George Washington Davis, Rockport Resident
Born a Slave
George Washington Davis1He was usually referred to as 'Washington Davis,' while the names 'George Washington Davis' or 'G. Washington Davis' occasionally appeared in documents. He was better known by friends and neighbors as 'Washie.'(1845-1928) was a formerly enslaved African American man who lived on Cape Ann in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was one of the few people of color residing here during that time..
As far as he could recollect, he was born a slave in Virginia in March 1845 the son of an enslaved woman named Sally Davis. He had at least one sibling as he recalled “his mother, with her baby clasped in her arms, sold and carried away in a wagon.”2'Washie' Davis a Feature in Town. Interview with Mr. Davis, Rockport Daily News, 9 Nov., 1923.Records of slave ownership are imprecise and incomplete and to date there is no sure way to pinpoint his early years3'There are at least four possible contenders: that a son was born to Sally wife of Abram who, with their two children (Susan & Rebecca) were bought by Henry Davis, a Virginia slave owner, Mar. 3, 1845. Public Sales of Negroes Stock &c. at Oakland belonging to William R. Johnson by Thomas Branch & Bro., Petersburgh, VA. George, aged 16, who escaped from Bartholomew Bowers Oct. 20, 1862; George aged 15, who escaped from Jordan Edwards Aug. 10 1862; Washington aged 10, who escaped from William H. William, Aug. 20, 1863. Slaves Escaped in Southampton County to the enemy during the war. Virginia Untold, virginiamemory.com. In many ways the rest of his life is equally obscure and entwined with that of John D. Sanborn a wealthy Rockport resident.
Washington Davis. Courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society
When Davis was about sixteen, he made his way to Fort Monroe (then under the command of Gen. Benjamin Butler). It is possible that Davis may have been among those who fled to Fort Monroe and its “contraband camp” to escape enslavement;4Contraband camps were a phenomenon of the Civil War. They were refugee camps set up by Gen. Benjamin Butler to protect fleeing slaves from recapture. Butler argued that as Virginia had seceded from the Union he was under no obligation to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which would have resulted in returned slaves being forced to support the Confederate cause. In addition he argued that as the Confederacy defined enslaved people as property he was justified in regarding them as 'contraband of war.' Contraband Camps and the African American Refugee Experience during the Civil War. oxfordre.com/americanhistory or he may have been the Washington Davis cited as having fought as a private in a New York Regiment and been wounded.5Washington Davis is #4 on a list of 12 surviving Civil War veterans living in Rockport in 1890. He was a private in a New York Infantry Regiment, no company or dates of enlistment or discharge given, who received a wound from a shell. Davis makes no reference to any military service in the 1923 interview with him nor is there a mention in his obit in 1928. Newspaper clipping Sandy Bay Historical. However, there is no other person with either the name George or Washington Davis resident in Rockport in the town directories around 1890 or the censuses of 1880 and 1900. Veteran Schedules of US Federal Census, 1890, Rockport, MA. Special Schedule, Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, etc. of the war of the rebellion, in Rockport, Essex, Mass. Enumerated June 1890. Ancestry.com However he arrived, he soon went to work for the Adams Express Company, probably as an errand boy.6'Washie' Davis a Feature in Town. Interview with Mr. Davis, Rockport Daily News, 9 Nov., 1923. Founded by a Boston man, the company was soon transporting “Bank-notes, gold & silver coin, parcels, packages, freight, & c.” the length of the East Coast and as far west as St. Louis.7Adams' Express Company was founded by Alvin Adams in 1839 as Adams & Company changing the name to Adams Express Company in 1855. en.wikipedia.org Northern abolitionists sent anti-slavery newspapers to southern readers through the company and once an enterprising enslaved man gained his freedom by shipping himself north from Virginia by Adams Express. 8This was Henry 'Box' Brown in 1849 who shipped himself to Philadelphia.
