An oddly aligned property located in Warren County, approximately twenty miles south of Vicksburg, Davis Bend occupies a unique place in Mississippi politics and social history. Its founders, Joseph Emory Davis, a well-respected Mississippi lawyer born on 10 December 1784 in Wilkes County, Georgia, and Littleton Henderson, of whom little is known, purchased what had been eleven thousand acres of uncharted swampland along a bend in the Mississippi River in May 1818 as an investment. Davis maintained control of sixty-nine hundred acres along the highly desirable western and southern portions of the plot and by the 1830s left behind his legal practice to live the life of a gentleman farmer.
In 1824 Davis had assembled a slave force of 112 under the direction of his younger brother, Isaac, to prepare the land for plantation life. In early 1827, while continuing the clearing process, Isaac was critically injured during a particularly violent storm that also killed his infant son. Later that year, Joseph Davis; his new wife, Eliza Van Benthuysen Davis; and his three daughters from previously undocumented unions settled into a lavishly decorated plantation home, Hurricane.
With Joseph Davis’s parents deceased, he had assumed the role of family patriarch, and in 1835 the youngest of his nine brothers, Jefferson, purchased and began clearing a portion of the land. In 1848 Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina Howell Davis, moved into their own newly built plantation home, Brierfield.
By midcentury a string of successful cotton harvests helped make Davis Bend plantation extremely successful. In spite of the financial successes, however, neighbors and competitors grew increasingly concerned about Joseph Davis’s unique ideas regarding the plantation workforce. The theoretical blueprint for the Davis Bend labor force, which at its peak topped 450 and was extremely versatile and self-sufficient, was fostered in part by Davis’s interpretation of British industrialist/philanthropist Robert Owen’s theories of working-class partnership and self-governance. Determined to build the same sort of versatile and self-motivated workforce that Owen had pioneered at his textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland, and later at New Harmony, Indiana, Joseph Davis offered his slaves opportunities for advancement. They ultimately had access to a school that offered a rudimentary education and a court system to adjudicate infractions and settle disputes.
The most indispensable of Davis’s slaves was Benjamin T. Montgomery, who arrived at Davis Bend in 1836. Cultured and quite ambitious, Montgomery virtually ran the Davis operation during the antebellum years and helped cement Davis’s reputation as a well-rounded businessman by running a dry goods store at the back of the plantation.
In the aftermath of the war, Jefferson Davis’s service as Confederate president left the family fortune exposed to northern reprisals. Joseph Davis, sickly and seeking a means to maintain some semblance of financial independence, transferred ownership of Davis Bend to Montgomery on 19 November 1866. This decision, while locally lamented, offered an expedient way to avoid a Union backlash while keeping the property under Davis family control.
However, Montgomery seized the opportunity, built a third plantation home, Ursino, on the property, and took charge of his own extremely successful cotton enterprise run solely by former slaves at Davis Bend. Until his death in 1878 Montgomery and Sons ranked among the state’s top cotton producers.
In 1881 Jefferson Davis won back control of the family property, arguing that his brother had leased rather than sold Davis Bend to Montgomery. The Montgomerys retained Ursino, and no Davises returned to live on the property. Following a crippling late nineteenth-century cotton slump and years of neglect, the once profitable plantation fell into a state of disrepair and was abandoned.
By the end of the twentieth century the Mississippi River had cut its way through the bend, rendering it an inaccessible island. Now known as Davis Island, it is a private nature preserve.
- Frank Everett Jr., Brierfield: Plantation Home of Jefferson Davis (1971)
- Kenneth Marvin Hamilton, Black Towns and Profit: Promotion and Development in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1877–1915 (1991)
- Janet Sharp Hermann, Joseph E. Davis: Pioneer Patriarch (1990)