The Davis Family in the Carolinas
James P. Davis*
This is the start of a chronicle of one family's story in America--one small grain of sand picked from the beach of humanity--but a story that is of personal interest. It is said that who we are is the sum total of those who came before us--both in terms of genetics and environment--and can be seen in the appearance, mannerisms, and behavior of each individual_ To know and to understand a person, you must know who his/her family is, and what is the sum total of their collective experience.
This family experience can certainly be handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, through the stories and object lessons that form the fiber of family bonds of communication. However, who we are can be handed down non-verbally, without any direct contact with our progenitors. The mechanism (probably not genetic in nature) may not be understood, but its impact--once realized by studying who our ancestors were--can clearly be felt. Personally, when hearing stories about family members living in an earlier time, it is easy to see some of one's self (or other family members) in Apse individuals.
The story that will be told here, about one
family whose scope of existence has been derived from the land
and bounty of the Carolinas (both North and South) for the past
220 years, is based on this premise--that who we are is a
collective experience, an aggregation, of who our ancestors
were. Who they were what was the sum of their lifetimes of
thought and experience, reaches across the years to touch us in
ways that we can't begin to imagine_ They are here among us,
still living--inside each of us.
The hope is that this story, and the
revelations that have been and will be uncovered during its
telling, will help each of us to understand just a little bit
more about ourselves by understanding who our ancestors were. It
is hoped that the telling will clearly illuminate this for us,
recognizing the debt we owe to them.
The first part of this story concerns two
brothers, Robert and William Davis, and their journey front
Wales to North Carolina sometime between 1745 and 1770_ Robert
Davis is considered here as the progenitor of the Davis family
of interest in this writing (William, at this point, disappears
from the written record, perhaps to be uncovered later). It is
the extended family that has emerged from Robert's initial labor
that is of interest, considering also its intertwining with many
other families--with names such as Shields, Stuts, Phillips,
Bell, Seawell, Parks, Walters, Underwood, McManus, Huey, Nelson,
Jenkins, Abels, Chaudron, Highsmith, and many others too
numerous to list here.
In order to understand the specifics of why the Davis brothers, Robert and William, came to America (without having any written account of their life or journey), much can be learned from looking at the context of historical events of which they were a part.
Their journey in
The 1700s in Britain (as well in most of Europe) were a time of shrinking opportunity for its average citizens. Patterns of fluid movement among the population were well founded, with people of some means or little means moving about to find work or just to find a better life. Generally, the larger cities (such a London or Bristol) became the magnets that would draw both the young and the dispossessed from the countryside. But there was little opportunity in these cities for the masses of British folk that were to come.
Meanwhile, in the British colonies of America, several forces were in motion that would change the destinies of countless individuals and their families. During the 1600s, the tenor of life in the New England colonies had been set by the movement of various religious groups intent on finding the freedom of worship. However, in the other colonies (such as the Carolinas), much of the population influx consisted of those who could provide brute labor (such as working the fields on the plantations established along the coastal areas), or were convicts banished to a destitute life in the colonies.
However, during the 1700s, a different catalyst was to emerge, drawing new waves of immigrants from the British Isles looking for a better life. The factors influencing the great emerging movement of people across the Atlantic to America, of which the Davis brothers were a part, were as follows:
an increased demand for skilled labor (artisans, builders, craftsmen, engineers) as the economies of the colonies prospered, creating a demand for more refined goods and services; and,
an increased demand for "tenants" and buyers
for land acquired as a result of land "speculation".
At this point, it is not known for which
reason the Davis brothers came--to find a better life through
using their skills, or to partake of this early vision of the
"American Dream" through the purchase and cultivation of their
own land--or whether for both reasons.
The magnet of good jobs and a better life
Given the many hardships of life in the
British Isles at the time, and the fluid movement of a large
portion of the population in search of work or a better life, it
is only natural that such a movement would extend to the British
colonies. As industries became established in America, there
arose a great demand for laborers that could not be met with the
existing population. Thus, the call went out, through
advertisements in the newspapers and tales in letters to those
left behind from those who were already there, about the
employment opportunities that existed in the colonies.
