Benjamin Montgomery: From Slavery to Plantation Owner
Benjamin Thornton Montgomery was born into slavery in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. He was sold to Warren County planter Joseph E. Davis who was the patriarchal brother of Jefferson Davis who later serve as the only President of the Confederate States of America. After a period of time, Davis could see great talent within Montgomery and assigned him the responsibility of running the general store on his Davis Bend Plantation. Montgomery, who by this time had been taught to read and write by the Davis children, excelled at running the store and served both white customers and slaves who could trade poultry and other items for dry goods. Impressed with his knowledge and abilities to run the store, Davis placed Montgomery in charge of overseeing the entirety of his purchasing and shipping operations on the plantation.
In addition to being able to read and write, Montgomery also learned a number of other difficult tasks, including land surveying, techniques for flood control and the drafting of architectural plans. He was also a skilled mechanic and a born inventor. At the time much of the regional commerce flowed through the rivers connecting counties and states. With differences in the depths of water in different spots throughout the river, navigation could become difficult. If a steamboat were to run adrift, the merchandise would be delayed for days, if not weeks. Montgomery created a propeller that could cut into the water at different angles, thus allowing the boat to navigate more easily in shallow water. Montgomery was denied a patent because he was a slave. Later, as a freedman, he once again applied for a patent and was once again denied.
Upon the end of the Civil War, Joseph Davis sold his plantation as well as other properties to Montgomery and his son, Isaiah. The sale was based on a long-term loan in the amount of $300,000. Benjamin and Isaiah decided to pursue a dream of using the property to establish a community of freed slaves. Unfortunately, natural disasters decimated their crops leaving them unable to pay off the loan. The Davis Bend property reverted back to the Davis family. Benjamin Montgomery died the next year.
Undeterred, Isaiah took up his father’s dream and later purchased 840 acres of land and along with a number of other former slaves founded the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887. While Benjamin Montgomery’s story sounds sad in its telling, it served as a lesson to both blacks and whites in the Civil War period demonstrating the power of education and the ability for blacks to contribute to commerce and industry in the American South.
Much can be learned about the Davis plantations and lives of the family members by visiting the Old Court House Museum. www.oldcourthouse.org