Every “runaway” slave advertisement tells a story. No life story is ever complete, but as historians we try to piece together the evidence of past lives and tell the stories of people who can no longer speak for themselves. This blog post started when I recently read an ad and thought, “I know that name.” The name was David Davis. The fact that he was an enslaved blacksmith caught my attention.
Davis was born into slavery in Maryland, probably in Prince George’s County, around 1787. As a grown man he stood about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches tall. Like many enslaved men in Maryland, he learned a craft as he grew up, in his case blacksmithing. He probably learned it from an older African American man, very possibly someone born in Africa. Iron working had an honored history in west Africa and among the Africans who were brought to America. Blacksmiths and other iron workers were often leaders in their communities.
David Davis’s community was found in a number of places. Davis “had friends in” Prince George’s County, and in his early twenties he married a woman at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. He also visited Baltimore and Montgomery County, and he eventually lived in Hagerstown. Why did he move around so much? Because he was a resister, who made trouble for enslavers.
Before he was 24, Davis had already been jailed twice in Baltimore, probably for escaping from Edward Calvert, his PG County enslaver. Then a man named J. Cassin, of Georgetown, “bought [Davis] out of” the Baltimore jail and put him to work in the blacksmith’s shop at the Navy Yard, as a blacksmith’s assistant. Here Davis met and married his wife. Yet he was still determined to be free. The War of 1812 may have encouraged his ambitions. British troops operating in the Chesapeake would encourage enslaved people to flee to them, as they had previously done during the Revolution.
On May 26, 1812, Davis left the Navy Yard in a bid for freedom. Cassin placed an ad (see picture) in the National Intelligencer newspaper, offering a $30 reward. Davis was caught almost immediately, and Cassin decided he was too much trouble to keep. Davis’s skill as a blacksmith meant that Cassin could sell him easily, but he found a buyer who could move Davis to western Maryland. Again, the War of 1812 may have been a factor. Many Maryland enslavers moved their human property westward, away from the Chesapeake, during this war.
Sold to the West
Soon Davis found himself traveling northward through Montgomery County with his new enslaver, Thomas Quantrill of Hagerstown. When they reached Clarksburg, on June 19th, Davis seized an opportunity to escape again. Quantrill placed runaway ads in several newspapers, very similar to Cassin’s ad, with the result that Davis was caught again and ended up in Hagerstown. Davis may never have seen his wife or old friends again.
Two years later Davis was sold yet again, this time to Thomas Pitt Irving, the newly arrived rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hagerstown. Irving paid $600 for Davis, a top price based on Davis’s skills. Since it’s unlikely that as a priest he needed a fulltime blacksmith around the house, Irving probably saw this purchase as an investment and planned to hire Davis out to someone else in Hagerstown by the year, as Cassin had done at the Navy Yard.
The hard and dangerous work of blacksmithing had already taken its toll on Davis’s body by the time he was 24. He bore the scars of a broken arm, and he had lost part of a forefinger. These marks made it easier for strangers to identify him when he tried to escape from slavery.
After being bought by Irving, Davis passes out of the historical record, at least as far as I’ve been able to find. He was still a young man at that point, in his twenties. Any number of things may have happened to him. He may have died young. It’s possible he was sold slave traders and taken to the cotton south. We can imagine him being reunited with his wife–or starting a new family. Perhaps he lived out his whole life in Washington County. Or, now that he was only a few miles from the Mason-Dixon Line, he may have finally had success in escaping to the life of freedom that he had struggled so hard to achieve.
Sources and Additional Reading
- Maryland Herald & Hagerstown Weekly Advertiser, 1812 (microfilm at the Washington County Free Library, Hagerstown)
- Maryland Land Records (online), Maryland State Archives.
- Legacy of Slavery database, Maryland State Archives.
- Jean Libby. “African Ironmaking Culture among African American Ironworkers in Western Maryland, 1760-1850.” Unpublished MA Thesis. San Francisco State University, 1991.
- Michael D. Thompson. The Iron Industry in Western Maryland. Privately published, 1976.
- Gene Allen Smith. The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- Emilie Amt, “Down from the Balcony: African Americans and Episcopal Churches in Washington County, Maryland, 1800-1864,” Anglican and Episcopal History 86:1 (March 2017): 1-42.