PARDON DAVIS: A PRISONER IN LOUISIANA
In 1855 the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference in
session at First Brookfield Church in New York adopted two resolutions in
regard to the case of Pardon Davis, now in the Penitentiary of Louisiana.
Don A. Sanford,
Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society
Resolved, That this Conference deeply sympathizes
with Pardon Davis, now imprisoned in Louisiana for the alleged offense
of assisting slaves to escape from their masters; and especially as he
is compelled to work on the Sabbath and attend Catholic services on the
first day of the week or Sunday, contrary to his conscience and convictions
of duty to God.
Resolved, That this Conference recommends that the
petition recently published in the Sabbath Recorder be so altered as to
embrace the two particulars embraced in the preceding resolution, and
that the same be as speedily and extensively circulated for signatures
as practicable, and forwarded to the Governor of Louisiana for the relief
of Bro. Pardon Davis from the unlawful and unconstitutional violation
of his religious rights, under which he is now suffering. (1)
This action followed similar action by the Eastern, the Central,
the Western and the Northwestern Associations of Seventh Day Baptist Churches.
The Eastern Association comprising churches in Rhode Island,
Connecticut, eastern New York State and New Jersey, in a series of anti-slavery
resolutions, reiterated its opposition to the passage of the Fugitive
Slave Bill of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 and ending with
the statement that it: "now deplores the consequences of repealing
what is commonly called the Missouri Compromise, as seen in the acts of
brutality and lawlessness lately perpetrated in the Territory of Kansas;
and that it enjoins upon every Christian the duty of doing all in his
power, by his voice and his vote, to restore the statute prohibiting Slavery
in new Territories, and to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law."
Resolved, That this Association has learned with
utmost grief, that Pardon Davis, a member of our denomination, has been
apprehended and imprisoned in Louisiana for acts of mercy, in feeding
and clothing the oppressed and famishing in their escape from bondage.
It then appointed a committee of three consisting of Lucius
Crandall, Darwin E. Maxson, and Thomas Greenman, "to ascertain and
report what can be done for the relief of Pardon Davis (2)
Two weeks later the Central Association comprising churches
in Central New York State, likewise published its minutes in the Sabbath
Recorder in order that others would know of their action.
Resolved, That we sympathize deeply with our brother,
Pardon Davis, who is unrightiously doomed to imprisonment for the exercise
of the nobler impulses of manhood, and a practical development of Christianity,
in relieving the oppressed; that we are glad that our brethren in the
Eastern Association have appointed a Committee of inquiry in relation
to what may be done for his relief. . ."
The Association then asked for a uniting on the last Sabbath
in June in earnest prayer to God:
. . . for the deliverance of Brother Pardon Davis
from prison; and that we urge them on that occasion to remember others
who may be suffering imprisonment for aiding the panting fugitive in his
flight from bondage, and above all to remember "as bound with them"
the three millions of poor slaves who are wearing out their lives in the
dark prison-house of Slavery." (3)
The Western Association with churches in the western regions
of New York and Pennsylvania, expressed its concern with these resolutions
Resolved, That this Association reaffirm its settled
conviction of the inhumanity of American Slavery, and that its workings
in the case of Bro. Pardon Davis are only the legitimate fruits of its
Resolved, That we commend brother Davis for the
course he pursued towards the suffering fugitives in furnishing them flood
and raiment, and that we earnestly pray God to grant him sustaining grace,
that he may endure with true martyr-spirit the trials which his faithfulness
to the instincts of humanity has subjected him to, and that we are ready
to unite with our brethren in any effort that may tend to his relief.
The Northwestern Association which was organized in 1847
with churches in Wisconsin and surrounding territories also made its sentiment
known in the resolutions passed in its meeting in Berlin, Wisconsin in
September of that year.
3. Resolved, That we look upon the act of Congress
in throwing open the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska to the interests
of slavery, as a flagrant abuse of legislative power.
