According to Corliss Fitz Randolph, Nathan Davis moved to present-day Doddridge County from Salem in about 1801. According to Susie Davis Nicholson, in her book DAVIS The Settlers of Salem, West Virginia, Nathan came here in 1807. Either way, it appears certain that he arrived in Doddridge sometime between 1801 and 1807. However, it is not accurate to say that West Union was once called Lewisport.
Clarification that West Union was never called Lewisport
I digress briefly from Nathan Davis to provide an important clarification, based on my study of original documents and maps of those times. The area from present-day Smithburg to West Union was called the village of Middle Island as early as 1804. A section of that village, where the majority of the people lived, was called Lewisport in the 1820s. The first mention I find of a village called West Union was in 1839. At that time, Lewisport and West Union were clearly separate villages, located on opposite sides of Middle Island Creek. In order to be designated the county seat of the newly-formed Doddridge County, West Union officially became a town in 1845 and was incorporated in 1850. However, Lewisport in its entirety still existed as a separate village until 1869, when a portion of Lewisport was incorporated into West Union city limits. That section is now called the Blockhouse Addition.
Nathan Davis - Farmer, Cattleman
I’ve been able to find only two first-hand personal accounts of Nathan Davis. One is by Ned Jones, which I’ll share with you now. The other, by Joseph H. Diss Debar, will have to wait until next week.
In his 1901 book, History of Smithburg, Ned Jones had nothing but glowing comments to make about Nathan Davis:
“I must call your attention to Captain Nathan Davis. I have no data to show why he was called Captain, but I suppose he must have been captain of militia. The captain was fortunate in his choice of a location, first in having chosen a large tract of excellent land, second in having it become the site of the thriving little village of West Union of today, said village being the county seat of Doddridge. Davis built a good house where the court house now stands and any one may see that a more beautiful location cannot be found in all Doddridge County.
“Nathan Davis. must have been a hard worker and a man of good taste, as his land, such he had cleared from year to year, was never allowed to go back to bushes, and the grounds around his house soon became attractive. As a matter of course, Nathan Davis had to live, as did all the early settlers, and I have no doubt that he had to wear a buckskin hunting coat and trousers and two linen under shirt. This did not last for many years for he, as all others had to do, raised flax and sheep, and his womenfolk manufactured cloth out of flax and wool, which served for all purposes.
“Captain Davis was a little more progressive than most of the early settlers, and there seemed, and was, more push in everything he attempted than characterized the mass of the settlers. Being pushing, sober, and saving, he increased his flock of sheep until they became very numerous, and gave cattle a good deal of attention at the same time, which he sold to drovers who came from the eastern cities to buy, after which they drove them over the mountains to those markets. In fact, even at an early period, western Virginia cattle commanded good prices in the city of Baltimore, which led to some of the settlers taking a hand in the business, among them the captain's son-in-law, [Samuel] Preston F. Randolph, who commenced buying in early spring, grazed them on his Bluestone range, and in the woods till fall, when he would collect them and drive them to Baltimore.
“This was slow at first because cattle raising had not as yet become a general business, but the demand for cattle becoming great stimulated the breeding until every man had some to dispose of yearly, and it finally became the best paying industry of the country. As witness thereof, see our cattle kings, the Maxwells. Nathan Davis, though I never knew him to drive cattle, quickly took advantage of the growing demand, and gathered up each fall as many calves as he could to winter and graze the next summer, and thus he steadily gained money and stock of different kinds until he could dictate terms to drovers.
“At the same time he did not lose sight of farming, but grew large crops of corn, a little wheat, rye and oats. These latter gave a great amount of work, the hardest that ever man did, to prepare them for use. ...
“... But Nathan Davis was a very patient man, as well as a good and determined one. The plowing the land and sowing the grain was only a drop in the bucket as compared to what had to come before the wheat was in biscuits. ... But the only choice left to Nathan Davis was take what was offered, that or no cake at all. But my dears, we were something of philosophers in those days and did not let any little affair like that bother us. Neither did Davis. He prospered and grew wealthy for those by hard work and strict attention to his own business.
“Sometime about the forties, West Union began to be talked of as the new county seat, that is the county seat of the new county of Doddridge, and Davis sold his farm off in lots at very good figures. After his death, which was at an advanced age, his children fell heirs to fine properties, and to their credit be it said, they handled them as well as did their father.”
