by S. Robert Lathan ’59
Most Davidsonians know that the college was named for General William Lee Davidson. But how many understand the complex relationships between the Davidsons and the Graham and Morrison families? The following is an attempt to clarify these connections with brief biographical sketches.
General William Lee Davidson was born in 1746 in Lancaster, Pa., where his father, George, had moved from Northern Ireland in 1740. The family later moved down the Great Wagon Road to settle in southern Rowan County, which is now Iredell. William Lee Davidson was educated near Charlotte at an academy, probably a boys’ school, connected with the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church. He was left fatherless at age 13, when George died in 1759.
In 1767, Davidson married Mary Brevard. They had seven children. In 1772, he became a captain in the Rowan County militia, and later adjutant to Col. Griffith Rutherford. He was promoted to major in the Continental Army in 1776, and established his headquarters in Salisbury. In 1777, Major Davidson marched north to Pennsylvania and was “comrade in arms” with General “Light Horse Harry” Lee. He was with Lee, George Washington, and Daniel Morgan at Valley Forge, and was eventually promoted to colonel.
Davidson moved back to North Carolina in 1780, where he was wounded in battle at Colson’s Mill. He recovered and was appointed brigadier general of the North Carolina militia of the Salisbury District, replacing General Rutherford, who had been captured at Camden. In September 1780, Davidson and Col. William R. Davie organized the militia near Charlotte in opposing Lord Cornwallis, who famously called the area the “Hornet’s Nest.” (Davie was later Governor of North Carolina and helped choose Chapel Hill as the site for the University of North Carolina).
Davidson had sent Joseph Graham’s cavalry troops to work with Davie and later was with him at Cowan’s Ford. The general was very busy in Charlotte recruiting and organizing the militia, and was said to be the most popular man in the region. His militia created the nucleus for the troops who won the battles of Kings Mountain in October 1780 and Cowpens in January 1781.
Davidson was killed (shot from his horse) at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford on February 1, 1781, on the Catawba River, while opposing the re-entry of Cornwallis into North Carolina.William Lee Davidson’s cousin, Major John Davidson, had aided the transportation of the defense of William on the Catawba. Also, William Lee Davidson allegedly spent the night before Cowan’s Ford at Rural Retreat, the home of John Davidson, who lent him his best horse, which returned riderless four miles south back to Rural Retreat. William Lee Davidson was buried in the Hopewell Presbyterian Churchyard north of Charlotte on Beatties Ford Road.
William Lee Davidson had been the driving force of the area’s resistance to Cornwallis.
William Lee Davidson II was only 1 month old when his father, General William Lee Davidson, was killed at the battle of Cowan’s Ford.
He grew up in Mecklenburg County, and in 1805 was married to his cousin, Elizabeth (Betsy) Lee Davidson, the youngest daughter of Major John Davidson of Rural Hill. No children were born from this union. In 1829, he erected a Federal style home, Beaver Dam, on his 785-acre plantation two miles east of Davidson. Major John Davidson made his final home there in 1823 with his daughter Betsy and son-in-law William Lee Davidson II. He died at Beaver Dam in 1832.
William Lee Davidson II was a Presbyterian elder and a member of the committee of Concord Presbytery, whose purpose was to select a school to be founded by the Presbytery. In 1835, the committee met at Beaver Dam and decided to name the institution “Davidson College” as a tribute to the memory of General William Lee Davidson, who had donated the land for the college.
Beaver Dam was later the home of Chalmers G. Davidson ’28 (1907-1944), author, historian, professor, and librarian at Davidson College, and a direct descendent of Major John Davidson.
MAJOR JOHN DAVIDSON (1735-1832)
Major John Davidson, a distant cousin of William Lee Davidson, was born in 1735 in Lancaster County, Pa.
