Person:John Davidson (23)

Maj. John Davidson
b.15 DEC 1735 Lancaster County, PA
d.10 JAN 1832 Davidson, NC
m. bef. 1735
  1. Maj. John Davidson1735 - 1832
  2. Mary Davidson1736 -
m. 2 JUN 1761
  1. Rebecca Davidson1762 - 1824
  2. Isabella Davidson1764 - 1808
  3. Mary 'Polly' Davidson1766 -
  4. Robert Davidson1769 -
  5. Violet Davidson1771 -
  6. Sarah Davidson1774 -
  7. Margaret Davidson1777 -
  8. John Davidson1779 - 1870
  9. Elizabeth Davidson1783 - 1845
  10. Benjamin Wilson Davidson1787 - 1829
Facts and Events
Name Maj. John Davidson
Gender Male
Birth? 15 DEC 1735 Lancaster County, PA
Alt Birth? 15 DEC 1735 Chester County, Pennsylvania
Marriage 2 JUN 1761 to Violet Winslow Wilson
Death? 10 JAN 1832 Davidson, NC
Alt Death? 10 JAN 1832 Mecklenburg County, North Carolina


Dr. William H. Huffman January, 1987

Rural Hill was the name given to the plantation house located on a promontory near the Catawba River in the northwest part of Mecklenburg County that was built by Major John Davidson (1735-1837) in 1788. The original mansion burned in 1886 (partial ruins remain), and the present house is an expansion and remodeling of the original kitchen.

Major Davidson was born on December 15, 1735 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to Robert and Isabella Ramsey Davidson, who, sometime earlier, had emigrated to the United States from Scotland. Family tradition has it that Robert Davidson died young, and that Isabella migrated to Rowan County with son John and daughter Mary in the mid 1700s, where she married Henry Hendry, a tutor to the children. John Davidson became a blacksmith and came to Mecklenburg County about 1760, where he located in the Hopewell Church section. On June 2, 1761, he and nineteen-year-old Violet Wilson (1742-1818), the second daughter of Catawba River plantation owner Samuel Wilson, were married. (Eldest daughter Mary Wilson became the grandmother of President James K. Polk.) 1

The newlyweds got their start through a gift of land split off from Samuel Wilson's plantation holdings. Their first house was a two room log cabin, which over time grew to have eight, and became known as Rural Retreat. It was located about a hundred yards north of the later mansion house, but was lost in a fire in 1898. With the other pioneer families of the section, the Davidsons prospered before the Revolutionary War through their own industry and good fortune to be pioneers in an area rich in natural resources. Ten of their children survived to adulthood, as did sixty-one grandchildren.2

In addition to being a hard-working planter, John Davidson began to take an active part in public life. With most other able men of the area, he served in the county militia, and in January 1773, became one of Mecklenburg's two delegates (with Martin Phifer) to the colonial N. C. Assembly in New Bern, a post he held for about a year. In the turbulent times just prior to the Revolutionary War, Davidson was elected a member of the Committee of Safety for Mecklenburg, and meetings were held in Charlotte to discuss grievances and methods of action. One such meeting was called for May 19, 1775, by Col. Thomas Polk, and two men from each captain's company in the colonial militia were selected to attend; John Davidson and John McKnitt Alexander were the Hopewell delegates. Tradition has it that the following day, May 20th, the delegates signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which was carried to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.3

In September, 1775, a State Militia was organized by the Provincial Congress of N. C., and John Davidson received a commission as second major of the Mecklenburg troops under Col. Thomas Polk; the following April, 1776, Davidson was made a First Major under Col. Adam Alexander. After three field campaigns, Davidson became a staff officer of the Salisbury Brigade, and was present at Cornwallis' defeat of the American forces at Camden, S.C., in 1780. When Cornwallis occupied Charlotte shortly afterward, foragers from his army were apparently headed toward the provisions at Davidson's plantation when they ran into a "hornet's nest" of sniper fire at McIntyre's farm just seven miles from the Davidson place. 4