Cattle drives from Doddridge and over the mountains to Baltimore! What an eye-opener! But the B&O Railroad wasn’t completed to Doddridge until 1857, so they had to get them to market somehow. Ned Jones had a knack for painting a colorful picture of his subjects and daily life. I have found no other document that gives us such insight into Nathan Davis’ true character. This personal perspective tells us what it must have been like in Doddridge County in the early to mid-1800s, and the hardships the inhabitants had to overcome to simply feed and clothe themselves. To actually prosper like Nathan Davis did under such conditions took a tenacity and work ethic that seem to be lacking today.
Captain Nathan Davis
Regarding Nathan Davis’ military status, I found the following entry in Harrison County Minute Book 1805-1806, page 20:
“Thomas Babcock, Esq. certified to court that Nathan Davis was sworn into the office of Captain, Jesse Fitz Randolph in the office of Lieutenant, and Crandall Davis Ensign.”
It appears that this is why people referred to Nathan as Captain Davis. One question that I have is, was he still a Captain during the War of 1812? Susie Davis Nicholson said that he was, but the Veterans Department said that he was not. I haven’t been able to find any records to support the notion that he was a Captain in the War of 1812, but I do believe it’s worth going to the National Archives to see if they have anything that will help me definitively answer this question.
Next week I will share with you what Joseph H. Diss Debar had to say about Nathan Davis, including his role in the formation of the Middle Island Seventh Day Baptist Church, and the bitter feud between Nathan Davis and Ephraim Bee, a parting of the ways that would have repercussions for generations to come.
Founding Father Nathan Davis Jr., Part II
In my previous article about Nathan Davis Jr., I mentioned that he was an active member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in New Salem, Harrison County, until he moved to present-day Doddridge County sometime between 1801 and 1807. He was also a founding member of the Middle Island SDB Church, which nearly disbanded as the result of a feud between him and Ephraim Bee. Since the church was the foundation of the community in those times, such a turn of events surely had a far-reaching devastating impact.
(I have already written about how Nathan Davis came to purchase the property on which West Union now stands. In case you missed that article, I have posted it on this website If you look under Local History you can read about it in the article entitled Legends & Facts.)
Nathan and his two brothers, William and Joseph, seem to have relocated to present-day Doddridge County about the same time, between 1801 and 1807. Nathan settled in West Union, Joseph in Lewisport (now Blockhouse Hill) and William near Smithburg. All three were members of the New Salem SDB Church. Once they moved to Doddridge County, they started making arrangements to build a meeting house upon the lands of Joseph Davis at Lewisport.
Formation of the Middle Island SDB Church
A brief account of the formation of the Middle Island SDB Church was left to us by Corliss Fitz Randolph in his book A History of the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia:
“The first of these meeting houses to be built was at Lewisport, where three brothers, Nathan, Joseph, and William Davis had purchased twenty thousand (20,000) acres of land and settled for their homes. Here upon a little bluff, only a stone's throw from the very verge of the banks of the Middle Island Creek, a rude log meeting house was erected, and a graveyard established upon the lands of Joseph Davis. This was probably built some time during the first decade of the nineteenth century, and was doubtless a crude affair of round, unhewn logs, with a cabin roof.
“After a few years, this gave way to another log structure, which too had fallen into decay, not many years after the first quarter of the century had passed. After the organisation of the Middle Island Church at Lewisport was finally consummated in 1832, the New Salem Church relinquished all claim to the property in favour of the Middle Island Church. The latter church obtained legal title to the meeting house lot and grave yard from Joseph Davis, the former owner of the land.”
Two hundred years later, the “graveyard established upon the lands of Joseph Davis” survives in the form of the lower section of the Blockhouse Hill Cemetery. The only vestige of the meeting house that remains is a commemorative monument placed there many years ago by the DAR.
Nathan Davis vs. Ephraim Bee
Within months of the formal recognition of the Middle Island SDB Church, an issue arose between Nathan Davis and Ephraim Bee that led to the eventual dismissal of Ephraim Bee from the fledgling church. The following was also written by Corliss Fitz Randolph:
“At the regular quarterly business meeting of the church in November , following the organisation, there was presented to the church a controversy which had arisen between Ephraim Bee and Nathan Davis. This dispute shook the infant church to its foundations, and planted the seeds of trouble for years to come. So serious was it that at the regular meeting in February next, Ephraim Bee was relieved of his duties as clerk of the church until the unfortunate difference should be adjusted.