He was apprenticed as a blacksmith, and in his mid-20s moved to Mecklenburg County. He married Violet Wilson (the daughter of a plantation owner) in 1761. Their first home was a log cabin called “Rural Retreat” (later, a plantation on the site was called Rural Hill). John Davidson served as justice of the peace in Mecklenburg County and was a delegate from the county to the North Carolina Assembly in New Bern. He also was one of the 27 signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. He operated a cotton plantation and iron works (grist mill, saw mill, a blacksmith shop, schools, and a brick-making facility). He founded the Catawba River Valley iron industry.
In 1775, he was appointed Major in the Mecklenburg militia and served under General Rutherford. He was an active “Hornet” and later was with the Salisbury Brigade.
John Davidson was a distant cousin of General William Lee Davidson. He and his wife, Violet, had 10 children (three sons and seven daughters).
In 1823, at the age of 88, John retired to Beaver Dam to live with his daughter and son-in-law. He turned Rural Hill over to his son, John, and his grandson, Adam Brevard Davidson (1808-1876), who supplied the lumber to build Davidson College from his sawmills at Rural Hill. Adam Brevard was a Davidson College Trustee from 1844 to 1877 and had two sons educated at Davidson College.
General Joseph Graham was born in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina near Charlotte when he was 7 years old. He was educated at Liberty Hall Academy (along with William Davie) and was present on May 20, 1775, when the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was made.
In 1778, he entered the North Carolina militia and served as major under General Rutherford, and later under William Lee Davidson, who in 1780 ordered him to Charlotte to oppose Cornwallis. He rose to the rank of General and at age 21 became a Revolutionary War hero after surviving seven stab wounds in battle. Overall, he commanded 15 engagements in the Revolutionary War.
After the war, he was elected the first sheriff of Mecklenburg County, and he served in the State Senate from 1788 to 1794. His daughter Mary married Rev. Robert Hall Morrison, the first president of Davidson College. His son William became governor of North Carolina, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of the Navy.
In 1787, he was married to Isabella (1764-1808), the second daughter of Major John Davidson. By this marriage, he had 12 children. Later he moved to Lincoln County, established a large iron foundry and accumulated large land holdings.
General Joseph Graham was the father of William A. Graham (1804-1875), a lawyer, legislator, and an 1824 graduate of the University of North Carolina. William was also Governor of North Carolina (1845-1849), U.S. Senator, Secretary of the Navy (1850-1853), Confederate Senator, and Whig Vice Presidential candidate in 1852. Joseph Graham’s daughter Mary (1801-1864) married Rev. Robert Hall Morrison (1798-1869), the first President of Davidson College.
Joseph Graham is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Lincolnton, N.C., along with Rev. Morrison.
Rev. Robert Hall Morrison was father-in-law to three Confederate generals:
D.H. Hill (who married Isabella Morrison in 1848), Rufus Barringer (who married Eugenia Morrison in 1854), and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (who married Mary Ann Morrison in 1857).
Robert Hall Morrison graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1818 (third in his class). He studied theology at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1820 to 1821, and became a Presbyterian minister. In 1823, he was visiting preacher to Hillsboro, N.C., where he met his future wife, Mary Graham (the daughter of George Joseph Graham), who was visiting her brother William. (Mary was the daughter of George Joseph Graham.) They married in 1824 at Vesuvius Furnace in Lincoln County. Robert Hall Morrison preached at Fayetteville until 1827 and later at Sugar Creek Presbytery in Mecklenburg County and then at the Congregation of Charlotte (now the First Presbyterian Church). While acting minister at Presbyterian churches, he noted the lack of trained clergy coming out of the state colleges.
In 1835, Rev. Morrison began raising $30,000 from Presbyterians in the Piedmont sections of North Carolina and South Carolina to build a school for boys. Davidson College was launched in 1837, and Rev. Morrison was the first president. In 1840, he resigned from Davidson College for health reasons and retired to his plantation, “Cottage Home,” in Lincoln County, N.C. He farmed and preached near there for almost 50 years.
It is interesting that General William Lee Davidson, General Graham and Major John Davidson were all born in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina and all fought in the Revolutionary War. Also fascinating is that Joseph Graham and John Davidson were both prominent land owners and iron entrepreneurs.
This is the full text – the printed magazine excerpted portions of this story.