In December, 1780, General Greene replaced General Gates as commander of the southern patriot forces, and ordered General William Lee Davidson, a distant relative of John, to slow Cornwallis' expected crossing into North Carolina, so that the main force could retreat to the north. General Davidson decided to harry Cornwallis when he attempted to cross the Catawba at Cowan's Ford, and according to tradition, Major John Davidson provided transportation for his troops, an encampment site on the plantation, and the loan of a horse for the General on the day of the battle. Chalmers Davidson relates this story of the incident:

Tales are told that the General mounted his horse under a low bowed tree on leaving and that the slaves predicted dire results from the ill omen. The premonition of the negroes, if the tale is true, proved correct, for General Davidson was killed by the first British fire from the Catawba and his horse returned riderless to the stables of Major John.5 The General was buried secretly at night in the Hopewell Church graveyard.

After the war was over, John Davidson returned to the life of a prospering country squire. Over a period of years he acquired about five thousand acres of land, and in 1788, he decided to build a fine brick mansion atop a rise just south of his eight-room log house. The two-story, Georgian-style house was constructed of brick made nearby, and was the grandest of the Catawba River plantation houses and the center of the Davidson and extended families for many years. The floor plan of the house before the Civil War has been described thusly:

The basement contained the dining room on the east (entire length), a hall, and a kitchen, a pantry and a store-room on the west. The last was the only room in the house without a fireplace. The first floor was divided by a central hall about ten feet wide. To the west was the great parlor with a smaller room at the north which was separated by a folding partition. When the partition was folded to the walls the west side of the first floor was thrown into one large apartment. To the east of the central hall were two bed chambers. The second floor was divided by a similar hall with two bed rooms on either side, The rooms to the west of the upstairs hall could be thrown together by raising a hanging partition to the ceilings. Ceilings on both main floors were about ten feet high. The garret was one great room with windows only in the gable ends.6 The plantation out-buildings included a well house and ash house (there lye for soap was made) of brick, a summer kitchen (now part of the present residence), a carriage house and a smoke house (where hens were smoked and taken to Charleston to exchange for other goods), and barns, stables, pens and slave cabins. Still surviving are the well house, ash house, smoke house, outer kitchen (incorporated into a residence), an old crib and granary. A one-room schoolhouse that probably dates from the 1910s is located just to the southwest of the mansion site.7 The lanes leading to the house (Meadow Lane, to the southeast; Robin's Lane, to the northwest; and the mill lane, directly south; the mill itself in now under water) were lined with cedar. The grounds themselves were liberally planted with a mixture of common and rare shrubs, trees, and flowers. All in all, it must have presented a picture of an idyllic country mansion, and been one of the finest showplaces along with the other two brick mansions in the section, the Cedar Grove or Torrance House on Gilead Road, and the Williamson-Patterson Walnut Grove House on Patterson-Potts Road.8

By 1790, Major Davidson was one of the major plantation owners of the county: he owned twenty-six slaves, a number that was only exceeded on the plantations of Thomas Polk and John Springs. It is said that he personally instructed all of his slaves in their work by the skill of his own manual labor, and in the days before the widespread raising of cotton, the slaves represented a considerable estate. Produce from the farm was marketed in Charleston and Philadelphia.9

But the plantation was not Davidson's only interest. After experimenting with the iron ore found in a fifteen-mile stretch in Lincoln and Catawba counties, he is said to have developed a broad-axe from the local ore. He then became a business associate of Peter Forney, who owned major interests in the ore beds, and the partners founded the Vesuvius furnace and Mt. Tirzah forge in Lincoln County. By 1791, Davidson and two of his sons-in-law, Alexander Brevard and Joseph Graham, bought out Forney and operated the business at a considerable profit. In 1804, Davidson sold his interests in the business to the sons-in-law.10

In the decade between 1790 and 1800, the number of Davidson's slaves dropped from twenty-six to nineteen, but that was soon to change because of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. In 1810, the number had risen to thirty, and he had given the same number to his sons Robin (who lived one mile west at Holly Bend and in time became the largest plantation owner in the county with over 100 slaves) and Jackey.11

