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Forgotten History, Part III

by | Mar 28, 2023

There were a number of plantations just north of the village of Davidson College. Most were in Iredell County, but there was one, that of William and Amelia K. “Milly” White, located in Mecklenburg County. According to Chalmers Davidson’s book The Plantation World Around Davidson, the White plantation was located “over near the gullies on the present Shearer’s Chapel Road.” Amelia White was the daughter of James Smith Byers. She was born in Iredell County in 1789, and married Dr. William White, who died in 1841. William White appears in the census records in Mecklenburg County. In 1830 he owned 22 enslaved people, and by 1840 that number had increased to 29.

William and Amelia had one child, a daughter named Margaret, who died in 1844. In 1859, Amelia had to sue for her dower rights in the real estate owned by her husband at his death. His daughter, Margaret, was declared his heir when he died, but she died just three years later. William’s brother Moses, who then lived in Mississippi, and William’s nephew William J. White, tried to claim possession of the 500-600 acres of land on which Amelia was then living. After a hearing, Moses surrendered his right to the land for $3000.

In the 1860 census, Amelia is listed as a blind widow; she owned real estate worth $6000 and personal property, which would have included her 40 slaves, of $35,250 ($1.2 million dollars today). In 1865, through her guardian Edwin Falls, she hired out 12 slaves to local people for a year. The papers indicate that these arrangements were terminated when her slaves were liberated on May 20, 1865, more than a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. After she died in 1867, her land was divided up and sold.

The owners of the large plantations just over the Iredell County line were closely tied to plantation owners in Mecklenburg County by birth and by marriage. Like those in Mecklenburg County, they were mostly Scots-Irish, and had settled in Iredell County (then Anson County and still later Rowan County) around 1750. Among the first settlers in southern Iredell County were Alexander Osborne, John Brevard, and George Davidson. Others followed, including Adam Torrence, James Houston, James Byers, Rufus Reid, and George Stinson. According to the 1800 Iredell County tax list, Osborne’s plantation, “Belmont,” was valued at $1800, the Houston plantation at $700, and the Davidson place at $550, making them the most valuable properties in the lower part of the county. In the absence of census records prior to 1790, it is difficult to determine how many slaves these early residents may have owned. In many cases, it was probably fewer than those in the later planter class described by Chalmers Davidson.


One of the earliest plantations in southern Iredell County was that of Alexander Osborne. He was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey in 1709. His family later moved to Pennsylvania, and Alexander came to North Carolina around 1749. According to land records, by 1753, when Rowan County was formed from part of Anson County, he owned almost 5000 acres on the headwaters of the Rocky River. He first built a log house, but this was soon replaced by the plantation house he called Belmont. His land sat adjacent to that of his brother-in-law, John Brevard. His home was the site of worship services before Centre Presbyterian Church was built, and it was also a sort of cultural and educational center for the county. He was active in the legal affairs in Anson and later Rowan County, and he fought in the war against the Cherokee. He was also a patriot and served on the Rowan Committee of Safety prior to the Revolutionary War. He and his wife died in 1776. Although Alexander Osborne probably owned slaves, there is no record of them.

Alexander Osborne’s son Adlai, however, was definitely a slave owner. Born in 1744, by the time of the first United States census in 1790, he owned 19 slaves. In 1800 he owned 23 slaves, and in 1810 he had 18. When he died in 1814 he bequeathed a number of slaves to his wife and children.


The Brevards were also early settlers in Anson (later Iredell) County. While some members of the family owned a large number of slaves, many of them had fewer than ten. Robert was one of several brothers who came to North Carolina in the 1740s, and probably enslaved about 15 people. By 1780 he and his wife, Sarah Craig Brevard, and their family were living in “Captain Dickson’s District” in Rowan County. Robert died in 1797 and left his wife five slaves, including Leah and her two youngest children, Tom and Sandy. She also received “two negro fellows” named Prince and Peter. Three of his daughters were bequeathed an enslaved person apiece, and his grandson Robert also inherited one slave, “a negro child named Solomon.”

Robert’s brother, and Alexander Osborne’s brother-in-law, John Brevard (1716-1790), moved from Maryland at the same time. By 1757, he owned almost 5000 acres in Anson County. According to Chalmers Davidson, tradition has it that he called his plantation, located about six miles east of Centre Church, “Purgatory.” He, too, was an early justice of the peace in Anson County. He was an active opponent of British rule and was a member of the committee of safety established for the District of Salisbury in 1775.

John Brevard was one of the early slaveowners in the county, but only owned a handful of slaves. He probably also employed indentured workers; records indicate that he sometimes extended their indentures due to misbehavior. Apparently, his punishments for his slaves were sometimes brutal. According to one biographer, when one of his enslaved people committed an unknown crime, “they were hanged until dead and then decapitated, with the head set up in grim warning to others.”  John Brevard died in 1790 and his wife two years later.

John and Jane Brevard had twelve children. Many of them moved to other states, and most of them owned only a handful of slaves. Their son Robert, however, had 20 slaves before he moved to Missouri. Several of the Brevard children married into another local plantation family, the Davidsons. Mary married General William Lee Davidson, Alexander married Rebecca Davidson, Nancy married John Davidson, and Jane married Ephraim Davidson.