“Nathan Davis was a justice of the peace, and before him had been tried a suit at law in which Ephraim Bee and one William J. Lowther were the principals. Decision was rendered against Ephraim Bee, and a judgment entered for the sum of nine dollars ($9.00). The latter charged partiality on the part of the court in favour of Lowther, and the matter was taken to the church.
“The church referred the whole matter to a committee, which after a careful review of the case, acquitted the justice of the peace of any charge of bias, and decided that due acknowledgment should be made him by his accuser. The committee further recommended that the suggestion of the accused justice be followed, to the effect that the case be tried again ab initio, before another justice. Upon their request, letters of dismissal were granted to a considerable number of the leading members of the church, in February, 1835. The records of the church were committed to safe keeping in the hands of William J. Davis, and the church went into a state of lethargy for a period of more than nine years.”
I am not exactly sure what year the suit between Ephraim Bee and William J. Lowther took place.
I did find proof of a land dispute between the two that was tried in the Circuit Superior Court of
Law and Chancery in Harrison County in 1836. It’s plausible that this is the same dispute, which
would have first been litigated much earlier by a local Justice of the Peace, which Nathan Davis
was at that time. It took years of trials and appeals for a case to make it to the Circuit Superior
The photo to the right is a map from that case. These early files are stored under extreme
temperature conditions in the basement of the court house in Harrison County, of which we
were a part until 1845. I would not be surprised if I’m the first person to have set eyes on them
in over 180 years. They are so old and brittle that they cannot be copied, only photographed.
There are thousands of such records that I am trying to photograph before they inevitably
become too fragile to handle at all. Unfortunately this is a very time-consuming effort that
requires assistance from the clerk. If anyone is interested in helping me with this huge project,
please let me know. If you cannot come with me, I can always use help transcribing these
Church Becomes Stagnant
As Corliss Fitz Randolph noted, the church went into a “state of lethargy” in 1835. Two years later, a tornado destroyed the church building, killing Nathan Davis’ son and granddaughter, William and Harriet. The church resumed holding regular meetings in 1844, but a church building was never rebuilt in Lewisport. Meetings were held in the homes of the congregation until, in 1867, the decision was made to rebuild the church at the mouth of Sugar Camp in New Milton. Although the congregation’s new location was not near Middle Island Creek or the village of Middle Island, the new church building retained its original name. Over the years, the surrounding area also came to be referred to as Middle Island, which is how the present-day community of Middle Island and the former Middle Island School got their names.
One thing that I noticed while reading Fitz Randolph’s book was that the Middle Island SDB Church was quite often in violation of traditional Seventh Day Baptist rules and regulations. At least once they had to make a resolution to realign themselves with the Conference.
One indelible belief of the Seventh Day Baptist faith was that no man should be enslaved by another, so I was quite surprised to find a deed for a slave from Nathan Davis to his daughter, Mary. This deed stated that the slave was to be the sole property of Mary, free and clear of the use and ownership of her husband, Dr. Ethelbert Bond. I have no idea how Nathan Davis came into possession of the slave or what happened to the slave after she was deeded to Mary. She never appeared in the 1850 or 1860 slave census records. To my knowledge, Nathan Davis never owned another slave.
Diss Debar on Nathan Davis
Joseph H. Diss Debar, creator of the West Virginia State Seal. made mention of Nathan Davis in his Reminiscence of Doddridge County, written in his retirement in Philadelphia twenty-some years after he had left the county:
“In an attempt at a partial enumeration I shall approximately begin on top of the hill where the octogenarian patriarch of the settlement, Capt. Davis, aforesaid mentioned, occupied a small one-story house, with his equally venerable consort, "Aunt Jinny," his steadily inflating bag of Spanish Dollars, and his remnant of a once fashionable pig-tail cue, which he still nursed as a relic of the time when he was monarch of all he surveyed. If I am not mistaken, the same roof also sheltered his father-in-law, Mr. Sutton, nearly a century old, who, through the dim vista of his waning memory, could still retrace desperate Indian fights and the scalping of white settlers around the fort at Clarksburg and other places, innumerable bear tales not to mention.”
