Friday, September 19, 2008

The Iowaville Roster: Andrew Jackson Davis

There’s an old story about Iowaville’s earliest days that tells of early-morning roll calls, militia-style, to determine who among the settlers had made it safely through the night and who, perhaps, had not. That gave me the idea of calling roster myself now and then to talk about interesting men and women, some almost larger than life, who lived here along the Des Moines River between, say, 1838 and 1856 --- when my old friend Robert Rathbun died at his Iowaville House hotel and was carried up to the bluff to be buried.

Iowaville never was a big place --- at the time of the great flood in May of 1851 there reportedly were about 30 houses, a few stores, a blacksmith shop and the Iowaville House --- but it seems to have had more than its share of great characters, among them Andrew Jackson Davis who went on to become Montana’s richest man, a rise fueled in part by whiskey distilled right here along the river.

Davis probably was the most entrepreneurial of Iowaville’s residents --- and most likely its biggest employer for a few years. In 1848, he organized what was in effect Iowaville’s industrial park, called Black Hawk City, just across the Des Moines River south of the village and connected to it by a chain ferry. There, he built a massive mill that, according to the 26 August 1854 edition of Keosauqua’s The Democratic Union, contained “the most extensive flouring mill --- steam --- in the county, also a steam saw mill, lathe machine, carding machine, &tc., also an extensive distillery that makes most of the whisky sold in the valley, and furnishes high wines to Keokuk and other larger towns for the manufactory of brandy, gin, rum, wine, &tc.”

When the 1850 census of Village Township, where both Iowaville and Black Hawk City were located, was taken, Andrew told the enumerator that he owned property valued at $24,000 --- a great deal of money at that time although peanuts compared to the millions he would acquire later. By comparison, his neighbor James H. Jordan --- then living on his farm upriver west of Iowaville, claimed real estate valued at only $7,000, still a substantial amount in those days.

A roamer and a rambler, A.J. is hard to pin down sometimes during his early years, but Iowaville/Black Hawk and the large farm he owned south of the river in Salt Creek Township, Davis County, seem to have formed his home base until the early 1860s when he settled permanently in Montana.

Although his early wealth probably was based upon whiskey, Iowa was not necessarily a friendly environment. Although the laws never were enforced with any enthusiasm, prohibition was legislated for the state in 1855. And in the Civil War era whopping taxes were assessed against strong drink to help fund the war effort.

Still, by about 1866 A.J. had built up so large an inventory of whiskey in Iowa that he commissioned an entire ox-drawn wagon train to haul it west to Montana where he sold it at great profit, helping to fuel his rise.

In the 1860s, milling and distilling operations at Black Hawk were discontinued, the equipment removed and dispersed and the mill complex taken down. Today, not a trace of Black Hawk remains.

A.J. was far from done with Van Buren and Davis counties, however. He kept his Davis County farm of 800 acres until he died and after his death during 1890 in Butte, Montana, a will forged in Davis County by Davis countyans created such an uproar that as litigation drained an estate valued at $7 million or so reports concerning perhaps the greatest probate battle of the late 19th century transfixed readers from coast to coast.

The following account of his life is framed by Andrew’s obituary, published in The Anaconda Standard of 12 March 1890, but information inserted in italics is taken from a posthumous biography published in 1894 on Pages 203-204 of Joaquin Miller’s “Illustrated History of the State of Montana"(Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co.)


In his modest home on East Broadway (in Butte, Montana) precisely at 11 o’clock last night (March 11, 1890) Judge Andrew J. Davis breathed his last of paralysis of the brain. The body will be sent east to the old homestead for burial.

Andrew Jackson Davis was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, April 25, 1819. His father, Asa Davis, emigrated from Wales when a young man and settled at Wilbraham, where he was married and reared a family of thirteen children. He died in the eightieth year of his age.

When a small boy, Andrew entered the employ of a store in Boston as an errand boy. Before he was of age, he went with a small stock of goods, of which he was part owner, to Madison, Ind. After staying there a year or two, he drifted down the Ohio to the Mississippi and traded in towns on the east side of the river. He went to Nashville, Tenn., still engaged in the mercantile business. After a year in Nashville, he went in 1838 to Iowa and formed a partnership with Edward Manning at Keosauqua.

In 1839 he … had several little stores at different places and spent his time in going from one to another and looking after them, making his headquarters at Fairfield.

During all his merchandising he evinced great aptness in making trades for almost anything and always turning the property to advantage. He was in Iowa during the Black Hawk war; became well acquainted with the chief, and from the Indians made a purchase of 800 acres of land located on the west side of the Des Moines river, a property which still belongs to his estate. This property, notwithstanding it was valuable, was always a bill of expense to him. When asked why he did not dispose of it, he said he would keep it for a “nest egg” to fall back upon if necessary. Some years after he purchased it he had a distillery there (Black Hawk and the distillery actually were in Van Buren County).

At Iowaville he carried on a grist mill and a distillery and was also the owner of several small stores. In 1853 (or 1852), he placed his brothers, John and Calvin, in charge of his Iowa interests and went to California. He spent two years in California (where he) met with only fair success, however, and soon afterward returned East. He returned to Iowa in 1856 and remained until 1864 (or 1863), still engaged in the mercantile business. In 1860 he ran for the Iowa senate on the Bell-Everett ticket and was defeated.

