Joseph Hamilton Daveiss

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Portrait and grave of Joseph Hamilton Daveiss

Colonel Joseph Hamilton Daveiss or “Jo Daveiss” as he was popularly known, who gave his name to Daviess County, was one of the most remarkable men of his day. He was born in Bedford County, Va., March 4, 1774. His parents were natives of Virginia; his father of Irish, and his mother of Scotch, descent. When young Daveiss was five years old the family removed to Kentucky, then an almost unbroken wilderness, and settled in the immediate vicinity of the town of Danville, then in Lincoln County. An incident, which occurred in the journey to Kentucky, illustrates the character of his mother. In crossing the Cumberland River, Mrs. Davies was thrown from her horse, and had her arm broken. The party only halted long enough to have the limb bound up, with what rude skill the men possessed, and pursued their route, she riding a spirited horse and carrying her child, and never ceasing her exertions to promote the comfort of her companions when they stopped for rest and refreshment. Daveiss was sent to school as occasion allowed. He attended grammar schools taught by a Mr. Morley, and a Dr. Brooks, and made considerable advances in a knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages. At school he evinced unusual capacity, always being at the head of his class. He was particularly remarkable for his talent for declaration and public speaking. The sudden death of a brother and sister recalled him from school, and he returned home to assist his father in the labors of the farm. There is a tradition that young Daveiss was not particularly distinguished by his devotion to agricultural pursuits, frequently permitting the horses of his plow to graze at leisure, in a most unfarmer-like way, while he, stretched supinely on his back on some luxurious log, indulged in those delicious dreams and reveries so sweet to young and aspiring ambition.

In the autumn of 1792 Major Adair, under Government orders, raised some companies of mounted men, to guard the transportation of provisions to the forts north of the Ohio River. Daveiss, then in his eighteenth year, volunteered in the service. On one occasion, when Major Adair was encamped near Fort St. Clair, he was surprised early in the morning by a large body of Indians, who, rushing into the camp just after the sentinels had been withdrawn from their posts, killed and wounded fourteen or fifteen of the men, and captured and carried away about 200 head of horses. These were taken within the Indian lines and tied. After the whites had sought shelter in the neighborhood of the fort, young Daveiss, discovering his own horse at some distance hitched to a tree, resolved to have him at all hazards. He accordingly ran and cut him loose, and led him back to his companions amid a shower of balls. This exploit nearly cost him his life. A ball passed through his coat, waistcoat, and cut off a small piece of his shirt. His horse was the only one taken out of the 200. When his time of service expired, he returned home, and spent some time reviewing his classical studies. He ultimately concluded to study law, and entered the office of the celebrated George Nicholas, then the first lawyer in Kentucky. Daveiss entered a class of students, consisting of Isham Talbot, Jesse Bledsoe, William Garrard, Felix Grundy, William Blackbourne, John Pope, William Stuart and Thomas Dye Owings, all of whom became distinguished at the bar, and noted in the public history of the country. Nicholas was profoundly impressed with the striking indications of genius of a high order manifested by Daveiss while under his roof. His opinion of the strength of his character and the firmness of his principles was equally as exalted, and at his death, which occurred a few years after, he appointed him one of his executors. As a student he was laborious and indefatigable. He accustomed himself to take repose on a hard bed; was fond of exercise in the open air, and was accustomed to retire to the woods with his books, and pursue his studies in some remote secluded spot, secure from the annoyance and interruption of society. In connection with his legal studies, he read history and miscellaneous literature. His mind, therefore, when he came to the bar, was richly stored with various and profound knowledge, imparting a fertility and affluence to his resources, from which his powerful and well-trained intellect drew inexhaustible supplies. He began the practice of the law in June of the year 1795. The following August he was qualified as an attorney in the Court of Appeals. In his first case he had for an antagonist is old preceptor, over whom he enjoyed the singular gratification of obtaining a signal triumph. Daveiss settled at Danville, and soon commanded a splendid business in all the courts in which he practiced. On the abolition of the District Courts and the substitution in their place of the Circuit Court, he removed to Frankfort. He had been appointed United States Attorney for the State of Kentucky. In the year 1801 or 1802, he visited Washington City, being the first Western lawyer who ever appeared in the Supreme Court of the United States. He here argued the celebrated case of Wilson versus Mason. His speech is said to have excited the highest admiration of the bench and bar, and placed him at once in the foremost rank of his profession.