Many people who decided to go to America could not afford the cost of passage on a ship. Thus, arrangements would be made to travel as an "indentured" worker--to work
However, not all of these people responding
to the call for employment were indentured. Many others were
free workers who had not made such commitments. These had the
financial means to pay for passage, and to establish themselves
in America as craftsmen, laborers, or farmhands.
It may have been possible that the Davis
brothers, having some metalworking skills (Robert is reported to
have been a gunsmith and silversmith), might have been attracted
to America for this reason--the promise of greater opportunity
through hard work. It is assumed that they did not enter into an
indentured arrangement with an employer who would have paid
passage for them to come, but that they had sufficient money to
pay for the journey themselves. It is not known how they would
have had the financial resources to pay for this journey, but
perhaps they had accumulated or inherited some means (a
farmhouse, cattle, crops, trade tools, metal works, a stake in a
mine, etc.) to finance it.
The magnet of open land and a better life
Through a series of events (the ending of the
French-Indian War with the Treaty of 1763), more than 10 million
acres of former Indian land stretching the length of the
colonies was opened up for exploitation. The result was a wild
frenzy of land speculation--the acquisition of land for the sole
purpose of selling it for a profit in a rising market.
Speculation logically followed from 2 basic facts:
there was a low ratio of people to good arable land in America (unlike the situation in Britain, where most land was owned by the "landed gentry" landlords); and,
it was very likely that this would change quickly as the population grew (with thousands of people looking for a better life and fulfilling their desire for land and independence from the landowning practices of Britain--this would be assured).
In order for speculators to get their profit,
they had to get people to settle on their land, having them
either renting or purchasing it. Over the period from about 1730
onward, a network of associations between American (and British)
land speculators working with British and other European agents
and shippers, would seek to draw the disenchanted to the
colonies with enticement of independence, freedom from the
oppressive rental system of the landed gentry (i.e., paying rent
and working for a landlord), and visions of a better life. Thus,
there was an open and aggressive drive to recruit settlers to
occupy this open and available land, thus securing the profit
for the speculators and middlemen.
The siren call of land and opportunity fell on anxious ears hearing the call from all over the British Isles (and Europe as well). The early to mid 1700s in Britain was a period
of spiraling rents, social upheavals (such as
a result of destruction of the clan system in Scotland after the
quelling of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745), and general
discontent among the common people. The call to go to the new
world was heeded in great numbers to escape these factors.
The majority of those who were motivated by this force were family groups, usually with a middle-aged head of family. These people would sell their possessions and their stakes in the land (rented from the landowners on at tracts of land all over Britain) in order to pay for passage of their families to America, and for the rental or purchase of land once they arrived.
Once in America, if they had rented land,
they might stay on for a few years until they had amassed enough
wealth to acquire land of their own (perhaps the speculating
land owner might sell at this time). But, since new lands to the
west were always opening up, it was likely that they might move
on after a few seasons.
This basic pattern was to change somewhat
(with the realization of the British government that the British
Isles were being depopulated at an alarming rate), with passage
of a policy by the Privy Council (a governing board overseeing
certain aspects of administration of affairs in the colonies) in
February 1774. This policy stated that the governors were no
longer allowed to make land grants in unlimited quantities for
speculation (presumably because they were making a profit
themselves); all future land transactions were to be based on
sale (not by grant), based on officially surveyed plots, at
public auctions and at published prices, with all transaction
fees specified by the Crown.
Thus, it is possible that the Davis brothers,
through securing some means to take the voyage to America, had
the means also to purchase land. It is reported that land was
purchased by the brothers from then-governor Richard Dodd
Speight as part of a land grant. It is not known if arrangements
were made for this purchase before coming to America. They may
have purchased it directly on arrival to North Carolina through
the port of New Bern. Or, it may be that they initially rented
land from a speculating landowner, later to purchase their own
tract of land once having achieved the means (also after the
Privy Council resolution of 1773).
