mention him being a drummer. His son, Elmer, was a musical prodigy, so it’s at least possible. Everything after that is demonstrably untrue.

Melville’s parents, Dr. Hamilton C. Davis and Christina Mock, moved to Lafayette County, Missouri, shortly after their marriage in North Carolina in 1834.2 Melville, their first child, was born in 1835 in Lafayette County.3 Sarah Livengood was born in North Carolina in 1840, and her parents joined the Davises in Missouri sometime before 1844.4 There is no possibility that this couple met in North Carolina.

And Melville certainly wasn’t a drifter after the war. He and Sarah already had two children before he enlisted. Sarah, and Melville’s step-father, petitioned the government to get him released from a Union prison, and he went home to his family. Sarah’s father could have taught Melville the carpentry trade.

“Grandmother Davis’s father, Andrew Livengood, was an overseer on a North Carolina plantation. She was an excellent housekeeper and seamstress.”

My mom and her sister in dresses made by my grandmother, Clare (Davis) Smith. (Family collection)

I love that second sentence. My grandmother obviously took after her grandmother. Her home was always spic-n-span, and she made many cute outfits for her two daughters. But what about Andrew Livengood being an overseer? The job title refers to a foreman who supervises workers, usually manual laborers.

I’ve always set aside researching my North Carolina ancestors. They are my only connection to the South and slavery. I also have a number of brick walls to contend with, but DNA is starting to chisel away at them. Many of the families on that branch are of German extraction.

Andrew’s grandfather, Hardtmann Leibengut/Hartman Livengood, immigrated from Germany in 1750 and settled in Pennsylvania, where Andrew’s father, John Livengood was born in 1766.56 The Livengood family all moved to North Carolina by 1780.7 They belonged to Bethany Reformed (Lutheran) Church.8 So far, I’ve found no records to indicate they enslaved anyone.

Tobacco farming in the south (Wikimedia Commons)

The family owned property in northeastern Davidson County (originally part of Rowan County), an area where some families had large landholdings, mostly producing cotton and tobacco. The Davises lived in neighboring Guilford County, but might have been relatively close by. One possibility is that Andrew worked as an overseer for the Davis family. Given their connection in Missouri, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Abbotts Creek in northeastern Davidson County. The Livengood family owned property on various branches of this waterway. (Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew and his son, John M. Livengood, like Melville Davis, served the Confederacy from Missouri. Union soldiers arrested Andrew for aiding the enemy in March 1862, and he posted a $3,000 bond.9 Several months later, at about age 52, he enlisted for a three-year term of service.10 Unlike his son and son-in-law, he appears to have avoided imprisonment and punishment.

After the war, Andrew and his wife, Mary Taggart, moved to Bowensburg, Hancock County, Illinois, and remained there for life. Ancestry DNA recently led me to a match who had Mary Taggart’s father’s will attached to their tree. It named Andrew and Mary as heirs, as well as her mother and siblings – brick wall toppled.

At the Davis family reunion in Idaho in 2019, I photographed two letters that Andrew wrote to his daughter, Sarah Davis (still living in Missouri at the time). His spelling was atrocious, but he was literate. He’s very chatty about family and clearly cherishes the relationships. He’s no longer working as a carpenter, but just subsisting in his elder years. He relied on what he could raise on his town lot (including a cow and a couple pigs) and some lathe work, but stayed out of debt.

Letter to Sarah R. Davis from her father, Andrew Livengood c. 1879. (E. Lyon 2019, Courtesy of L. Davis)

Earlier this week, I spoke with the director at Mendenhall Homeplace in Jamestown, Guilford County, NC. He passed along some possible plantation names in the area (and revealed the proper pronunciation of Livengood, with a long i, not short). One of those names was Lindsay, and Livengood deed records reveal a connection to that family. Google brought me a few other possibilities. Considering the number of records to sift through, I will not resolve this family legend today.

