Biography of Capt. John Burgess Davis

When the great West was young the Mississippi River, as the principal gateway to it and almost the sole means of conveying its products to the out-side world was the center of commercial life. Men who followed the river were participants in stirring events and their work was fraught with an importance in the eyes of the public that we of today can little realize. To be a steamboat captain in the fifties and sixties invested the individual with a dignity as great as that accorded to the average railroad magnate nowadays.

Captain John Burgess Davis earned his title when the great stream was at its best, and there were few who won greater honors than he for his calling. Among his most notable achievements was the taking of the first boat up the Minnesota River to Big Stone Lake; thence into the Red River of the North, and the construction of the first wing dam on the Mississippi. The boat he took into the Red River was the “Freighter.” It was in 1859 that he navigated through Big Stone Lake into the Northern stream. The first wing dam was built some years later, in 1873, when he was in charge of a Government fleet, and it was located three miles below St. Paul, at Pig’s Eye Island. This method of improvement, which he was the first to use on the Upper Mississippi, has since been generally adopted and has done more than any other device in giving a uniform channel for steamboat navigation.

Captain Davis was born to the vocation he followed with success. His father, Thomas Bodley Davis, was a river man before him.

Born in Pennsylvania, in 1800, the father removed early in life to Kentucky, and for a number of years commanded a boat plying between Pittsburg and New Orleans. On one of these trips up from the southern metropolis he was stricken with yellow fever and died, in 1835. The son was born at Maysville, Kentucky, April 19, 1828, and died at Rock Island, Illinois, November 26, 1890. River life appealed to him from a boy, and at an early age he was given command of a boat running between Cincinnati and St. Louis. Within a few years he became owner of the line. In 1858 he turned his attention to the Upper Mississippi and established a packet line between St. Louis and St. Paul. At that time he came to Moline and made his home there one year, returning then to Kentucky. He retained his interests on the Father of Waters, however, and was at St. Paul when the war of the Rebellion broke out. Though a southerner by birth and education, he enlisted when the first call for troops came, in the Second Minnesota Regiment, entering the service as Captain of Company F, July 8, 1861. He was promoted to the rank of Major November 5, 1862. At the battle of Chickamauga he fought in General Thomas’ Division, and after his horse was shot under him he was wounded so severely that he was carried from the field and sent home. He did not recover sufficiently to enable him to rejoin his command, and was mustered out April 16, 1864. Honorable mention and his war record is given in ” Minnesota in the Civil War,” a book published by the State of Minnesota to preserve a record of its soldiers.

In 1866 Captain Davis resumed steam-boating, conducting a line of his own from Memphis, Tennessee, up White River to Augusta, Arkansas. He made his home at Memphis till 1873, when he removed once more to Rock Island and entered the U. S. Government service, in the capacity of Captain of the United States Steamer Montana. For three years he served under Colonel Macomb of the United States Engineer Corps, then in charge of the Upper Mississippi River Improvement. In 1877 he took a Government contract to convey up the Missouri, Yellowstone and Little Big Horn Rivers (the latter never before navigated), the material for the building of Forts Custer and Keough, in Montana, the freight being secured at Bismarck, Dakota, then the Western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. This was immediately after the Custer massacre, when the region in which he operated was full of great peril. Captain Davis, however, knew no fear, and fulfilled his contract with promptness and with satisfaction to all concerned. Then he returned to Rock Island and became connected with the Diamond Jo Packet Company, commanding one of its best steamers running between St. Louis and St. Paul. In 1883 his services in another arduous undertaking were demanded and he accepted an offer from the Hudson Bay Fur Company to superintend a line of boats on the Saskatchewan River, in Canada. He had been thus engaged for two years when the Riel rebellion broke out and the Canadian Government secured his services in transporting troops on the South Saskatchewan, a stream which had never before been navigated. After the capture of Riel and the collapse of the rebellion, Captain Davis once more returned to Rock Island and to the employ of “Diamond Jo” Reynolds. Being appointed master of the “Libbie Conger,” he commanded that boat one season and then served in a similar capacity on the “Sidney.” In 1888 he resigned to become associated with a syndicate of capitalists in the construction of a steel hull packet, which was intended to be used for passenger business only and was expected to work a revolution in transportation between St. Louis and St. Paul. This project was never consummated, for the Captain yielded to the wishes of his family and turned his attention from the river to other enterprises. For two years prior to his death he was associated with his sons, T. B. and S. S. Davis, in developing an electric light and power plant in Rock Island and Moline.

Captain Davis was united in marriage with Miss Anna E. Sharpe, March 13, 1855. His wife was the daughter of Dr. Samuel K. Sharpe, a prominent physician and surgeon. Both her parents were natives of Kentucky, their home being for many years at Maysville. They first came to Rock Island in 1857 and remained three years in Rock Island and Moline, during which time Dr. Sharpe practiced his profession. They then returned to Kentucky and resided there till 1875, when they took up their permanent residence in Rock Island. Mrs. Sharpe died at Rock Island June 6, 1881, at the age of seventy-five years. Dr. Sharpe passed away in Rock Island May 22, 1890, at the age of ninety years. He was an exceptionally strong man, mentally and physically, and was of pronounced religious views, giving adherence to the Presbyterian Faith.

Five children were born to Captain and Mrs. Davis, two daughters dying in infancy. The survivors are T. B. Davis, S. S. Davis, and Mary Davis, all of Rock Island. Captain Davis was essentially a man of action. Bearing responsibilities never detracted from his good nature, and angry words and fault finding were alike foreign to him.

Kind hearted and generous to a fault, always ready to aid others to the full extent of his ability, and never seeking publicity or preferment, won for him the good will and personal popularity he enjoyed wherever he was known.


Biographical Publishing Company. Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock Island County. Illinois; Chicago: Biographical Pub. Co.

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