Nathan’s wife, “Aunt Jinny,” was Jane Sutton Davis. Jane’s father was Cornelius Sutton. As Diss Debar pointed out, Cornelius was almost a hundred years old when he was living with Nathan and Jane in West Union in 1850. Cornelius was born October 29, 1750 in New Jersey. He died one month shy of his 100th birthday. Most Suttons in Doddridge County can trace their lineage back to Cornelius Sutton.
The featured sketch of Nathan Davis was drawn by Diss Debar upon his arrival to Doddridge County in 1846. In it you can see Nathan’s “once fashionable pig-tail cue” that Diss Debar mockingly made note of.
A Man of Lasting Impact
I cannot possibly overemphasize the impact that Nathan Davis and his family had in the formation of Doddridge County. He owned most, if not all, of the land that is now the town of West Union. His son-in-law, Dr. Ethelbert Bond, was the surveyor who laid out the town in lots. Nathan was a mail carrier in 1807, Militia Captain starting in 1805, a Director of the West Union Academy, Justice of the Peace and a Sheriff of Harrison County in 1843-44.
We are reminded of one of Nathan Davis’ greatest contributions when we look up at our beautiful court house in West Union. The first court session ever held in the newly-formed Doddridge County in 1845 was held in Nathan Davis’ brick home, which was situated where our court house currently sits. He later donated that land to the county for erection of a permanent court house building. Nathan Davis Jr. died in West Union on May 23, 1866, one month short of his 94th birthday. He and his wife, as well as his father-in-law, are buried in the Old SDB Cemetery on Blockhouse Hill.
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)
Sketch of Nathan Davis by Diss Debar, courtesy WV State Archives
Photo of Nathan Davis
Founding Father Nathan Davis Jr., Part I
Continuing last week’s discussion of the historical significance of the Old SDB Cemetery at Blockhouse Hill, the number of prominent early Doddridge County citizens buried there is astounding. A full listing reads like a Who’s Who of our early history, including such luminaries as: Civil War Captain John Carroll; merchant and Wheeling Convention delegate Joseph Cheuvront; director of the West Union Academy (1851) William "Rock Run Billy" Davis; early merchant James A. Foley; hotelier and Lewisport postmaster (1842) Lawson Maulsby; judge and legislator Chapman Johnson Stuart; and lawyer, congressman and land speculator Lewis Maxwell. But it was Nathan Davis, Jr., buried in the Old SDB Cemetery in 1866, who had arguably the greatest and most long-lasting impact. It was his home in which the first court was held, and it was he who donated the land where our beautiful Court House now stands. To say that he played a major role in the formation and early development of Doddridge County would be an understatement.
Nathan Davis Comes to Western Virginia
Nathan Davis, Jr. was born in New Jersey in 1772, the son of Nathan Davis and Ann Gifford. Nathan Jr. (from this point I will refer to him only as Nathan Davis, without the Jr. suffix) married Jane Sutton in New Jersey before 1795.
Nathan Davis’ name appears on the 1793 Militia role of Shrewsbury, New Jersey. A short time later Nathan, with his small family and his father-in-law Cornelius Sutton, moved to the town of New Salem, Virginia (now Salem, West Virginia).
He was active in the New Salem Seventh Day Baptist Church until about 1801. The following paragraph refers to the church meeting house in New Salem and can be found in Corliss Fitz Randolph’s A History of the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia. The “burying ground” refers to the cemetery now on the grounds of the Salem SDB Church across from the IGA store.
“On August 9th, 1801, the church voted to try to buy the house in which meetings were held, and voted to pay fifty dollars ($50) for the house and lot. A week afterward, August 16th, the church voted to build a meeting house on the burying ground, twenty-eight feet long by twenty-two feet in width, with galleries. Nathan Davis and Thomas Clayton were appointed trustees to have charge of the work, and for their services they were to receive four shillings and sixpence a day and "find themselves." Nathan Davis moved away to his farm at Lewisport (now West Union, in Doddridge County); and on November 8, 1801, William Davis, the clerk of the church, was appointed to assist Thomas Babcock in superintending the erection of the building.”