In 1823, when he was in his eighty-eighth year, Davidson decided that it was tine to retire (his wife Violet Wilson Davidson had died in 1818 at the age of seventy-six), and so he appointed one of his sons in-law, William Lee Davidson (the son of the Revolutionary War general) as his trustee to dispose of all his personal and real property, which was allocated according to the terms of his will. Major Davidson spent the remainder of his days (he lived to be ninety-seven) living with William Lee and Betsy Davidson at their plantation Beaver Dam, which is two and a half wiles east of Davidson College. 12

He was buried in the Rural Hill Burying Ground, located just south of the plantation house on the present Neck Road, where he was preceded by his wife and followed by many other members of the Davidson family. A descendant of Major Davidson's, E. L. Baxter Davidson (1858-1943), in 1921-1922 enclosed about an acre of the burial ground with a rock wall, landscaped the interior under the supervision of Lee Collier, a landscape gardener, and made other improvements, all at a cost of $20,000. Baxter Davidson also had plans drawn up for the restoration of Rural Hill, but died before they could be carried out.13

According to the terms of Major Davidson's will, his mansion house tract, which is roughly about the size of the combined holdings of the Davidson family parcels today, went to his son John [Jackie] (1779-1870) and his wife, Sarah Harper Brevard Davidson (1780-1861),14 and in the 1840s it had passed to grandson Adam Brevard (1808-1896) and his wife, Mary Laura Springs Davidson (1813-1872).15 One of Brevard Davidson's sons, Robert, was captured and interned by Union forces during the Civil War, and after the war made his way back to Rural Hill only to die of the neglect suffered during confinement.16 The other son, Baxter Davidson, made the improvements to the Rural Hill Burying Ground mentioned above, and was a major benefactor of Davidson College.17 In 1886, while still under the ownership of A. Brevard Davidson but occupied by a great-grandson of Major Davidson, John Springs Davidson, the mansion house burned while the family was away at a fair in Charlotte.18

In January, 1894, Brevard Davidson conveyed the Rural Hill property to grandson Joseph Graham Davidson (1868-1949),19 who in 1910, agreed to a division of the land into five lots of 62-1/2 acres each, which reserved one for himself and one each for his four brothers and sisters.20 In 1953, to settle the estate of J. G. Davidson, the Rural Hill land was once again divided, which resulted in the present configuration of parcels owned by descendants of Major John Davidson. 21

The remains and setting of Rural Hill are a vitally important part of of the rapidly-disappearing pioneer heritage of Mecklenburg County and ust be preserved if that heritage is not to be lost to future generations.

Notes 1 Chalmers Gaston Davidson, Major John Davidson of Rural Hill ( Charlotte : Lassiter Press, 1943), pp. 1-7. 2 Ibid., 72-79.

3 Ibid., 11-29.

4 Ibid., 31-36.

5 Ibid., 38.

6 Ibid., 45.

7 Ibid., 45-46; interview with Elizabeth Hampton Davidson, 15 Jan. 1987.

8 Chalmers Gaston Davidson, The Plantation World Around Davidson (Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1982), pp. 65-6, 70-71.

9 Chalmers Gaston Davidson, Major John Davidson of Rural Hill ( Charlotte : Lassiter Press, 1943), pp. 53-4.

10 Ibid., 55-57.

11 Ibid., 57-58.

12 Ibid., 67-69.

13 Ibid., 50-51.

14 Ibid., 72-79; Will Book G. p. 74.

15 Ibid., 43.

16 Chalmers Gaston Davidson, The Plantation World Around Davidson (Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1982), pp. 67.

17 Ibid.

18 Chalmers Gaston Davidson, Major John Davidson of Rural Hill ( Charlotte : Lassiter Press, 1943), pp. 46-8.

19 Deed Book 263, p. 28.

20 Ibid.

21 Deed Book 1631, p. 569.