During this trip he visited the principal cities of the North and East, and formed an acquaintance with many of the most distinguished men of America. In 1803 he was united in marriage to Anne Marshall, the sister of John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the United States. Miss Marshall seems to have shared none of the qualities of her celebrated brother. After residing at Frankfort for a few years, he removed to Cornland, the farm on the Ohio a mile and a half above Owensboro. His residence here was a hewed log house, which is not now remaining. He lived here till 1809, and then removed to Lexington, where he resumed the practice of law. While acting as attorney for the United States, he acted as prosecutor against Aaron Burr in his famous trial of treason. He had noticed the movements of this person for some time before the prosecution was begun. Satisfied with his observations that he had some unlawful design in view, he caused him to be apprehended and brought before the court. Burr’s project was to revolutionize the Western country, establish an empire, with New Orleans as the capital, and himself the chief. July 24, 1806, General Dayton, one of Burr’s firmest adherents, wrote to General Wilkinson in cipher, “Are you ready? Are your numerous associates ready? Wealth and glory! Louisiana and Mexico!!” From a failure of evidence, as is well known, the prosecution was abandoned, although the whole plot was finally discovered. In the fall of 1811, Colonel Daveiss joined the army of General Harrison in the campaign against the Indians on the Wabash. He received the command of major. On the 7th of November, 1811, in the celebrated battle of Tippecanoe, he fell in a charge against the Indians, made at his own solicitation. He survived from 5 o’clock in the morning till midnight, retaining to the last the full command of his faculties. The personal appearance of Jo Daveiss was commanding and impressive. His bearing was grave and dignified. His manner was bland and courteous to those he loved, but haughty and repulsive in the extreme to those he disliked. He was nearly six feet high, with a form athletic and vigorous. He was eccentric in his habits, allusion to which may be found elsewhere. At the great trial of Aaron Burr, at Richmond, it is said he made his appearance in a suit of buckskin. As an orator he had few equals and no superiors. Competent judges unite in declaring that he was the most impressive speaker they ever heard. In conversation he was unequaled, and the life of every circle in which he was thrown.

Dr. John D. Ogden, of Owensboro, has the original brief, in manuscript, which Jo Daveiss prepared and presented in a land suit from this county, in 1805 or ‘6, before the Supreme Court of the United States. This was the first argument ever presented before that body by an attorney from any section west of the Allegheny Mountains. It is related that when the case was about to be called, Mr. Daveiss was present, dressed in buckskin, with a squirrel cap, and was eating a piece of ginger-cake. It was whispered among the high-toned gentry of the court that the rough little Westerner would be so ignorant of the Virginia rules of procedure that he would soon be frustrated. When the case came up he stepped forward and represented that he was the United States District Attorney for Kentucky. This was at first regarded merely as a joke; but during the whole course of the proceeding the only interruption made by the bench was simply to announce that the proposition which Mr. Daveiss was about to establish was already admitted by the court!

Source: History of Daviess County, Kentucky. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1883. Print.