The Davis brothers in America
It is likely that the brothers worked for
some time, amassing some measure of wealth, renting property or
living in a semi-indentured arrangement, until such time as
other opportunities arose. It is known that a sizable portion of
property was purchased (from High Falls, NC, along the Deep
River). It is also known that brother William did not stay in
North Carolina, but went westward. Many opportunities were
opening up in the lands of Kentucky (then known as Transylvania,
the result of a land speculation partnership headed by Mr. James
Hogg, a founder of University of North Carolina, also a recent
immigrant). It is possible that William went there, lured by
promise of more fertile land.
The Uwharrie foothills are ancient mountains
that have been weathered by the passage of time, long before the
Cherokee, Catawba, or Tuscarora Indians made this region of
North Carolina their hunting grounds. The land under and east of
the Uwharrie, east of High Falls, NC, was where the Davis
brothers set up their new life (it may only have been Robert
Davis who was involved in the purchase). It is not known why
this tract of land was selected. It doesn't appear to have been
the best location for farming. However, it was a region that was
known for its metals--particularly gold (this region of North
Carolina was apparently a major gold producer in the Americas
long before the discovery of the gold fields in California
almost a century later).
If the Davis brothers came to farm, it might
explain why William left his brother Robert and went further
west, into the more fertile lands of western North Carolina and
Kentucky. If they came to practice their metalworking trade (as
Robert seems to have done), then perhaps they found what they
were looking for--at least Robert may have. At any rate, this is
where Robert set up his new life, and the lives of his family
and descendants--many of whom lived out their lives, and
continue to live, on or near the land that he opened up with his
muscle and determination.
We know that Robert set up a gun factory near
what is now Robbins, NC, and manufactured guns during the
Revolutionary War. We also know that he was a silversmith by
trade, but it is not known to what extent he practiced this upon
reaching North Carolina (however, his son, William Colemon
Davis, is known to have practiced it, having fashioned a wedding
ring--either for his wife or daughter--that has been handed down
through the generations through one of the family lines).
This is the context for their immigration,
drawn from various accounts--namely the British Register of
Emigration, compiled between 1773-1776, by the Board of Customs
Commissioners to determine the magnitude and scope of the
movement of taxpaying Britons to the Americas.
At this point, there are many questions to be answered about the brothers. Much of this information may be recorded in a book written by distant kin, W. Harold Broughton, titled The Tysors of Old Tudor, which records the Tysor family history and its links with the Davis family. An attempt is being made at this writing to find a copy of this book.
What is the date of their arrival in America?
It is known that they landed at New Bern, on the Neuse River.
Perhaps shipping documents still exist, since passenger
manifests were kept for these voyages (they may be archived in
North Carolina, and should be followed up).
1. From where did they sail in England? If
they are from Wales, they may have come from the ports of
Cardiff, Swansea, Barry, or Newport, which were coming into
prominence as shipping ports during this time. However, it is
also likely that they might have migrated to a larger population
center from the Welsh backcountry as a precursor to the great
migration across the Atlantic--leaving on a ship from the ports
of Bristol or Liverpool, which were more established pons. If
they left from a British port (not specifically a Welsh port)
between 1773 and 1776, their journey would have been recorded in
the British Register of Emigration (as mentioned earlier).
2. Why did they come to America? It is known
that there was mineral mining, including gold, in the southwest
and west of Wales at that time. However, the gold (having been
mined since Roman times) might have been played out, prompting a
movement to a major city or to America. In addition, there was
coal and iron. Major coalfields were located in East Glamorgan
(north of Cardiff) and West Monmouthshire, and iron mining was
being done in the south (such as the town of Merthyr Tudfil). It
may have ben that, if they were metal smiths (rather than being
miners), they might have been 'coking for better opportunities
to practice this trade in the colonies. They might have had
sufficient metal works (gold, perhaps?) to sell in order to
finance their passage. It would be interesting to know how they
heard about the opportunities in the colonies (which would not
have been difficult, given the great push for labor and
It is known that emigration from Wales occurred for similar reasons to that of the rest of Britain (reflected in the Register of Emigration). Additional frustrations for the Welsh were that:
Anglicanism (Episcopalian in the US) was
compulsory, and Welsh non-conformists left in order to practice
The Welsh language could not be used in
official business (thus, non-English speakers would have been
treated as second class citizens).
