Isaiah T. Montgomery Tells His Own Story

Isaiah Thornton Montgomery
His Early Life as a Slave and the Path to his Success

Extracted by Linda Durr Rudd

My father, Benjamin Thornton Montgomery was born in Loudoun County, VA. Before arriving fully at the age of manhood, he was taken without warning and sold to a trader, who brought him south to Natchez, Mississippi, where Joseph Emory Davis, Esq., a distinguished planter purchased and took him to his extensive plantation in Warren County, Miss., known as Hurricane, and afterwards in connection with Brierfield, the plantation of Hon. Jefferson Davis, known as the Davis Estate, giving the title of Davis Bend to a large section of country in the Southwest portion of Warren County.

The plantation was newly settled, and my father did not take kindly to the change from Virginia town life to plantation life, so he ran away, but was soon recovered by Mr. Davis, who was a man of superior judgement in the selection and management of slaves. He inquired closey into the cause of father's dissatisfaction, and as a result they reached a mutual understanding and established a mutual confidence which time only served to strengthen throughout their long and eventful connection.

Father possessed a slight knowledge of reading and writing. Mr. Davis encouraged it and he came to have a fair education and learned to be proficient mechanic, machinist and civil engineer, using his talents for the advancement of his master.

He conducted a small mercantile business on his own account, keeping accounts with all members of the family, Mr. Jefferson Davis, included. He gradually accumulated a fair library.

My mother, Mary Montgomery, came of Virginia parentage, who were among the earliest settlers brought to the Davis plantation.

They have four children now living: William Thornton Montgomery and the writer, Isaiah Thornton Montgomery, Mary Virginia Montgomery, Rebecca C. Montgomery.

Birth and Early Training

I was born on the historic plantation, heretofore named on May 21, 1847, received my first instruction from a Webster blue back speller on Sabbath mornings at the hands of a slave of Jefferson Davis named George Stewart. Father taught me the art of writing, and gave me lessons at night to be recited on the following night. At the age of ten, my mistress desired to have me about the house to begin training for such a position as they desired me to fill in the future.

Father objected for a while because he thought my studies would be neglected. My mistress overcame his scruples and I was inducted into the domestic life of that remarkable man, Joseph Emory Davis. He soon established with me relations of the uttermost confidence. I do not remember how it was accomplished but the fact remains, his wish became law, and I was almost totally free from responsibility to any one else.

Davis' Private Secretary

My duties to a considerable extent were those of a private secretary and office attendant. At night, sleeping in his room and performing such services for him as a boy of my age could render. Shortly after leaving home my regular lessons ceased but being regularly employed in one of the finest libraries for which this section was proverbial and having free access to all reading matter which came daily, weekly, and monthly to the parlor and library of the Davis family, I read a great deal, but it was without method and served only to give a fair knowledge of history and current events, of language and composition by familiarity and use, which has stood me well in hand to this day, for I have never studied either.

Hon. Jefferson Davis was in public life in Washington and generally visited his brother once or twice per annum. Whenever he came without his family, it was one of my special duties to look after his comfort. He appeared to be pleased and we became such fast friends that I was always pleased to hear of his intended visits.

War Experiences

During the war one of my duties was to carry the United States mail bag from Hurricane Post Office to Ashwood where connection was made with the great mail steamers or southern floating palaces of former days, the Natchez, Princess, Vicksburg, and Charmer. The clerks of these steamers having extensive business with my father, on his own account and as a representative of both Joseph and Jefferson Davis, were careful to supply me with the latest papers and chat over the latest news whenever time allowed.

Eager for the News

As a rule, I read the dispatches and principal editorials as soon as possible after getting the papers. Consequently, on reaching home the Davis family expected news from me before opening their mail. After the bloody conflicts at Donelson, Belmont and the capture of Corinth, my master with his stock and great body of slaves, went as refugees to Alabama. He desired to carry me but father objected strongly on the grounds that the charge of the places and his family imposed more duties than he could perform without a confidential assistant.

Mr. Davis finally yielded to my father's solicitations, and I remained on the plantation till a portion of Admiral Porter's fleet ran the Vicksburg blockade. Having seen the position of the United States gunboat, Indianola, before she was sunk caused me to be brought into the presence of Admiral David. D. Porter to furnish such information as would enable him to locate a cannon that had been thrown overboard.

The big gun was never found, but Admiral Porter persuaded father to let me go with him, and also recommended that father and his family leave the country and go North, to escape the hardships of father, and upon the acceptance of their recommendation he supplied father with transportation to Cairo. Through the influence of Captain Richardson commanding the transport, Father, Mother, and two sisters located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the Union Service

I entered the United States service on the gunboat Benton, but followed Admiral Porter to any steamer where he intended stopping for awhile. I was at the battle of Grand Gulf, and saw General Grant cross his troops below there to assault Port Gibson, Jackson and finally encompass Vicksburg. I went with the fleet to Alexandria, La., and returning took part in naval encounters at Vicksburg, being present at its capitulation in July 1863.

