William R. Davie (1754-1820)
William R. Davie was born in England but left for New Jersey and later Salisbury, N.C., where he stayed to practice law under the same man who would later provide future president Andrew Jackson with his legal training. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Davie temporarily left the law to raise and train a cavalry troop in Salisbury. He and his troops were successful at the Battle of Charlotte on September 26, 1780 and the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. After the war, Davie rose to prominence in North Carolina as a traveling circuit court lawyer and an orator. He was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons on multiple occasions from 1786 through 1798. He served as a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (though he left before he could sign the document) and argued for its passage at the North Carolina State Conventions in 1788 and 1789.
On May 4, 1783, William R. Davie purchased five acres of land lying southwest of the Halifax. This was the tract of land on which Davie, probably in 1785, began building his home, “Loretta.” The house still stands on Norman Street, two blocks directly behind the present courthouse. Davie and his wife, Sarah, reared a family of six children in the house.
In 1789, largely through the work of Davie, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was chartered as the first state university in America. Davie, as both a Mason and the founder of the university, laid the cornerstone of the university’s first building, Old East, in 1793. He is still remembered at UNC, especially by the Davie Poplar. Already large during the university’s founding, legend suggests that Davie decided to build his new university around this tree, as he’d had a pleasant afternoon at that spot. Another tradition suggests that as long as Davie Poplar stands, the university will prosper, but if it falls, the university will crumble. As such, many precautions have been taken to maintain and stabilize the 300-375 year old tree.
Davie served as Grand Master of the North Carolina chapter of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons from 1792 to 1798. He was elected 10th governor of North Carolina in 1798. His administration is credited with settling boundary disputes between North Carolina and neighbors South Carolina and Tennessee. He resigned his post as governor when Pres. John Adams appointed him to serve on a peace commission to France after the “XYZ Affair” and Quasi-War resulted in the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Davie was greatly interested in thoroughbred horses. In 1809, he purchased a championship racehorse from William Ransom Johnson, a North Carolina native known for his racing greatness. This horse, “Sir Archy,” cost Davie $5000, but reflected the horse’s greatness on the racetrack and his promise as one of the founding sires in American racing. In 1955, the stallion was one of the first horses inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Davie died at his estate in South Carolina, Tivoli, in 1820, and was buried at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church. His wife, the former Sarah Jones, daughter of Allen Jones and niece of Willie Jones, died at the age of 39 in 1802 and is buried in the old colonial cemetery in Halifax.
Willie Jones (1740-1801)
Willie (pronounced “Wylie”) Jones was a prominent planter and statesman from Halifax. A consummate politician and an aristocratic democrat, he was called the “Jefferson of North Carolina.” Jones was educated at Eton, in England. He later returned to Halifax, where he built his home, the Grove, at the southern end of town. The Grove became the center of social life and political activity for the region. Jones built a racetrack for horses behind his home, and was noted as “a young blood” and for his “high tastes.” His gambling habits and love of fox hounds were befitting of his aristocratic station of the time. He had one of the finest stables in the south and his home contained a huge library. As the Revolutionary War began, Jones owned 9,942.5 acres of land and 120 enslaved people. On June 22, 1776, he married Mary Montfort, daughter of Joseph Montfort. They had thirteen children, though only five of them lived to maturity.
In the years of 1774, 1775, and 1776, Jones represented either the county or the town of Halifax in the North Carolina Provincial Congress. Briefly in 1776, as the head of North Carolina’s Council of Safety, he was head of the state’s revolutionary government, until Richard Caswell was elected the first governor of North Carolina later that year. For many years, Jones was politically the most powerful man in the state. He was a member of the North Carolina House of Commons from 1777 to 1780, and a state senator for three terms between 1782 and 1788. In 1781 and 1787, Jones was a member of the Council of State. He was elected to represent North Carolina to the Continental Congress in 1780.
Jones opposed the North Carolina Constitution on a states-rights and educational improvement platform. When the rest of the state embraced their constitution, Jones retired from public life. Jones is considered by some Carolinians to be the founder of its capital city, Raleigh, because of his role in picking its location. He cared little for traditional religions, which is evident in his will, in which he makes the following requests regarding his funeral: “No priest or other person is to insult my corpse by uttering any impious observations over my body. Let it be covered sunny and warm and there is an end. My family and my friends are not to mourn my death, even with a black rag – on the contrary, I give my wife and three daughters – each a Quaker colored silk, to make their habits on the occasion.”
Miles Howard (1799-1857)
Miles Howard was born enslaved and, when he was about 11 years old, was brought to Halifax and sold to Thomas Burgess, a prominent attorney in the Halifax area. Burgess evidently took a liking to the young Miles and made sure that he learned a trade as a barber. Around 1818, Howard took a wife by consent of both his and her masters. Howard was emancipated very shortly afterwards. Burgess sold him property in Halifax in 1825 and more property later. In 1832, Burgess wrote to Senator Mangum regarding a free man of color who was a barber and a musician. The free man had purchased children from a former master. He had not been able to free them due to a law prohibiting this. He wished to move his family to a state where they could be freed and not held as his slaves. Evidently, nothing came from this request, as Howard later died in Halifax.