Much Welsh farming property was owned by
absentee landlords (as was the case over much of Britain,
discussed earlier), and rent increases probably were being felt
in Wales at the time as the rest of Britain.
As mentioned earlier, skilled mining and
metalworking labor was in demand in the colonies, particularly
Pennsylvania (the iron works in Pittsburgh and other areas were
drawing many of the miners and iron workers from the south of
Wales). The fact that the Davis brothers didn't go to
Pennsylvania means that perhaps they weren't involved in the
iron trade at all.
3. Why did they choose to come to North
Carolina? If they were metal smiths (or goldsmiths), perhaps
they heard about the gold in North Carolina. But, according to
accounts, this fact was not well known in Britain, and had
little influence on populating North Carolina. In fact, most of
the immigration to North Carolina from 1760 to 1776 was from
Scotland. This was due to the policies of Governor Gabriel
Johnson (1734-1752), himself a Scot, to encourage the settlement
of North Carolina by Scots fleeing the disruption of their way
of life after the destruction of the clan system in the
Highlands. There was some population of Welsh immigrants in
North Carolina (having settled mostly northwest of the stretch
of land between New Bern and Wilmington), but it is not known
what would have drawn them specifically to North Carolina (since
many of their Welsh brethren were immigrating to the northern
colonies, such as Pennsylvania, for the iron work). No written
account of this population movement has been identified yet (the
British Register, detailing the emigration from Britain and
Scotland from 1773-1776 did not record emigration from Wales).
4. Where did they come from in Wales? Davis
(also spelled Davies) is a common family name in Wales. It is
derived from Welsh Dewi-s (Davy's son) or maybe Dafydd
(pronounced 'Dav-ith' where 'th' as in "the"; Anglicized, son
[on Davies = David's son); however, the spelling wasn't
standardized in Britain and America until probably the late
1700s and early 1800s. It is reported that there are many Davis
families (Davies) located in much of rural southeast Wales,
particularly in the Usk Valley (Usk, Raglan, Abergavenny).
Determining their home would be dependent on establishing what
was their specific trade (farmers, miners, or metalworkers),
which should at least identify the region in Wales. Perhaps
additional records exist in Wales that would provide more
information. These are being investigated.
2. The Story Of Robert Davis
This is a chapter in the continuing chronicle of one family's
story in America--the family and descendants of Robert Davis. At
this point in our understanding of the Davis family history, it
is considered that Robert Davis is the patriarch of our
particular family line. Given the size of these early American
families, Robert's family of descendants today is a large one
(estimated today to include several thousand distantly related
clans and kinfolk). By the time he died in 1828 at the age of
84, his descendants would already have been numerous.
Information About Robert Davis
Robert Davis was born in 1744 (as indicated on his grave stone, located on the old homestead site). It is currently not known who his parents were, but there is one idea that his father was William Davis, whose will and testament is recorded in the year 1788 (though Robert is not mentioned in this will). It might be possible that he was the son of either Vincent or Thomas Davis, who were the only Davis's listed in the Tax List of 1755 for Cumberland County (Moore County was formed from Cumberland years later). But the more likely possibility is that he was not born in North Carolina, but either emigrated into the colony with other members of his family after 1755 but before 1790 (when the first census was taken).
Most of our knowledge about Robert comes from different sources, many of them written documents. In this writing, we will attempt to build a rough sketch of his life and times, using this information and speculating about life in North Carolina at the time.
Robert Davis was a pioneer, soldier, landowner, craftsman, farmer, and possibly a gold prospector and many other things as well. He is most documented as a gunsmith, having set up a gun factory prior to the Revolutionary War in what is now Robbins, NC. He is later to take a partner, a man named David Kennedy (who comes down from Pennsylvania), to whom he eventually sells the gun factory. It is reported that he (possibly with David Kennedy) was active in supplying guns to the Patriots during the War. He served in 1782 as a private in Brevard's Company, 10th Regiment, during the Revolutionary War (he would have been 38 years old at the time). It is not known at this point if he fought in actual battle against the Redcoats.