4. Resolved, That we cherish a deep and lively sympathy
for Bro. Pardon Davis, now imprisoned in Louisiana, and that we are ready
to do all in our power to aid his friends in their efforts to secure his
In my work as historian, I had read these references in searching
for other information about Seventh Day Baptists thoughts and actions
during the 19th century and their involvement in the history of the nation
during that time. To me, Pardon Davis was just a name of one who apparently
suffered for his convictions. I never asked the question which any historian
should ask, "Who was he? What was he doing in Louisiana to be incarcerated?
Did he have any relationship to others working to help the fugitives in
their flight from slavery?
The occasion to answer some of these questions came from
questions asked by the Milton Historical Society. The Milton House is
being considered for inclusion in the National Historical Landmark Registry
as a station in the Underground Railroad. Because the clandestine nature
of the operation precluded the keeping of records which might incriminate
those who were involved, few, if any primary sources are available. Some
of the questions which the researcher in the project asked were related
to the religious climate of the community. More particularly, was Joseph
Goodrich, the builder and operator of the Milton House and a leader in
founding the community and the church, influenced by the beliefs and practices
of the Seventh Day Baptists? In researching some of these questions, the
name of Pardon Davis brought me to ask whether there was any possible
connection of Joseph Goodrich with the work of Pardon Davis?
One of my first clues to Pardon's identity was a letter to
the editor of the Sabbath Recorder of May 24, 1855 from Emma J. Todd,
the wife of Rev. Julius Todd the home field missionary located at Berlin,
Wisconsin. She wrote:
Very unexpectedly, I saw in the Recorder of May
10th, a publication respecting Bro. Pardon Davis. I feel that an explanation
of its appearance is due his relatives, whose prerogative it was to give
it publicity. At the earnest request of his friends in Hartsville, (his
native place,) I received a copy of the letter addressed to the Berlin
church with a distinct understanding that it was not to be published in
any periodical. After it had been read in Hartsville, Alfred and Independence
churches with the same understanding--- that it not be published, and
for reasons well understood by his friends--- a person in Pennsylvania
requested a copy, that it might be referred to as a matter of fact, in
a certain instance. From the last named place it has been published without
the consent or approbation of myself, or any one particularly connected
with the circumstances. Emma J. Todd. (6)
The letter as printed in the Sabbath Recorder of May 10th
was prefaced by the following paragraph:
A Prisoner For Humanity
The following letter comes to us, marked, in the People's Journal, published
at Coudersport, Potter Co., Pa. It was written, we suppose, to the Seventh
Day Baptist Church at Berlin, Marquette Co., Wisconsin, of which the writer
is a member, and within the bounds of which a number of his relatives
reside. If it does not make our readers detest more than ever the system
of American slavery, and resolve to labor more earnestly to overthrow,
we shall be mistaken. May its author enjoy in the solitude of his prison
the comforting presence of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done
it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
The letter itself bears the internal address: St. Joseph
Tensas Parish Louisiana, Sept. 22, 1854 and follows:
To the Berlin Church:
Dear and well-beloved Brethren and Sisters- Allow me (perhaps for the
last time) to address you by that endearing title. It is with feelings
of the deepest melancholy that I improve this opportunity of acquainting
you with my present situation and future prospects, and of begging an
interest in your prayers. It has always been a satisfaction to me in my
exile (on account of ill health) to think that I am remembered by you
at the throne of grace. This being Sabbath evening, my heart yearns to
be with you in your prayer-meeting; but as I cannot, my spirit shall be
there, and I am confident that you will pray for me, at least, sinner
as i am, when you read this. I confess, brethren and sisters, that I have
not at all times lived as a Christian should. When I turn my eyes within
my heart, I can see nothing but wickedness; and yet I feel that the greatest
sin in my life is the burying of the little talent God has given me. But
I at length resolved, after years of toil to amass wealth, to return,
like the prodigal son, and if possible dig up the buried talent. To this
end I settled business in Louisiana, and had been waiting (in consequence
of contrary winds) to cross the Mississippi, intending as soon as possible
to return North, offer myself to God, and the remainder of my days to
his service. But as I left the house of a friend on the 19th, to go for
my horse, which was in a pasture in the lower part of town, I was met
by a slave-hunter and his dogs. He immediately drew a revolver, threatening
to fire at me is I stirred or made a noise. Others came, and I was marched
off to a constable's office. The whole town was soon assembled, and the
procession marched to the school-house, where I was informed by the magistrate,
that I had been charged with aiding slaves to escape from their masters.