Then he made a second trip to California and on this occasion explored the country along the coast as far as Puget Sound. From there he made his way back and arrived in Montana in 1863 (or 1864). Seeing the great demand for miners’ supplies here, he engaged in bringing merchandise from the East with ox teams, and continued this business successfully for several years. At that time whiskey was in Montana a staple article and brought high prices, while at his distillery in Iowa the price was low. In 1866 he brought a whole ox train loaded with the products of the (Iowa) establishment to Montana.

He became the owner of two grist mills at Gallatin
( he was at one time probate judge of Gallatin County), and he had traded for a number of old quartz mills which he obtained cheap; so, in 1870, he built a foundry at Helena, in which he could repair and fix up those mills, and in this way he realized large profits.

While engaged in this business he became owner of a number of quartz mines in the vicinity of Butte City, among which was the Lexington (which he acquired for a small debt; it previously had been known as the Allie Brown). In 1877 this mine, under his development, showed such a wealth of both silver and gold that he built a mill to treat its ore, and he made out of it no less than $300,000. During all this time he had also been extensively engaged in raising cattle. In 1880 he and his partners sold off their cattle, and from this industry realized another $300,000.

During his ownership the gross earnings of the Lexington were $1,600,000. In 1881 Mr. Davis sold his Lexington property to English and French capitalists for $1 million cash, they agreeing to incorporate the property and expend not less thatn $500,000 in additional machinery and appliances and give him fifteen per cent of the stock of the new company. They incorporated under the title of the Societe Anonyme Des Mines de Lexington, and did all that they promised. The mine was operated at a large profit up to the recent decline in silver, and it is still being operated; not, however, to its full capacity.

Judge Davis built the second stamp mill in Butte, the Dexter being the first. His mill was the old Lexington on East Broadway. Ever since his arrival in Butte he has been interested to a greater or lesser extent in mining.

During that same year, 1881, Mr. Davis became the organizer of the First National Bank of Butte. He was also a large stockholder in the First National Bank of Helena. In 1882, on account of impaired health, he made a tour of Europe, returning in the spring of the following year, much improved and rested. In 1884 he purchased the rest of the stock of the First National Bank of Butte, assumed control of it and devoted nearly the whole of his time and attention to its affairs, and its business greatly prospered under his management. In the meantime he had been picking up a number of mining claims, and in 1887 sold them in a buch to the Butte & Boston Mining Company for about $750,000 in cash, he retaining one-half of the stock in the new company. This transaction practically ended his mining enterprises, as his health continued to fail.

Judge Davis was never married. He was one of 13 children, 11 of whom grew to maturity. Erwin Davis, a brother, is a very wealthy operator in New York. Calvin Davis is on a ranch in California; John A. Davis, now in Butte, has been a Chicago businessman for years; Diana Davis, an unmarried sister, still lives at the old homestead; Sarah M. Cummings, Elizabeth S. Bowdon and Harriet Woods are married sisters.

He was considered the first millionaire of Butte City. He left an estate valued at about $7 million.

Judge A. J. Davis takes rank as one of Montana’s pioneers. He was a man who followed his own judgment. He brought a stock of goods to Montana from Utah when others advised against it. He had exceptional faith in Montana and in Butte.

He was modest in manner and cautious in method, but he was always ready to assist in any undertaking that would help Butte. He was an enjoyable companion and possessed a wide range of information. His interest in public affairs was easily awakened. But he never sought favor or popular approval.

He had a great fondness for children and always found a welcome wherever he went. While he was careful with his own expences, he was generous to others, without a particle of ostentation, and many a needy family received help from him and never knew its source. In his death Motana, and especially Butte City, sustained a heavy loss; but he had passed his three score years and ten, the time allotted to man, and his death was quiet and peaceful.


Although Andrew’s death was peaceful, the aftermath was not. He left no will, so there was an immediate fight over who would administer the vast estate. His brother, John A., who then lived in Butte with his family eventually prevailed in Montana courts but not until after lawsuits filed by his siblings and nieces and nephews accusing him of being a drunk and an imbecile incapable of administering anything.

As preparations were being made to divvy up Andrew’s millions among all of his siblings or their children, John A. Davis suddenly produced a purported will allegedly executed in 1866 in in Davis County, Iowa, by Andrew. It had mysteriously surfaced in Iowa when it became clear just how large A.J.’s estate was. After making modest bequests to a “Pet” and Thomas Jefferson Davis, presented as illegitimate children of Andrew, and their mother, the entire balance of the huge estate went to John. Hmmm.

The will was an obvious forgery and the renowned Robert Ingersoll proved (for a fee of $100,000) that beyond a shadow of a doubt in Montana courts, but for whatever reasons the jury in that case could not agree and “hung” itself.

Litigation went on and on in state courts in Montana, Massachusetts and New York and eventually before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally the heirs all reached agreement, including Andrew’s spurious children, to probate the false will and divvy up an estate far smaller than it was before litigation began according to a formula that gave something to everyone.

Both Andrew J. Davis’s life and its aftermath were amazing performances --- and to think, it all started in little Iowaville.

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