In 1785, it is known that Robert Davis served on the Moore County Grand Jury. In 1786, it is known that he served as Overseer on the construction of the Yadkin Road in Moore County for a term of one year, beginning in November of that year.
It is believed that Robert was twice married--first to a woman named Cibby (her last name is not known), then later to Nancy Cheek. It is not known when he married his first wife, but he is known to have had two sons by her, Levi and Stephen, who were born in early 1766 and late 1767, respectively. There were probably additional children born to Robert and Cibby, but their names are not known at this time (the lineages of his sons has been researched by some of their descendants). Robert would have been 22 years old by the time his sons were born.
It is not known when Robert married Nancy Cheek, but it was sometime before -1791 (because his son James C. Davis, "Rich Jim", was born to Nancy in 1791, according to the gravestone at the old homestead). In the census of 1790, he is reported to have had one son over the age of sixteen and three daughters, along with his wife Nancy, and a slave named Daniel (whom he later sells to his son William Coleman in 1822, as recorded on a Bill of Sale). So, assuming the son aged sixteen is by his wife Nancy, they would have been married sometime around 1774. It is believed that this son would have been William Coleman Davis. It is known that Robert and Nancy also had, at least three daughters--Molly, Susannah, and Amy (these might be the three women besides Nancy indicated in the 1790 census).
Nancy Cheek was born in the year 1755--being eleven years younger than Robert. She may have been either the daughter or sister of Robert Cheek, who is known to have owned land adjacent to Robert Davis (from a surveyor description on a Bill of Sale from Robert to son William Coleman Davis dated 1803) and who is reported to have served on the Moore County Grand Jury the year after Robert Davis. It is possible that he met her through Robert Cheek (or it may be that he developed a relationship with Robert Cheek as a result of marrying Nancy). :
By the census of 1800, Robert would have been 56 and Nancy 45 years of age (the census lists one female over the age of 46, but it is likely that this was Nancy). The census lists six children of varying ages (two males under 10, one male between 26 and 45, one female under 10, one female between 16 and 26, and one female between 26 and 45). One of the boys under 10 would have been James C. ("Rich Jim"); the other might have been Joe Davis (this is A all that is known about this son, who possibly died young). One of the girls would not have been Molly Davis, as by 1800 she was married to Cornelius Shields (and they are listed separately in this census as being between the ages of 17 and 25--Cornelius was 21--and having two boys under the age of 10). Two of these daughters in the Robert Davis household might have been Susannah and Amy, but it is not known who the third would have been (who possibly died young as well). The old homestead site has many unmarked graves, some of which are certainly those of children who died young.
By 1803, Robert Davis is listed to own 420 acres in Moore County. By 18.15, he owns 1300 acres, mostly located along the Deep River. By the time of the 1820 census, it is indicated that Robert and Nancy are living alone, now at the ages of 76 and 65, respectively. Their families are close by, living on land adjacent or near to the land that he had bought in earlier years.
Nancy Cheek Davis dies in 1822 at the age of 67; Robert dies six years later in 1828 at the age of 84. They are buried together on the old homestead place, adjoining the land where their son "Rich Jim" lived.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America - An Introduction. Vintage Books. New York, 1986.
Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West - A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. Vintage Books. New York, 1988.
Correspondence with J.R. (Russ) Evans, British Geological Survey, Edinburgh, Scotland (himself a Welshman, his wife is a Davies, from Builth, in county Powys, Wales).
Correspondence with Greg Bullogh (also of Welsh descent, family from Mold, county Clywyd), Cupertino, California.
Correspondence with Geraint Edwards, University of Wales, College of Cardiff, Cardiff, Wales.
Correspondence with John Evans (Ieuan = John), Department of Computing Maths, University of Wales, College of Cardiff, Cardiff, Wales.Conversations with Mr. Sam B. Seawell (great-grandson of Mr. Eli T. Davis, himself a grandson of Robert Davis) of Glendon, NC.