After a brief examination, in which many witnesses were soon sworn, all
of whom had seen me talking with, or know of hiring negroes on Sundays
or evenings, though this is a common practice for the people of this country;
but the difference is, I am from the North. Written passes were found
in my possession resembling my hand-writing --- ink and paper like mine.
With this kind of evidence I was committed to jail, no one daring to speak
on my behalf but a petty lawyer from Mississippi. The citizens of Waterproof,
fearing the evidence not sufficient to condemn me, formed themselves into
a mob, threatening if I got clear that Lynch law should be called upon.
Some said, Hang him; others Shoot him; and some said, Give him a thousand
lashes on the bare back. A native of Ireland was arraigned on a similar
charge; but three days given him to procure counsel. His trial goes off
this morning. If he is cleared, he will be obliged to leave the country.
The cause of my being arrested, as stated by Mr.
Perkins, the negro hunter, is: A man in Mississippi having discovered
a trail of runaways, sent for him to come with his dogs and catch them.
He went, and caught them, after running them thirty or forty miles. Upon
overtaking them, they all ran up the fence to get away from the dogs.
He asked them who they belonged to. They gave him a fictitious name, at
the same time, presenting passes which be read; but being a villain at
heart, Perkins took them down one at a time and set his dogs on them.
The negroes, after being torn in a shocking manner, promised he if he
would desist they would tell the truth. The dogs being taken off, the
negroes confessed: "We belong to Mr. Dunkin of Louisiana, and the
overseer, Huggins, whipped us nearly every night, because, being new hands,
we could not pick cotton enough. We stood this as long as we could and
ran away. We went to Mr. Davis's wood yard, and told him our complaint.
He let us hide in the wood, and carried us bread and water until last
Saturday night. He baked us some bread, gave one of us a pair of shoes,
another a hat, another a shirt, a quilt for us to sleep under, some money,
these passes, set us across the river in a canoe, one at a time, and told
us to go towards sunrise." But getting entangled in the swamp, they
were overtaken. Each negro, after being torn by the dogs the same way,
confessed the same.
I was conducted on the 20th to this place, through
a heavy rain, where I was loaded with irons, my feet being put in iron
stocks, my hands coupled together with iron handcuffs, closely fitted,
with chain about three inches long. My handcuffs were taken off hits morning
to eat my breakfast, and have not been replaced; so I improve my time
by writing to you. In this condition, I await my trial. The Court sits
the first Monday in October; but unless things look a little more favorable,
I shall try to have it adjourned. My attorney, Thomas Farres, examined
the papers and the testimony of the witnesses yesterday, and remarked,
that if it was for murder, or grand larceny, there might be hope; but
as it is, it is doubtful.
Sabbath morning, September 23 - My heart years to
be with you, but I cannot. On examining my heart, I find a sort of cold
indifference pervading the whole soul. I fear my heart is not right in
the sight of God. I read my Bible, yet it is with an abstract mind. My
thoughts seem to be all bent on getting away from this place; for I cannot
fear that I have done anything worthy of imprisonment. My attorney says
it will be a hard case, on account of prejudice existing against abolitionists
here; if convicted, that I will not get off with seven years' imprisonment,
And now, after hearing what I have written, I ask
my brethren and sisters, in the fear of God, if a man should come to you,
presenting a lacerated back, exposed to the rays of a southern summers'
sun for want of a shirt, feet bleeding from having been torn by snags
and briars, hungry and faith, whose crime was that he failed, after staining
every nerve, to perform the labor appointed him -- I ask, would you---
could you-- turn him away without assisting him? No brethren, I think
I know you too well - I think you would hand him a loaf of bread, part
of some of your surplus clothing, or if you had no surplus, buy some,
as I did --- help them across the river, point them to the star of Liberty,
and bid them God speed. But either of these -- even to give a piece of
bread -- subjects you to prosecution, the penalty of which is not less
than four nor more than seven years in the State Prison.