Colonel Joseph Hamilton Daveiss was the son of Joseph and Jean Daveiss, and was born in Bedford county, Virginia, on the 4th of March, 1774. The parents of Mr. Daveiss, were both natives of Virginia; but his father was of Irish, his mother of Scotch descent; and the marked peculiarities of each of those races were strongly developed in the character of their son. The hardy self-reliance, the indomitable energy, and imperturbable coolness, which have from earliest time distinguished the Scotch, were his; while the warm heart, free and open hand, and ready springing tear of sensibility, told in language plainer than words, that the blood of Erin flowed fresh in his veins. When young Daveiss was five years old, his parents removed to Kentucky, then an almost unbroken wilderness, and settled in the then county of Lincoln, in the immediate vicinity of the present town of Danville. An incident which attended their journey to Kentucky, although trifling in itself, may be related, as exhibiting in a very striking light the character of the mother, to whose forming influence was committed the subject of this notice. In crossing the Cumberland river, Mrs. Daveiss was thrown from her horse, and had her arm broken. The party only halted long enough to have the limb bound up, with what rude skill the men of the company possessed; and pursued their route, she riding a spirited horse and carrying her child, and never ceasing her exertions to promote the comforts of her companions when they stopped for rest and refreshment. The parents of young Daveiss, in common with the very early settlers of Kentucky, had many difficulties to encounter in raising their youthful family, especially in the want of schools to which children could be sent to obtain the rudiments of an English education. It was several years after their settlement in Kentucky, before the subject of this sketch enjoyed even the advantages of a common country school. Previous to this time, however, his mother had bestowed considerable attention in the education of her sons, by communicating such information as she herself possessed. At the age of eleven or twelve, he was sent to a grammar school taught by a Mr. Worley, where he continued for about two years, learned the Latin language, and made considerable progress in his English education. He subsequently attended a grammar school taught by a Dr. Brooks, at which he remained a year, making considerable advances in a knowledge of the Greek language. At school he evinced unusual capacity, being always at the head of his class. He was particularly remarkable for his talent for declamation and public speaking, and his parents felt a natural anxiety to give him as many advantages as their limited resources would permit. There being at that time no college in the country, he was placed under the charge of a Dr. Culbertson. where he completed his knowledge of the Greek tongue. At this time, the sudden death of a brother and sister occasioned his being recalled from school, and he returned home to assist his father in the labors of the farm. There is a tradition that young Daveiss was not particularly distinguished by his devotion to agricultural pursuits, frequently permitting the horses of his plough to graze at leisure, in a most unfarmerlike way, while he, stretched supinely on his back on some luxurious log, indulged in those delicious dreams and reveries 80 sweet to young and aspiring ambition.

In the autumn of 1793, Major Adair, under government orders, raised some companies of mounted men, to guard the transportation of provisions to the forts north of the Ohio river, and Daveiss, then in his 18th year, volunteered in the service, which it was understood would be from three to six months duration. Nothing of particular interest occurred in the course of this service, except on one occasion, when Major Adair had encamped near fort St. Clair. Here he was surprised, early in the morning, by a large body of Indians, who, rushing into the camp just after the sentinels had been withdrawn from their posts, killed and wounded fourteen or fifteen of the men, and captured and carried away about two hundred head of horses. These were taken within the Indian lines and tied. After the whites had sought shelter in the neighborhood of the fort, young Daveiss, discovering his own horse at some distance hitched to a tree, resolved to have him at all hazards. He accordingly ran and cut him loose, and led him back to his companions amid a shower of balls. This exploit nearly cost him his life; a ball passing through his coat, waistcoat, and cutting off a small piece of his shirt. He, however, saved his horse, which was the only one retaken out of the two hundred.