Washington Davis. Courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society
Davis Makes the Acquaintance of John D. Sanborn
At Fort Monroe, Davis made the acquaintance of John D. Sanborn an agent for the Adams Express Company where, according to a small announcement in the New York Herald on June 16, 1861,:
“An office of Adams & Co’s Express has been established here [Fort Monroe] for the accommodation of the soldiers. Mr. JD Sanborn has charge of the office here, and he will receive and deliver all packages directed to Fortress Monroe, Old Point Comfort, Virginia. He is in daily communication with both camps and will promptly deliver every article entrusted to his care.”
The company was already acting as paymaster for both the Union and Confederate sides and when the Post Office stopped carrying the mail to the Confederate states in May, it was transported by Adams and other private express companies under a Flag of Truce. It was reported by the same New York newspaper that on June 24 “Mr. Sanborn, the agent of Adams Express Co. at Fortress Monroe” was on the USS Fanny en route to Norfolk, VA, “on business connected with his department” sailing “under a flag of truce.”9Report in the New York Herald, 25 June, 1861.
John D. Sanborn was from Rockport, MA. Born in New Hampshire in 1821 he had moved to Rockport with his family at a young age. He married a Rockport girl, Laura Ann Tarr in 1849 and settled into his job as an expressman. Although never a member of the armed forces, he frequently spent time in Virginia during the war years on company business, and in 1863 was appointed special provost marshal at Fort Monroe by Gen. Benjamin Butler, with whom he had become friends.10Announcement in the Lowell Daily Citizen, 1 Dec., 1863. Mr. Sanborn is also mentioned in letters between General and Mrs. Butler in 1864. Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler During the Civil War, Ben. F. Butler & Jessie A. Marshall, 1917. www.google.com By war’s end in 1865 he was back at home in Rockport and had brought Davis home with him. In the state census of that year Davis gave his age as eighteen and was still employed as an errand boy.
John D. Sanborn. Courtesy Joseph J. Thorndike, Sept. 20, 2004 taxhistory.org and Janet Young
Davis with Sanborn in Canada. Courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society
Davis’s Arrival on Cape Ann
Davis’s arrival in Rockport may have been met with hostility by some of the residents. In 1863 a group of forty-two upright citizens signed a petition to the State to “pass a law forbidding any more persons of color from coming into the state of Massachusetts to become citizens of the state.”11The original petition dated Feb. 10, 1863 can be found at Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions 1863, leave to withdraw, SC1/series 230, Petition of James Fernal iiif.lib.harvard.edu It was not acted upon,12In May 1863 Mr. P.W. Chandler from the Committee on Federal Relations requested that this petition be withdrawn based on several facts including: that no reasons were provided for the original petition, no person came forward to present it, and the 'color' of the persons objected to was unknown. Liberator, Boston, MA, May 1, 1863. and Davis continued to live with the Sanborns for the next thirty years, working as a laborer and a gardener. For most of those years he also continued to be the only African American resident of the town. According to the 1870 Federal census there was one other African American in Rockport after Davis’s arrival, a young woman named Izanah Haskell who was a domestic servant in the house of fish merchant John L. Babson. Unlike Davis she was never enslaved, having been born in Hamilton, MA, and she had married and moved back to Hamilton by 1878.13Iza was born to Elias & Sally (Chadwick) Haskell in 1847, the youngest of 8 children. She and her next oldest sister, Mary E., were both living (presumably as servants) in Rockport in 1855. Iza, aged 9, with Susannah Babson and her family (which included John L. Babson) and Mary, aged 10, with the family of Amelia Knowlton. Iza later returned to Hamilton and married Amos Bixby in 1878. Mary also returned to Hamilton and married in 1863. After that Davis was the only non-Caucasian in town.14There were no further African Americans in Rockport during Davis's lifetime. Two Chinese nationals moved there later. One was a resident in 1900 and the other in 1920. Both were single, working as laundrymen. Federal censuses.