If I could go on the plantation near where I lived,
and at night, when the cotton was weighed, out of two hundred, not less
than twelve are whipped every night---O! could you hear the shrieks, cries,
groans, prayers --- yes, if you could see the victim on his knees praying
with all the earnestness a man is capable of, to that brutal overseer,
and promising to strain every nerve on the morrow to pick more cotton
- it is enough to melt the heart of any one. Who can look on such scenes
as these, and not be moved? Brethren, i cannot. And now what more can
I say? Have I done wrong? Have I done more than any man ought to do? Dear
brethren, I leave you to judge. and I am willing to be governed by your
decision. I wait with the greatest anxiety to hear from you, to know whether
I shall receive your sympathies and prayers, or whether I have done wrong,
and am considered a heathen. If the former, I can bear my affliction with
fortitude; but if the latter, I feel my life hangs by a slender thread
that my days are numbered. In the mean time, brethren pray for me. Sisters,
remember me in your prayers.
I would prefer the grave to slavery. Not all the
gold in California could procure of me five years of slavery. I may get
rid of these chains, but this depends on the skill of my attorney, or
neglect of my opponents. I must cease, for the last paper in my possession
is nearly covered over. And now, brethren, when you meet to pray for heathen
lands, remember, 0! remember our own country. Watch over the declining
steps of my parents; its the greatest boon I can ask, for I fear that
this intelligence will bring the gray hairs of my loving father and affectionate
mother near the grave. Comfort them with the thought that we may meet
in heaven, and all be free.
I await with the greatest anxiety to hear. My love
to you all. Pardon Davis
Appended to this copy of Pardon's letter was a follow-up note from the
woman who had submitted it for publication.
I would further add, that he had his trial and was
sentenced twenty years in the State Prison of Louisiana, and is now at
Baton Rouge serving out his time. His brother has been South endeavoring
to obtain a reprieve, but could not. He carried a petition signed by his
friends, and others signed by the members of the Legislature and Senate
of Wisconsin, (the State of which he was a resident,) also a private letter
from the Governor of Wisconsin to the Governor of Louisiana; but it was
all of no avail - his answer was No. Some of the members of the Legislature
of Louisiana spoke to the governor in his behalf, being somewhat acquainted
with the brother that carried the petitions. But he said his honor as
a Governor forbade his pardoning an abolitionist who had been meddling
with their "free institutions," for such they call the institution
of Slavery. Mr. Davis saw some of the victims of their "free institutions"
(slaves) sold. He saw the tears of the mother for her child; he saw two
fugitives who had been shot, and thus recaptured. All the regret expressed
by the by-standers was that such a "likely nigger" should die,
for he was worth $1500. He was allowed to see his brother every day while
there, but his brother was not permitted to furnish him light, that he
might read evenings, nor send him the Sabbath Recorder, nor deliver some
apples sent by his brother's wife &c. They did, however, allow some
books which were sent him, and also a little pocket money, and some additional
clothing. Pardon had not received a word of news from home, though many
letters had been sent. Some were in the Post-office; others had gone to
the dead letter office on account of carelessness of the keepers. The
only time allowed him to read is Sunday; and he is obliged to attend Catholic
worship part of the day. Emma J. Coe (7)
The Sabbath Recorder for September 25, 1856 carried a letter
to the editor from the father of Pardon Davis, who told the circumstances
which brought about the release of his son from Prison. Under a dateline
from Berlin, Wis., Sept. 10, 1856 he wrote:
I noticed in your paper of July 17th an inquiry
for Pardon Davis, and by what means he was liberated in answer to D. E.
M. [presumably Darwin E. Maxson], I say, that Pardon Davis is now in the
Wisconsin; and as I am the man who procured his liberation, I would say,
that I was under the necessity of using as much deception as Jacob did
to obtain Esau's birthright, and this is the reason why we have deferred
publishing it. I left home last December for the South, with a firm determination
that my son must be liberated, and that if fair means could not procure
it, some other means must. i proceeded directly to Baton Rouge, where
I found my son. After conversing with him, and taking some names of persons
and places, I returned to St. Joseph's, the place where he had his trial.
