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African-American History

“The darkest hours are often the harbingers of a bright dawn:” The Diary of Hester Ann Wilkins Davis

This silhouette made in 1825 is the known image of Hester Ann Wilkins Davis. 1960.89.1, Museum Department, MdHS.

This silhouette made in 1825 is the only known image of Hester Ann Wilkins Davis. 1960.89.1, Museum Department, MdHS.

 

The library recently acquired a diary kept by Hester Ann Wilkins Davis during the Civil War years. It was an exciting find as it helped complete a series of her diaries from the 1830s through the 1870s donated to the society in 1963. Throughout her adult life, Davis was an avid diarist, who kept a detailed record of her daily life and never shied to offer an opinion on the day’s politics, providing researchers a unique Southern female perspective. Her diaries in the collection, part of the Allen Bowie Davis Papers (MS 285), were incomplete with the critical years of 1861 to 1864 missing until now.

Hester was born on April 14, 1809 to Achsah Goodwin (1775-1854) and William Wilkins, Jr. (1767-1832). Her father was a successful dry goods merchant in Baltimore, Maryland. He and his brother Joseph maintained a business on Baltimore Street, and for some years, the family lived nearby on Light Street. Her mother, Achsah, daughter of Milcah Dorsey (1747-1829) and William Goodwin (1745-1809), caused controversy in the family when she abandoned the Episcopal Church for Methodism at age 18. Her faith led her into mission work, and she helped found a Methodist church in Baltimore. Her daughter and her grandson, William Wilkins Davis, seem to have inherited her religious nature. Hester frequently discusses the Bible and church affairs in her diaries. Hester’s son, William Wilkins Davis, traveled to Minnesota with Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901) to establish Episcopal churches. She was also renowned for her quilting ability, despite frequent illness that limited usage of her hands. She and other ladies from the church were pioneers of the Baltimore album quilt style, which featured complex designs.

A portrait of Allen Bowie Davis. From The Monumental City, It's Past History and Present Resources, by George W. Howard (REFERENCE PHOTO).

A portrait of Allen Bowie Davis.
From The Monumental City, It’s Past History and Present Resources, by George W. Howard (REFERENCE PHOTO).

In 1839, Hester married Allen Bowie Davis (1809-1889), son of Elizabeth Bowie (1772-1840) and Thomas Davis (1789-1833). Allen inherited “Greenwood,” near Brookeville in Montgomery County, from his father and was a substantial landowner, owning four farms. Most of his days were spent overseeing the farms he operated, but he also served on the board of trustees for the Brookeville Academy, where he received his education, and was elected to state legislature in 1862. He also served as a representative at Maryland’s constitutional convention in 1850. However, Allen was always a farmer at heart. He wrote several educational texts on agriculture and helped found the Maryland Agricultural College, now University of Maryland, College Park.

He and Hester had six children, Thomas (1840-1849), William Wilkins (1842-1866), Rebecca Dorsey (1843-1921), Mary Dorsey (1845-1939), Esther Wilkins (1847-1894), and Allen Bowie (1849). They lost all of their sons young with Thomas and Allen dying in childhood. William Wilkins traveled to Minnesota in 1862 in hopes that the clean air would help him recover from pulmonary issues but he succumbed to illness in 1866, just a few short weeks after marrying. The Davis sisters never married but were active in the church and Baltimore society. Like their mother, they also kept diaries throughout their lives, now part of the Allen Bowie Davis papers.

Hester’s diaries provide insight into the life of an upper class Maryland woman. Her entries range from simple recordings of her day-to-day activities to essays on her opinions on politics, as well as poetry and scripture she found helpful or meaningful. The newly acquired diary from the Civil War era is particularly illuminating as she not only related her daily life but also frequently ruminated on the political climate and her regular interactions with both Confederate and Union supporters and military leaders and personnel.

Greenwood, the home of Davis family, was built in 1755 by Ephraim Davis. The Davises also maintained a home in Baltimore, where the women of the family spent most winters. Greenwood, ca. 1870, Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

Greenwood, the home of Davis family, was built in 1755 by Ephraim Davis. The Davises also maintained a home in Baltimore, where the women of the family spent most winters. Greenwood, ca. 1870, Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

In her diary, it is clear that she ardently believed that Maryland should not cede from the Union but did not advocate for the abolition of slavery. She frequently blamed northern abolitionists for causing the war, and felt that President Abraham Lincoln was inadequate for the task of reuniting the country, a sentiment echoed by many other Marylanders. On May 4, 1861, she stated: “I am no admirer of Lincoln or his cabinet. They are all trying to ape Jackson. To prove themselves men of nerve. We want firm men, but they must be statesmen also here the present Cabinet are lamentably deficient.” The Davises remained a Union family, but they would offer assistance as needed. The Davis family regularly hosted troops from both sides as they sought shelter and food. She often enjoyed their company, but the family’s farms were raided for provisions and horses on several occasions. On at least one occasion, the daughters sewed pants for sick Confederate soldiers.

Hester's diary from 1861-1864. Hester Ann Wilkins Davis Diary, 1861-1864, Hester Ann Wilkins Davis Manuscript Collection, MS 3203, MdHS (REFERENCE PHOTO).

Hester’s diary from 1861-1864.
Hester Ann Wilkins Davis Diary, 1861-1864, Hester Ann Wilkins Davis Manuscript Collection, MS 3203, MdHS (REFERENCE PHOTO).

As the war raged on, Hester seemed to become more frustrated by the conflict and more resigned to the end of slavery. The family greatly profited from an enslaved labor force on its farms that produced tobacco. At one point, the Davises had over sixty servants working the farms and in their home. Hester seemed to hold the opinion that slavery was the natural order. As the family’s slaves heard of possible emancipation, she noted a change of demeanor, as she no longer felt she had authority to discipline them. In July of 1863, she decried the change:

“in lieu of pleasant cheerful countenance, a heavy scowl, of most obsequious and studied politeness, a coarse familiarity of manner….” She did not seem to have inflicted particular brutality on her slaves, but she never acknowledged their humanity or understood their desire to be free. Upon emancipation, all of the women who worked in the house and dairy left, while some of the men stayed, including Wilson, the blacksmith, and Isaac, the wagoner. Her opinion on emancipation can be summed up in her reflection in her diary after two of the domestic servants, Louisa and Catherine, left with a cart of supplies. She stated. “I feel well assured we needed some change and feel Every Confidence God will raise up servants to supply their places and we shall feel much less encumbered with so many useless people.…”

Hester ended her diary on December 28, 1864, with pages to spare, her last line, “The darkest hours are often the harbingers of a bright dawn.” The diaries in the library’s collection do not begin again until 1876, so we can only speculate on her thoughts in the intervening years. Perhaps she set aside her diary keeping, now consumed with tending to her affairs and the death of her beloved son. Or, perhaps other volumes will come to light, and we will be able to complete the run, providing a wealth of material for researchers to study. (Lara Westwood)

Sources and further reading:

Allen Bowie Davis Papers, 1723-1945, MS 285, Maryland Historical Society

Hester Ann Wilkins Davis Manuscript Collection, 1861-2007, MS 3203, Maryland Historical Society

Goodwin, John S. “The Goodwin Families in America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 8, no. 2 (1899): 1-58.

Howard, George W. “Allen Bowie Davis.” The Monumental city, its past history and present resources. Baltimore: J.D. Ehlers, 1873. 646-50.

National Museum of American History. “1820 – 1840 Achsah Goodwin Wilkins’s Appliqued Counterpane.” National Museum of American History.

Volckening, Bill. “Important Discovery.” Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics.

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