When his term of service expired, he returned home, and spent some time in reviewing his classical studies. He ultimately concluded to study law, and accordingly entered the office of the celebrated George Nicholas, then the first lawyer in Kentucky. Daveiss entered a class of students consisting of Isham Talbott, Jesse Bledsoe, William Garrard, Felix Grundy, William B. Blackburn, John Pope, William Stuart, and Thomas Dye Owings, all of whom were subsequently distinguished at the bar and in the public history of the country. Nicholas was very profoundly impressed with the striking indications of genius of a high order, manifested by Daveiss while under his roof; and so high an opinion did he form of the power of his character and the firmness of his principles, that at his death, which occurred but a few years after, he appointed him one of his executors. He was a most laborious and indefatigable student; he accustomed himself to take his repose upon a hard bed; was fond of exercise in the open air, habituating himself to walking several hours in each day; he was accustomed in the days when he was a student, to retire to the woods with his books, and pursue his studies in some remote secluded spot, secure from the annoyance and interruption of society. In connection with his legal studies, he read history and miscellaneous literature, so that when he came to the bar, his mind was richly stored with various and profound knowledge, imparting a fertility and affluence to his resources, from which his powerful and well trained intellect drew inexhaustible supplies. He commenced the practice of the law in June, 1795; in August he was qualified as an attorney in the court of appeals; and in his first cause had for an antagonist his old preceptor, over whom he enjoyed the singular gratification of obtaining a signal triumph.

At the session of 1795-6, the legislature passed a law establishing district courts. One of these courts was located at Danville, one at Lexington, and one at Bardstown. Daveiss settled at Danville, and soon commanded a splendid business, not only in that, but in all the courts in which he practiced. He continued to reside in Danville until the abolition of the district courts, and the substitution of circuit courts in their place. He then removed to Frankfort, to be enabled more conveniently to attend the court of appeals and the federal court, having been appointed United States’ attorney for the State of Kentucky. In the year 1801 or ‘2, he went to Washington city, being the first western lawyer who ever appeared in the supreme court of the United States. He here argued the celebrated cause of Wilson vs. Mason. His speech is said to have excited the highest admiration of the bench and bar, and placed him at once in the foremost rank of the profession. During this trip he visited the principal cities of the north and east, and formed an acquaintance with many of the most distinguished men of America, with several of whom he continued to correspond until the period of his death. In 1803, he was united in marriage to Anne Marshall, the sister of the chief justice of the United States. After he had resided in Frankfort a few years, he removed to Owensboro, Daveiss county, to be able to attend more closely to the interests of a large property he had acquired in that region. In 1809, he removed to Lexington, and resumed the practice of the law. During the short period of two years previous to his death, there was hardly a cause of importance litigated in the courts where he practiced, that he was not engaged on one side or the other. We should have noticed before, his prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason, whilst acting as attorney for the United States. He had noticed the movements of this person for some time before he commenced a prosecution, and became satisfied from his observations that he had some unlawful design in view; and, considering it to be his duty to arrest his movements, he caused him to be apprehended and brought before the court; but, from a failure of evidence, the prosecution was ultimately abandoned.

In the fall of 1811, Colonel Daveiss joined the army of General Harrison, in the campaign against the Indians on the Wabash. He received the command of major, the duties of which station he discharged promptly, and to the entire satisfaction of his superior officer. On the 7th of November, 1811, in the celebrated battle of Tippecanoe, he fell in a charge against the Indians, made at his own solicitation. He survived from 5 o’clock in the morning until midnight, retaining to the last the full command of all his faculties.

Colonel Daveiss was near six feet high, with an athletic and vigorous form, combining with his high intellectual endowments, a remarkably commanding and impressive personal appearance. His bearing was grave and dignified. His manner bland and courteous to those he loved, but haughty and repulsive in the extreme to those he disliked. As an orator, he had few equals and no superiors. The late Judge Boyle, the Hon. John Pope, and the Hon. Samuel M’Kee, all competent judges, and associates of Daveiss at the bar, frequently declared that he was the most impressive speaker they ever heard. As a colloquialist, he was unequaled, and the life of every circle in which he was thrown. His death occasioned a shock in the public mind throughout the State.

Source: Collins historical sketches of Kentucky. History of Kentucky. Lewis Collins, revised and enlarged by Richard H. Collins, Collins & Co., Covington, Ky, 1874. Courtesy of the Daviess County Bicentennial Committee