On landing, i met four men, whom I took to be at least half drunk. I at
first thought to pass them, but they hailed me, and after some salutations,
I inquired for a certain lawyer. One said, "I am the man." I
then inquired for the Judge, and also the Sheriff, to which two responded,.
"I am the man;" and the fourth cried out with an oath, saying,
"I am the County Clerk." We then proceeded to the Clerk's office,
and I soon made known my business, and made my fraudulent plea, (being
of the opinion that no other would avail.) The Judge within ten minutes
had a petition written and signed by himself and by the other three. In
a few minutes more I had the names of the Jurors, and places of residence.
I soon started on horseback, through the swamps and frog ponds of Louisiana,
in search of the Jurors. After riding five days, I succeeded in finding
eight of them who signed my petition. Four of them had left the country.
I then found myself twenty from the place of starting, and at Waterproof,
the place where the great crime (as they called it) was committed. I presented
my petitions for signatures, and some eighty people signed it. I then
left for St. Joseph's and upon arriving there, I found a steamer at the
landing. I settled my usiness, and went on board. The County Clerk, hearing
of my return, came on board, and presented me with letters of recommendations
to the Governor, a Senator, and the two Representatives of the Parish,
requiring them to do all they could for me, and signed by the four officials.
Finding myself thus more prosperous by far than i anticipated, I felt
like St. Paul when he saw the Three Taverns --- thanked God and took courage.
On returning to the Capital, I found the Legislators
assembling. I went to work among them, vindicating my cause. As soon as
the Legislature was organized, my petition was presented to the old Governor,
Faber, who would have nothing to do with it. His term expired in ten days,
and glad I was when the time came. As soon as the new Governor, Wicklief,
took his seat, I again presented my petition. He informed me that my case
was a very doubtful one; he said that aiding slaves to escape from their
masters, they considered the most heinous of all crimes; said he, "Were
it for murder, I could give you some encouragement, but as it is, I can
give you none.'t He said that I might leave the petition, and when he
had leisure to look it over, and I might call again in three days, and
he would give me an answer. I soon informed those with whom I had become
acquainted what I had done, and requested them to intervene on my behalf
At the expiration of three days, I was requested by some to postpone seeing
him, as they had not all had an opportunity of conversing with him. After
eight days, he informed me that there was some hope in my case. Said he,
"Mr. Davis, will you please inform me how you go to work to gain
so many friends in so short a time, for since I last saw you, more than
half of both Houses have been before me, pleading your case." He
said that he had promised them, and would promise me, that he would do
something, but I must be patient. To cut my letter short, I would say,
that after spending five weeks in the city, I succeeded. As to the fraudulent
plea, I never have published it, and never shall. Without it, I have no
doubt my son would have remained in prison his twenty years, had he lived
that length of time. I am well persuaded, that if the truth of the case
should be found out, it would be called a real Yankee trick.
J. R. D. (8)
Before this account appeared in the Sabbath Recorder, a previous
issue told of Pardon Davis' appearance at an anniversary celebration of
the founding of Albion Academy , at which time he gave a brief account
of his offense, trial, imprisonment and liberation.
The audience gave Bro. Davis an expression of their "approbation
of his conduct and welcome home by clapping of hands waving of handkerchiefs
and parasols, most heartily done. Brother Davis addressed the audience
a few moments, much to the satisfaction of those who heard him, but was
too much affected to speak very distinctly. He feels that it is in answer
to prayer that God blessed the efforts of his father in recovery from
prison. After his address, "three cheers" were given, that made
the woods ring. (9)
I found very little recorded concerning Pardon's activities
following his release in 1856 until the Sabbath Recorder carried the following
news item in July 1870.
Murder of Pardon Davis For several years, Pardon
Davis, son of Jeremiah Davis, of Milton, Wis., has been engaged in mining
near Atlantic City, Wyoming Territory. On Monday the 23d of May, at half
past nine P. M. while on his way to his house, and within a few rods of
it, he was fired on by some concealed person. One shot produced a flesh
wound in the shoulder, and a second shot took effect in the spine, passing
through the abdomen. This shot proved fatal. He reached the door of his
cabin, where friends, aroused by the shot and the cry of murder, came
to his assistance. He lingered in great agony until the next day, May
24th at 1 o'clock P. M., and then suddenly dropped away. Up to last accounts
it had not been ascertained who was the author of this dastardly and assault.