Burgess, in his will, gave “his worthy and excellent friend Miles Howard the Barber two lots in Halifax, now occupied by said Miles.” In 1838, in an act of emancipation the four children and slaves of Miles Howard are set free and the family was baptized by a Catholic Priest in Halifax. Between 1842 and 1846 Matilda died and Howard married Caroline Valentine. The tow had children and they were also baptized by a Catholic priest. Howard handled various land transactions and was a sound businessman in Halifax. He died in l857 without leaving a will. A lawsuit ensued, with the children of his first marriage seeking a share of his property and the children of his second marriage fighting them. The case went to North Carolina Superior Court, which ruled in favor of the children of the second marriage, due to the fact that the first marriage was a slave marriage and not legal in the eyes of the law.
You can read the complete ruling in the Miles Howard case here.
John Chavis (1735- 1772) and James Milner (c. 1763 – 1838)
James Milner was one of the first lawyers in Halifax. He possessed one of the largest libraries in North Carolina, with over 620 volumes. He was formerly a resident of Sussex County, Virginia. While in Virginia he practiced law in Williamsburg. Milner was Grand Deputy of the Masonic Lodge under Joseph Montfort. He had a town house in Halifax, which was located where the third Courthouse now stands, and also a plantation just south of Halifax known as Green Hill. He was elected to the North Carolina Assembly in the fall of 1772, and a great ball was held in Halifax to celebrate the event. Shortly thereafter, he was thrown from his horse and died of a fractured skull. He died unmarried and left his brother a large estate in Scotland, which is where he was born. His will included an inventory of his property, which included a microscope, solar telescope, magnet, and prism glass, and excused those of his debtors who were too impoverished to pay their debts.
Milner’s will also listed an indentured servant named John Chavis. This was, perhaps, the same man for whom Chavis Park and Chavis Heights neighborhood in Raleigh are named. Chavis, an African American, served in the Revolutionary War and became an educator and preacher. Tradition indicates he may have made use of Milner’s extensive library to educate himself when a boy. He was formally educated at Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va. He may have also studied at Princeton. He opened a school for blacks and whites in Raleigh in the early 1800s and corresponded frankly and on an equal level with some of the most important politicians in the state, including U. S. Senator Willie Mangum. He probably tutored Mangum in his youth, along with his brother Priestly Mangum and future North Carolina governor Charles Manly. As an African American, Chavis was unique in that he appears to have been accepted by major segments of white society during a time when most black people were being held in bondage.
Tell them if I am Black I am free born American & a revolutionary soldier & therefore ought not to be thrown entirely out of the scale of notice.
-- John Chavis to Sen. Willie Mangum, March 10, 1832
Henry Epps (c. 1830 - 1917)
Henry Epps was born enslaved and lived in Halifax. He began his political career as a delegate to the 1866 Freedmen’s Convention in Raleigh and served in North Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention. In 1872, he served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and represented Halifax County in the State Senate for six terms between 1868 and 1887. Epps is buried in an African American Cemetery about a mile from the site.
Andrew Jackson (1830-1924)
“Jackson” was born enslaved on Christmas day in Amherst County, Virginia. At 4 years old his master sold him and his mother on the auction block in Richmond, Va., to the highest bidder, who carried them with others to be sold in Louisana. His mother was stricken with smallpox. Her dying request was that the sales agent, Mr. George Barnes, take the child, “Jackson,” as he was called and raise him. Barnes agreed and the young lad became known as Jackson Barnes. He ran a blacksmith shop in Halifax and worked on the Ram Albemarle while it was anchored in the Roanoke River near Halifax during the Civil War. Iron plates had been shipped to the depot in Halifax from the Tredegar Iron Company in Richmond, Va. by way of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. They were then hauled by wagon down Dobbs Street, which led by Jackson’s shop, straight to the Navy Yard on the west side on the Roanoke River.
After Emancipation, Jackson dropped Barnes from his name and added Andrew Joshua. He became interested in the education of freedmen and used his money and influence in securing teachers in Halifax. He was ordained in the First Black Baptist Church in Halifax in 1868. He remained in Halifax all of his life, married, and had children. He died at his home in 1924. It is for this man, not the president with the same name, that the Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Halifax is named.
George Moses Horton (ca. 1798-1883)
George Moses Horton was considered a genius in his time, learning to read and write against great odds. He read great classical literature, lecturing to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and became a published poet. He was the first black southern author. College students, scholars, university presidents, and even North Carolina’s governor, David Swain, befriended him.
In about 1798, Horton was born into slavery on William Horton’s plantation in Northampton County near Halifax. William Horton moved his household to Chatham County about 1800. As his knowledge and vocabulary increased, he began composing poetry. By the 1820s, he made “Sabbath walks” to nearby UNC to sell his poems. He used income from selling students love poems and doing handyman work for the university to pay his owner in lieu of service. University president Joseph Caldwell encouraged him and local newspapers eventually published several of his poems.
Horton’s newfound publicity led to other prominent benefactors. Carolina Lee Hentz, a novelist and university faculty wife, printed Horton’s verse for him and taught him to write. Hentz became Horton’s muse and patron, prompting the publication of his poems in northern newspapers. She also encouraged his first book, The Hope of Liberty, published in Raleigh in 1829. Many of his poems were scathing attacks on the institution of slavery. He began to call himself “the colored bard of the south.”
In April 1865, Horton came under the patronage of the liberating Northern Army, the 9th Michigan Cavalry Volunteers. Captain William H. S. Banks took an interest in Horton, who accompanied the army for three months, writing poems about the war’s end and love poems for Union soldiers’ sweethearts. He also wrote ninety poems for Naked Genius, published in Raleigh later that year. After the war, Horton went to Philadelphia where he remained until he died at the age of eighty-five. He never wrote again when we reached the north.
You can read some of Horton’s poems at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Manuscript Department’s website.