Meantime, the fortunes of war had freed my brother and he also entered the United States naval service on the gunboat Carondelet. The water during my trip up Red River on the gunboat made a terrible inroad on my health, and Admiral Porter having promised my Father to care for me in every particular, decided to send me home, and I was discharged at Mound City, Ill., during the fall of 1863, and given transporation to Cincinnati.

Life in the North

All through that dreary winter I lingered between life and death. During the year 1864, I worked at the carpenter's trade and in a canal boat dockyard near Cumminsville, Ohio, with my father. In 1864 both of us barely escaped being enlisted for the draft, he being one year too old, and I one year too young. brother was discharged in 1864 and ame home to join father and myself in work.

At the first dawn of peace, brother returned South in 1865 to see what outlook there was for the resumption of business. He soon opened business on the old plantation and father invested all of our little capital in merchandise to be shipped South by river while I came via Cairo, being shortly followed by father himself, who established the firm of Montgomery and Sons and assigned me to the bookkeeping and correspondence. I made a brief study of mathematics and bookkeeping with the aid of such assistance as could be had.

He Buys the Old Plantation

In 1866, I made a trip to Cincinnati and brought the family home. With the first return of peace, correspondence between Mr. J. E. Davis and my father was resumed which resulted in the sale of the Davis Estate, some 4000 acres, to us in 1867.

In this year occurred the disastrous overflow. Mr. Davis remitted three-quarters of the interest for that year. On the Davis property and a place adjoining called Ursino we conducted a cotton business of between two and three thousand bales annually for a period of ten years. Losses by the continued decline in cotton and a branch business in Vicksburg finally engulfed our entire capital, and we retired from the cotton business in 1875. Father died at the old Jeff Davis mansion in 1878, mother died in 1885; and they both sleep the last sleep in the old Davis burying ground close by the master and mistress of former days. My brother having become discouraged at future prospects of the South, embarked in the business of grain raising in North Dakota, where he now owns an elevator and plants between 700 and 1000 acres in grain.

His Marriage

In 1872, I married Miss Martha Robb who was born of a slave mother near McNutt, Miss., in May 1852. After the close of our cotton business, I removed to Vicksburg and being in bad health, did very little for two years. In the fall of 1886, my attention was attracted to the Great Yazoo (Miss. Delta). After investigating that section closely, I opened a colony which now numbers about six hundred persons, and laid out the growing little town of Mound Bayou on the L. N. O. and T. R. R., in Bolivar County where I now conduct a business of $30, 000.00 per annum inclusive of cotton shipments which amount to 250 bales, crop 1890. My real estate interests are worth about $20,000.00. The colored people in the vicinity own 5, 000 acres and are increasing their holdings rapidly.

Public Life

I was a delegate to the Warren County Republican Convention during the Blaine Campaign. From said county convention, I was sent as a delegate to the District Congressional Convention where I delivered my first public speech, naming Mr. R. F. Beck. One of the State Rebublican electors having died or resigned. I was substituted in his place and took an active interest in the campaign especially in the Congressional District but only made one speech, that at Magnolia Hall in Vicksburg.

In 1888, I was placed on the Republican County Committee in Bolivar County, where in all county affairs I have actively indorsed a fusion movement in county elections. But the Democratic Party having ignored that arrangement in the selection of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, I was earnestly pressed by the Republican County committee to become a candidate in company with Hon. Geo. P. Melchoir, and as a result of the election held July 29, 1890, I hold my first commission to any elective office, viz: as delegate from Bolivar County to the Constitutional Convention.

In May 1890, I visited Washington with a committee representing the Republicans and citizens of the Mississippi Valley to represent the Valley interest in relation to obtaining government assistance in restraining overflows and controlling the Mississippi River and was one of the sub-committee who presented our case to the Senate Committee on commerce.(This is the end of Montgomery's account of his life.)

Additional Notes: Montgomery was the only Black and Rebublican member of the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention elected from Bolivar County. His participation was the most controversial act of his life. While his faith in mankind proved a disappointment, his motives and his statesmanship proved faulty because of lack of these qualities in others who charted the course of history in this country. At the time of this convention our government had turned its back on its citizens of color. Although it was not representative of the majority of the citizens, Blacks were helpless. Montgomery said"...I am willing that the Negro should be disfranchised because he is ignorant, but I am not willing that he should be disfranchised because he is Black. And if intelligence is to be made a test of suffrage I insist that the White man shall submit to the same requirements that are imposed upon the Black man."

In answer to the suffrage question being left open to White fraud, Montgomery said, "I suppose that most White men will become voters under this provision. The suffrage provisions did not wholly suit me but I accepted them as the beginning of the end of the great race question."

Of all the achievements of Isaiah T. Montgomery, he will be remembered for the founding of Mound Bayou, Bolivar County, MS, with his cousin Benjamin T. Green. He died March 08, 1924, at Mound Bayou, the Black township he so diligently helped to established.

According to the Warren County Slave Schedule, Joseph E. Davis owned 365 slaves and his brother Jefferson Davis owned 113 slaves.


Isaiah Montgomery - Subject File
Found at Mississippi Department of History and Archives

Warren County, MS, 1860 Slaveholders and Surname Matches for African Americans on 1870 Census
Transcribed by Tom Blake

Remembering Their Names