Feature image: The Holt plantation house outside of Lexington, Davidson County, North Carolina. The home was built in 1834, the same year Andrew Livengood and Mary Taggart married. (Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Livengood on Ancestry.com


  1. Headstone in New Hope Cemetery, Lafayette County, MO. Personal visit. 
  2. Hamilton C. Davis and Christina Mock. Ancestry.com. North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: North Carolina County Registers of Deeds. Microfilm. Record Group 048. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC. 
  3. Melville’s headstone gives his birth date and location. Census records consistently give his birthplace as Missouri. 
  4. Sarah’s headstone gives her birth date and location. Census records confirm these.  AND Andrew Levengood. Year: 1850; Census Place: District 46, Lafayette, Missouri; Roll: 403; Page: 236a – via Ancestry.com. 
  5. Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808, Vol. I pp. 428-9 – via Ancestry.com. 
  6. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10077921/john-livengood AND Lineages, Inc., comp. Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 1757-1885: Upper Milford Reformed Congregation [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000. 
  7. Hartman Livingood. Document: Tax List – 1779 [NC State Archives]; Call Number: C.R. 085.701.5; Page Number: 28; Family Number: 26 – via Ancestry.com. 
  8. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1984818/memorial-search?firstName=&lastName=Livengood&includeMaidenName=true&page=1#sr-194313288 
  9. https://www.fold3.com/image/288336492 
  10. https://www.fold3.com/image/88601252 

53 thoughts on “The Overseer

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    1. I do wonder how some tales got started. I found that my mom and her cousin both had the same wildly wrong story about their grandmother. I mean, exactly the same, and they aren’t close at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. After reading this interesting piece, you know what my question is? Does putting someone’s occupation down on the census sum up what we think of the human experience. X lived here in these years. They were a shop owner. The end. If all that were left of civilization was the census, would people (either human or space) think that’s all there was?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t suppose so. Even the census puts you in a context with other people: relatives, neighbors, etc. And many people move around and do different jobs and have different contexts. You’d be amazed at what you can discern. Of course, letters and diaries and photos (!!) are so much better. With Andrew’s letters, I can now see him with pigs and a pumpkin patch, even though he lives in a small town. And working in his shop turning spindles for a chair. Then sitting in a corner of the bedroom to write a letter to his daughter.

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  2. I think of all the stories told that are never written down. And then the next generation tells them, perhaps embellish them and so on down the line. Who knows if they are always true, but they are fun to hear. Having the letters though really gives a voice to the individual.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your genealogy investigation is impressive, Eilene. I liked seeing your grandmother’s note and then following along as you proved or disproved the facts. The photos are wonderful, and so is the letter. Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A drummer during the Civil War didn’t necessarily mean being musical. I had an ancestor who was a drummer as a boy during the Revolution and a great uncle started out as one in WWI. Different cadences were the easiest way for different units to send signals! That was a revelation to me, but makes sense, as those would carry quite a long way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that clarification, Joy. It makes perfect sense that it would be used for signaling. Still, I think you had to have a good sense of rhythm to be able to do the proper cadence. I know I would flunk at it!

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  5. They wanted wood and water on their land. I love that line. So obvious, but something I’ve never thought about when buying a home. The photo of the Davis homestead reminds me of one I have [somewhere] of a farm family in front of their house. There’s something wistful about that style of photo.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your stories are always so interesting and I’m constantly fascinated by how mobile your ancestors were. My early American people were mobile until they arrived in Ohio. They put down roots and none of us have really moved for over 150 years!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Further proof that genealogy is unfiltered truth. My ancestors were from Spain, and one individual in particular (I forget if he was a great, great grandfather) was a Count who was such a bastard that the town burned down his castle. Family!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good luck on this, Eileen. I hope you can get to the bottom of it. My great-aunt married a man from North Carolina (Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Con in The Family Kalamazoo), and his family did own enslaved people. Nobody in my own family did, and I find it difficult to even think of digging deeper into his family, although I really admire Cathy Meder-Dempsey’s “slave roll project.”

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  9. It’s always interesting to see how family stories differ from discoverable facts. Often there is a kernel of truth that allows us to find more evidence to prove or disprove the stories. And sometimes there is just nothing there that is true. Great research, Eilene!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I never cease to be amazed at the family info you dig up. I wonder why Melville was listed as a drifter when he clearly wasn’t a drifter?? Weird! And it looks like Joy Neal beat me to the punch in mentioning that drummers with regiments didn’t necessarily have to be musical – the job was also often given to very young/underage soldiers. So if he was very young when he joined on that could be a possibility. Either way – your research always amazes me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That bit about being a drifter is just what my grandmother wrote. It didn’t come from any official source. He would have been 25 when he enlisted – already married with two children. I do hope I manage to find out who Andrew worked for in some county record someday!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. If I (we) go back in our collective evolutionary history WE all would realize that we all came from the same place. The Great Rift Valley. Which means we must of all looked the same.
    It’s by migrating to other geographic areas that changed us over time. Our surrounding environment does alter us as we alter it.
    So at one point we all looked the same, but then migrated/changed and now with intermixing we will eventually return to looking the same……..If our numbers do not bring us and our world down upon us?

    Liked by 1 person

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