When Davis first arrived in Rockport, John D. Sanborn already owned the property on Pleasant St. where the magnificent house he built still stands today. The household included the Sanborn’s young daughter, Annie Laura, and a domestic servant.15The Sanborn's only other child, a son, had died 1 July, 1861 aged 9. Annie Laura was born 18 Dec. 1860. Rockport Vital Records. The domestic servant was 19 year old Kate McCarty from Cambridge, MA. 1865 state census Ancestry.com. When Annie was seventeen, she attended a Mother Goose Party held at Edmund’s Hall in Rockport where the participants had been encouraged to come dressed as Fairy Tale characters. Annie went as “What Care I How Black I Be,” a nursery rhyme dating from the late 1700s16Report in the Cape Ann Weekly Advertiser, 26 Apr. 1878. The full rhyme is 'What care I how black I be, / Twenty pounds will marry me; / If twenty won't, then forty shall, / I am my mammy's bouncing gal.' The Orangery, A Comedy of Tears, Mabel Dearmer, 1904, p.182. which, in the opinion of one author,17Lina Eckenstein, the author of Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes, Duckworth & Co., London, 1906, p.28, espoused this theory and stated that the rhyme first appeared c.1783. Other writers have thought it referred to dark hair and skin which was considered less attractive in a prospective spouse, being ill-favored; others have seen it as a satire on the practice of selecting brides by the size of their doweries. was a parody on the anti-slavery stance of the British abolitionist Zachary Macauley.18Zachary Macauley (1768-1838) was a Scottish antislavery activist and governor (1794-1799) of Sierra Leone, the British colony for freed American slaves in West Africa. en.wikipedia.org Presumably Annie’s take on it was more literal, having grown up with Davis since she was a toddler. Davis certainly spoke with the “greatest pride and affection” of the Sanborns, especially John D. Sanborn, and claimed “he always had as good as Mr. Sanborn had.”19'Washie' Davis a Feature in Town. Interview with Mr. Davis, Rockport Daily News, 9 Nov., 1923
A few years after the war ended John D. Sanborn left the Adams Express Company and began working for the US Treasury Department making a great deal of money collecting the unpaid taxes on sales of whisky, inheritances, and railroad dividends and bonds.20In an amendment to an appropriations bill in May 1872 (pushed through by Gen. Ben Butler) Sanborn was one of three men awarded contracts as special agents to the Treasury to ferret out those in arrears. As recompense they were to receive half of the monies they managed to collect and it was rumored that Sanborn garnered $213,500 in just over one year. One of their 'victims' complained that the men were using information gathered by them as IRS agents to pad their own pockets and the three were indicted for 'conspiracy to defraud the revenue department.' The judge determined that while the terms of their contracts were at best, imprudent, they were perfectly legal. In his opinion and that of the Committee of Ways and Means, the law was at fault, not the agents, and dismissed the case recommending that the law be revisited. Rocky Mountain News, Denver, CO, 6 Mar., 1874; Boston Daily Advertiser, Boston, MA, 31 Mar, 1874; Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, AR, 1 Apr., 1874; Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, IL, 5 May, 1874. He spent a lot of this income buying up property in the town and owned a fairly large amount of real estate by 1889 when he sold most of it to Frank Jones of New Hampshire21Frank Jones was an extremely wealthy man. He was a brewer (owning the Frank Jones Brewery, the largest brewery in the US) as well as a real estate developer, hotel owner and politician. for $1 and “other good and valuable consideration.”22Salem Registry of Deeds Bk. 1266 pp.412-420 salemdeeds.com Seven years later in July 1896, Mr. Jones sold one of the smaller parcels to Washington Davis for the same $1 and “other good and valuable consideration.” It was described in the deed as being “land & buildings on the southwest side of a private way from Pleasant St.”23Salem Registry of Deeds Bk. 1487 p.110 salemdeeds.com This purchase may have been facilitated by John D. Sanborn, who could have been ailing, as he died the following year, and because Annie, or more likely her husband, Fred A. Stimson,24Annie L. Sanborn married Fred A. Stimson in Rockport on 22 July, 1886. Rockport Vital Records. (whose father, Anson Stimson, was among those signing the 1863 petition against persons of color) was not comfortable with Davis continuing to live in the house after her father passed away.