One of John and Jane’s sons, Alexander Brevard (1753-1829), became a planter and was a slaveowner. At some point he moved to Lincoln County, where he owned several iron furnaces. He enslaved 32 people in 1800, 61 in 1810, and 66 in 1820. Some of these slaves worked in his iron furnaces. His son, John Franklin Brevard, lived in Iredell County with his wife, Margaret Connor Brevard. John Franklin Brevard died in 1827, leaving Margaret a widow. The previous year, he had published a notice in Salisbury’s Western Carolinian offering $20 for the return of an escaped slave. It seems that 40-year-old Aaron had run away in May, perhaps fleeing with “the notorious Jonathan Rector,” who was apparently gathering runaway slaves to sell. If this were not the case, Brevard thought that Aaron may have gone to Lincoln County, “where he formerly had a wife and other connexions.”

Aaron may also have fled to the plantation of the late Archibald Henderson near Salisbury, where he had a brother, or that of Alexander Gillespie in Mecklenburg County, where he had a brother and other relations. It is interesting to note that Aaron and his wife and siblings were widely scattered. Aaron was described as “about forty years of age, but would pass for much younger, were it not that his head is a little grey. He is about five feet and from eight to ten inches high, well made, very black and smooth skinned, pleasant countenance, [illegible] plays the fiddle, and is a plausible, likely fellow. His clothing is not known; but he is supposed to have him a good supply.”

Anyone who returned Aaron to Brevard’s home would receive $20; anyone who caught him and had him confined to jail would get $10. Although John Franklin Brevard himself owned few slaves, his widow Margaret owned 32 slaves in 1830, and that number remained the same in 1840. By 1860 she was living in Mount Mourne with her daughter Rebecca, who had married R.J. McDowell. She died intestate in 1863, and her estate was administrated by her son-in-law. The estate was not closed until 1869, by which time any information about her slaves had been lost.

One of Margaret’s grandchildren was Franklin Brevard McDowell. He graduated from Davidson College in 1869, and the college archives has a letter that gives some insight into at least one of the McDowell’s slaves, Cynthia. McDowell describes Cynthia, Nero’s daughter, as his nurse, and explains that “this circumstance recalls many pleasant childhood memories. She taught me the lore of Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby long before it appeared from the pen of Joel Chandler…She loved nature and nature’s creations, and talked to the domestic creatures as if they could understand and answer. She was fond of fishing for minnows in the brooks; but few things pleased her as much as taking dinner along in a bucket and going with children to spend the day in the midst of the primeval forest, where she would happily commune with the wildness, the birds and the trees…she was as companionable as a child, less combative and more sympathetic.”


Like the Brevards, there were many Davidsons in what is now Iredell County. It is a gross understatement to say that the Davidson lineage is confusing. Also, like the Brevards, many Davidson descendants later moved further west to places like Tennessee. The focus here will be on those who stayed and who held significant numbers of enslaved people.

It seems that among the first Davidsons to come to Iredell County was George Davidson. He was born in Ireland in 1728, and came with his family to Lancaster, Pennsylvia, around 1740. His first wife was Catherine, and later he married Margaret Simmerill. He had a number of children, including sons George, William, and Ephraim E. He died in 1760 and his will, written in 1758, left his property, including 11 enslaved people, to his children and grandchildren. The most valuable of these slaves was Mitchell, who was valued at $400. George left his plantation to his son Ephraim.

One of George Davidson’s sons was William Lee Davidson. William was born in Pennsylvania in 1746, and several years later he settled in Anson County. He received a land grant of 640 acres at the fork of Moses Dickens Creek and the Catawba River in 1751. In 1767, William Lee married Mary Brevard, and they were to have seven children. He served during the Revolutionary War and was killed at the battle of Cowan’s Ford in 1781. He did not mention any slaves when he wrote his will in 1779.

William Lee’s son, called here William Lee Davidson II for convenience, was born in 1781 and died in 1862. He was the owner of Beaver Dam plantation in Mecklenburg County and is discussed at more length in the previous installment of this series. He was a slaveowner, and by 1830 he enslaved 25 people. One of William Lee’s sons was George L. Davidson, who lived for a time in Iredell County. At the time of the 1820 census, he owned twenty slaves. He married Jane Kerr and later moved to Alabama.

Another of George Davidson’s sons, Ephraim E. Davidson, was born in 1762, and died in Iredell County in 1842. He, too, fought in the Revolutionary War. He married Jane Brevard, and they had a number of children: Nancy, Evelina, Sarah, Jane, Catherine, and George Samuel Franklin “Frank” Davidson. Ephraim Davidson owned only a few slaves at first, but by 1840 he had 29 enslaved people.

The house owned by Ephraim Davidson, which dates to around the time of the Revolutionary War. Taken from Chalmers Davidson’s “The Plantation World Around Davidson.”

Ephraim’s son Frank inherited his father’s Iredell County plantation. He never married, but in 1850 he had had 82 enslaved people, making him one of the largest slaveowners in the county. By 1860, this number had been reduced to 49.


Adam Torrence (1732-1780) was the son of Hugh and Sarah Cunningham Torrence of Londonderry, Ireland. They emigrated to Pennsylvania, where Adam married Ann Bonar, and Adam and Ann moved to Rowan County sometime before the American Revolution. He opened Torrence’s Tavern near Mount Mourne before 1780. Adam was killed at the battle of Ramsour’s Mill in neighboring Lincoln County, leaving his wife to run the tavern. Adam and Ann had seven children: Hugh, Adam, George, Barnabus, Elizabeth (McKnight), Alexander, and Margaret. Many members of the Torrence family owned a few slaves, but only Alexander had enough to qualify him for the planter class. In 1810, he enslaved 18 people; by 1830 this number had risen to 26. Alexander Torrence died in 1843, and in his will, he listed 27 slaves to be bequeathed to his children.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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