William Lee Davidson
Davidson College, around which the town of Davidson was organized, was named for General William Lee Davidson, a hero of the American Revolution. Davidson, the son of George and Margaret Ware Davidson, was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1746. In 1750 he and his family followed the Great Wagon Road to the Centre Church area of Rowan County, now located in Iredell County just north of the Mecklenburg County line. George Davidson died around 1760, and for a time William lived with his uncle George Davidson.
In 1767, William married Mary Brevard and they settled on Davidson Creek across from the Centre Presbyterian Church. By 1770, he was the district constable. He and Mary were to have seven children: George Lee, Margaret Lee, Pamela, John Alexander, Jean, Ephraim Brevard, and William Lee Davidson II.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, William found a career in the military, and in 1775 he enlisted as a captain in the Rowan County militia regiment. By 1776 he was a major in the 4th North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Line, and later served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 5th, 7th, 3rd, and 1st regiments. By early 1780 he was serving as a colonel in the 2nd Mecklenburg County Regiment, while remaining a Continental officer. He later left the Continental Army to serve as Brigadier General of the Salisbury District Brigade of Militia. During his service he served as one of Washington’s officers at Valley Forge and saw action in battles at Ninety-Six (South Carolina), Brandywine Creek and Germantown (Pennsylvania), Monmouth (New Jersey), and Colson’s Mill (North Carolina), where he was severely wounded.
On February 1, 1781 he led the Salisbury District Brigade at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford on the Catawba River, where he was killed by a sniper. His wife and friends found his body, and hastily buried it at nearby Hopewell Church on Beatties Ford Road to protect it from desecration by British troops. During his service in North Carolina, he was instrumental in the resistance to British General Cornwallis. After his death, General Light Horse Harry Lee described him as “a man of popular manners, pleasing address, active and indefatigable; devoted to the profession of arms and to the great cause for which he fought.”
Because of his outstanding service, in 1783 North Carolina gave a grant of $1000 to his family, and three years later, the family received almost 6000 acres in Tennessee. Davidson County, North Carolina and Davidson County, Tennessee were both named in his honor.
Davidson’s son, William Lee Davidson II was born shortly before his father’s death. In 1805 he married his cousin Elizabeth (Betsy) Lee Davidson, daughter of John Davidson of Rural Hill, and in 1829 they built a plantation house named Beaver Dam east of what is now Davidson. William II was a member of Concord Presbytery and was named to a committee appointed to select a location for a Presbyterian College to be located in the presbytery. The committee met at Beaver Dam in 1835, and Davidson donated a tract of land to the fledgling college, which was named Davidson College in his father’s honor.
A town, first known as Davidson College, was organized around the college; in the 1890s the town’s name was shortened to Davidson. When William Lee and his wife moved to Alabama, Beaver Dam passed out of Davidson family ownership, but in the late 1970s it was acquired by Chalmers G. Davidson, a direct descendent of John Davidson. Carefully renovated, it now is leased from Davidson College for long term use by the Town of Davidson.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.