Suspicion rested upon parties who had been engaged in an unsuccessful
attempt to jump one of his most valuable claims. Several persons had been
arrested, but at last accounts no one had been convicted. It is but a
too common incident of mining life.
Mr. Davis had been a member of the Milton Church for several
years, and seemed to be held in high estimation by the people of Atlantic
City, where his funeral was attended, as the following resolutions, adopted
by them, indicates . . .
It will be remembered that this is the same Pardon
Davis who, a few years ago, was arrested and sentenced to twenty years
imprisonment in the South, for the Christ-like act of helping some poor
fugitives to escape from their prison-house of bondage. The memory of
the just is blessed. D. E. Maxson (10)
From these accounts much can be discerned about the Pardon's
family heritage. In the above account he is listed as the son of Jeremiah
Davis who signed his account of Pardon's release from prison with the
initials J. R. D. The Milton Church records list Jeremiah Davis, Sr. Mrs.
Mercy Davis, Mariam Davis, Jeremiah Davis, Jr. and Pardon Davis as members
of the Milton Church in 1840 when it was organized. The family were admitted
by letter of transfer, but the membership list does not tell from which
church they came. (11)
The letter of May 24, 1855 from Emma Todd mentioned "friends
from Hartsville (his native place)," locates him as being from the
area near Alfred, New York. Thus in checking the church records of the
First Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church I was able to find the following
Jeremiah R. Davis ad abt 1836
He & wife Mercy & dau Miriam dis, to Wis., Aug 4'39 Mrs. Mercy
Davis - ad abt `36 dis Aug 4, `39
m. Jeremiah R. Davis Miriam Davis oldest d/o Jeremiah & Mercy b. Hornesllsville
1824, ad abt `38 d. West Allis, Wis. 1909 m. Berlin Wis., Oct 13 `51 Norman
Clarke; d. Jul 30 `88 72 yrs.
She was teacher to Rev. A. H. Lewis & wife.
dis. Aug 3 `39; home was Berlin, Wis.
It would appear that Jeremiah and Pardon were baptized in
Milton and joined the church in 1840. For a number of years Jeremiah Sr.
was active in the affairs of the church, serving on a number of committees.
The family, except for Jeremiah, Jr. moved with a general migration to
more central Wisconsin where churches were later established in Marquette,
Dakota and Berlin. It was from here that Pardon Davis journeyed to Louisiana
and later returned.
The name of Jeremiah, Jr. appears in some later Milton Church
records. The Sabbath Recorder carries the marriage of Jeremiah Davis to
Miss Jane Goodrich the daughter of Joseph and Nancy Goodrich on April
20th 1852. Thus Joseph Goodrich's son-in-law was a brother of Pardon Davis,
and appeared to share abolitionist views and a strong opposition to the
Fugitive Slave Law.
(1) Minutes of 1855 General Conference Seventh Day Baptist Yearbook, 1855
(2) Minutes of the Eastern Association reprinted in the Sabbath Recorder
vol. 11, no. 51 May 31, 1855 P. 202.
(3) Report of the Central Assoc. in the Sabbath Recorder vol. 12, no.
1, June 14, 1855 p. 2
(4) Report of the Western Assoc. .in the Sabbath Recorder vol. 12, no.
3 , June 28, 1855 p. 10
(5) Published minutes of the North-Western Association meeting in Berlin,
Wisconsin, September 20-23,1855, p.6.
(6) Sabboth Recorder vol. 11 no. 50 May 24, 1855 p. 198.
(8) Pardon Davis" in Sabbath Recorder vol. 13, no. 16 September 25,
1856 p. 62.
(9) "Albion Academy, Wisconsin" in Sabbath Recorder vol. 13
no. 13, September 4, 1856
(10) Sabbath Recorder vol. 26, no. 28 July7, 1870 p. 110.
(11) "Church minutes from the Milton Seventh Day Baptist Church.
(12) First Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church Membership Records Compiled
by Ilou Sanford (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books 1995) pp.32-33.