Ned Davis

Ned Davis was one of the two carpenters at Andrew Jackson’s plantation, The Hermitage.  Although we do not know a ton about him, as is the case with Henry, the other carpenter, his story, like the story of each enslaved person who lived in this country, deserves to be told.

Ned was probably born about 1801, but he was not born on The Hermitage.  He more than likely was born into enslavement, but he was not at The Hermitage until the early 1820’s when Andrew Jackson purchased two people named Ned.  He is listed on a tax list from 1825, so we know he was there then, and his age on that document is listed as 24.

It is not quite clear exactly what he built.  Interestingly,  a lot of the buildings on The Hermitage constructed between 1820 and 1845 were made from brick instead of wood, which would certainly require enslaved folks who were skilled in masonry, but it would not require as much wood.  Of course, the floors are still wood (as you can tell in the picture below of a still standing quarters), as are the doors, walls, roof shingles, fireplace mantles, staircases, and any furniture inside, so woodworking would be a requirement to complete the edifice.  This timeline, too, would give credence to the position that Ned helped construct these buildings, but we simply cannot say with absolute certainty.

It is hard to tell, but you can make out a faint cut line in the floor.  This indicates a place below the floor where the folks living inside could store items they would want to hide.  This could include money, food, and other items that they may get in trouble for if someone knew they owned them.  Below are a couple pictures that shows a cut out of the portion underneath.

Gotta love that accidental mirror selfie action.

Aside from the speculation on whether Ned Davis laid the wood floors and/or possibly milled the lumber from tree to wood flooring (we don’t know what “carpenter” necessarily meant to the Jacksons), one item that he built is certainly clear: a pattern for an iron part for the baling press.  In an 1835 letter from an overseer to Andrew Jackson, Jr., the overseer notes that they need a part for the baling press cast at the ironworks, and he had Ned Davis make the pattern for the part out of wood.  Unfortunately we don’t know what part it was, but we can certainly say (or I can, at any rate) that making a pattern out of wood for a part on an iron machine that will later be cast by someone else definitely takes some skill that goes beyond the typical definition of carpentry.

Beyond this letter, though, how do we know he is considered a carpenter?  An 1841 tax list tells us so.  There are two Neds, as mentioned earlier, and one of them is noted as “Ned Davis” whose information lists that he is a “carpenter.”  This is an important note not merely because of the specific job title, but also because few at The Hermitage had information beyond being agricultural workers.  Andrew Jackson enslaved a huge amount of people, upwards of 150, to till the nearly 1100 acres of his main cash crop, cotton.  Arguably, he enslaved the most agricultural laborers in the state of Tennessee.  The Hermitage was a plantation in an agricultural sense, having few people who were noted for having other tasks beyond agriculture.  Every single enslaved person may well have had a long list of other skills, but noting Ned Davis as a carpenter is an important distinction on a plantation that runs mainly on cotton production.

Ned Davis was not just an enslaved carpenter, though.  He was a man who was married to Betty, the main cook at The Hermitage, and they had a son named Alfred.  Admittedly, Alfred was more than likely his step-son, as Alfred is certainly the son of Betty, but the 1825 tax list I mentioned earlier has Alfred at age 15, which would mean that Ned Davis had him at age 9.  That seems unlikely given biology and the fact that he wasn’t at The Hermitage until the 1820’s.

This, of course, does raise other questions, particularly who is Alfred’s father?  Given the long history of enslavers raping enslaved women and then not claiming the children as legitimate, I speculate that is what we are dealing with in this case.  With that in mind, how does Ned react?  Does Ned know who Alfred’s father may be?  Does it cause him to treat Alfred any differently than if he were his biological son?  To be sure, these questions are honestly unanswerable without hearing from Ned himself.  It is important to consider these and other questions, though, because we need to remember that Ned Davis was a human, a husband and a father, not just an emotionless body that labors for white people.

In remembering Ned Davis is a human, I find it important to note that he has a last name.  Of course, you and I probably take this for granted today.  If you look at most enslaved people, though, they do not.  They have only a first name, and if they do have a last name, many times it was an adoption of an enslaver’s name, if he claimed the child or if the mother or child took the name, or the mother’s name, if she had or took a last name herself.  Ned Davis, though, on this 1841 list, is one of only two people who has a last name.  The other one is Aaron Black, who most likely got his last name from his job as a blacksmith (which is not mere speculation from this document alone but also from the 1825 list that has his name as “Blacksmith Aron [sic]”).  Where did the name Davis come from?  Was it Betty’s last name?  Again, we are at a loss from lack of information, but I find this all noteworthy because names are important.

Fast forwarding a tad, we find another mention of Ned and Betty in a letter in 1867.  The writer notes that Ned is in extremely ill health, and unfortunately, neither Ned nor Betty appear in the 1870 census, indicating that both of them passed away during that three year span.  It is undoubtedly sad that we have so little information about this and other times in his life, but I find it joyful that we at least have some information that can point us closer to him, especially in his final days.

Ned Davis is but one of the two listed carpenters at The Hermitage.  Although we don’t have a diary from him or a list of his completed works, we do have some information on which we can draw a picture of this man’s life.  I hope that we can continue to uncover more information about Ned as we turn over more stones of history.  In the mean time, though, we can continue to honor him as one of the many who built this nation.

I am indebted to Marsha Mullin, Vice President of Museum Services and Chief Curator at The Hermitage, for much of the biographical information contained within this article.

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