19 Pleasant Street, Rockport. Washington Davis lived at the John D. Sanborn House or on its property
Washington Davis stands outside his home at 4 Spring Lane. Unidentified newspaper clipping, Sandy Bay Historical Society.
Davis Owns a Home on Spring Lane, Rockport
The 1900 census shows Annie, her husband Fred A. Stimson, and their two children living in the family home on Pleasant St. The same census lists Davis as a day laborer residing with Levi Malonson and his family at 8 High St.25Levi Malonson was a 28 year old mason with a wife and 4 young children. Both he and his wife were Canadian immigrants. There was one other boarder in the house: a 39 year old farm laborer named Albert Tebow from Nova Scotia. 1900 census & marriage record. Ancestry.com while the Rockport directory for that year describes him as a hostler owning a house on “Pleasant, beyond Marshall St.”
It is not clear when Davis actually first occupied the house. He continued to be listed in the directories as Washington Davis, laborer, house Pleasant beyond Marshall St. until 1913 when the ‘private way’ is named Spring Court and his house as number 1. That changes to number 4 in 1915, presumably with the building of new houses on the street and remains the same until his death at the age of eighty in 1928. The current address is 4 Spring Lane.
During those years Davis took out three mortgages on the property with the Granite Savings Bank of Rockport for a total of $350.26The first was in 1911 for $150, the second in 1915 for $100, and the third in 1925 for $100. Salem Registry of Deeds Bk. 2111 p.31, Bk. 2271 p.387, Bk. 2662 p.326. salemdeeds.com Each of them had a duration of one year at 6% interest, but he does not seem to have repaid them as each new loan cited the existence of the prior ones and they were not officially discharged until 1936.27Salem Registry of Deeds Bk. 3074 pp.30-31 dated 15 May, 1936. salemdeeds.com Davis did not sign these documents, just made his mark. However, as he was described as able to read and write in the 1900 census, this may have been due to physical difficulties rather than illiteracy; given that he was probably already showing signs of the disease that eventually took his life.
The Boston Traveler reported that a petition generated from Rockport requested that a law be passed “forbidding any more Colored Persons” from becoming Massachusetts citizens.
Newspaper clipping, 1928. Courtesy Sandy Bay Historical Society.
8 High Street, Rockport, MA, in the 1900 census, listed as the home Levi Malonson and his family, in which Washington Davis resided.
Davis Leaves his Home to Annie
The year before he died, he was still listed as living in his house, but he died at 44 South St., the Town Poor House (now Oceanside Rehabilitation and Nursing Center; formerly the Den Mar Health and Rehabilitation Center), and cause of death was cerebral sclerosis, a form of multiple sclerosis. This implies that, given his age and despite his stated profession of laborer, he may have been unable to work and took out the mortgages as a way to acquire necessary money, especially as his adopted family were no longer nearby. John D. Sanborn (who, oddly enough, also died of cerebrospinal sclerosis) and Laura were long gone28Laura Sanborn had died in 1885 and John D. in 1897. Rockport Vital Records Deaths while Annie had moved to Rhode Island to live with her married daughter.291925 state census, Westerly, RI. Annie aged 64 & Fred aged 70 are living with daughter Gladys and her husband William Clarke. Ancestry.com Although no will has yet been found, Davis seems to have left his house to Annie, who died before 1954 when her executors sold the property described as “Being the same premises described in deed of Frank Jones to Washington Davis, dated July 16, 1896.”30Salem Registry of Deeds Bk. 4182 p.110 dated 13 Dec. 1954. salemdeeds.com George Washington Davis was buried in the Sanborn family plot in Beech Grove Cemetery, Rockport.
Washington Davis’ gravestone lies in the Sanborn–Stimson lot at the Beech Grove Cemetery, near the intersection of Grove and Beech Avenues, plot BG 7-88.