Genealogy Trails washington dc
Genealogy Trails

Volunteers Dedicated to Free Genealogy
Submit Data Submit Obituary Washington D.C. Trails Genealogy Trails

Washington D.C. Genealogy Trails

John Davis of Abel
September 27, 1774 - January 22, 1853
Furnished by : John G. Sharp


John Davis of Abel was born in Newark, Delaware, September 27, 1774 and
died January 22, 1853 in the District of Columbia.
The surname "Davis of Abel" is of Welch origin.

In the year 1797, Davis went to sea in the American merchant vessel Fidelity. In the harbor of St. Pierre, on the island of Martinique, Davis was impressed (forcibly recruited) by the British Navy and was only released through the good offices of the American Consulate in St. Pierre. John Davis most likely met Benjamin King senior, Master Blacksmith, while the two were in the Caribbean. John Davis may have first worked as a Blacksmith in Baltimore with King and through Benjamin King's introduction moved into the District of Columbia about 1800 working as a Master Plumber for King.1 According to Davis's granddaughter, John Davis built a residence near King's house about 1802. When later Washington Navy Yard Commandant Commodore Thomas Tingey decided to hire Davis he noted:

"The industry, sobriety and abilities of Mr. Davis, are I presume, sufficiently known to the Board, to need no observations of mine thereon, farther then to state that in my opinion his immediate services, will be peculiarly advantageous to this establishment."2
In 1804, Benjamin King and John Davis both worked in President Thomas Jefferson's White House installing the first water closets and rain gutters.3 John Davis's reputation as a highly skilled and dependable workman led to other calls over the years for his expertise at the White House and for the Congress. In the early 19th century, the occupations of plumber and blacksmith were closely linked. Early plumbers typically made, installed, and repaired lead pipes; especially for drains and water closets. Blacksmiths forged, repaired and annealed iron, steel and copper objects such as ship anchors and cooking stoves and utensils. As the WNY Master Blacksmith and Plumber, John Davis, was a salaried employee and was initially hired at the annual salary of $1,000.004 per annum. His high salary plus others economic incentives made Davis among the most prosperous of the yard workers. John Davis had a farm on the heights of Georgetown called "Oak View." Davis seems to have been respected by the Yard worker and in 1807 was elected Sergeant of the Navy Yard Rifle Company. American militia units typically elected their officers and non commissioned officers.5 The Yard Rifle Company was created as a result of the martial fervor aroused by the Chesapeake affair of 1807 when the British Navy stopped the American vessel on the high seas and forcibly impressed American sailors. In the years 1812 and 1813, John Davis was elected to civic office as alderman and a member of the District of Columbia City Council.6 In 1813, he was responsible for drawing up some of the plans for the defense of the City.7

Davis, at various times, had numerous apprentices8 and owned slaves whom he leased to the Navy Yard.9 During the war of 1812, Davis took all the Navy yard records and other valuable documents in his wagon to Montgomery County, Maryland for safe keeping when the Navy Yard was burnt on 24 August 1814 to prevent its capture by the British forces.

Davis was a Master Mason and a member of Naval Lodge Number 4. He lived on Capitol Hill for some years between 10th and 11th Streets, S.E., and later near the Congressional Cemetery. While Benjamin King and some of the other WNY Master Mechanics were known for their rough and exuberant manners, John Davis was a leading member of the Baptist Church and an active subscriber to Baptist missionary efforts. Davis was also a member of the old Volunteer Fire Company of Anacostia, D.C., and for many years its treasurer. In 1829, John Davis may have had a serious falling out with his old friend and mentor, Benjamin King. That year, the Board of Navy Commissioners conducted an inquiry of Benjamin Kings' alleged improprieties with regard to government property and John Davis was a central witness.10

John Davis was described as of medium height and build, and although having suffered the loss of an eye, is said never to have worn glasses. John Davis and his second wife, Sarah Walker Davis (Sep. 14, 1787 - Sep. 13, 1881), are buried at the Congressional Cemetery R55/16 /17. The 1850 census for the District of Columbia, enumerates John Davis of Abel, as working as "Finisher". Finishers were highly skilled metal workers who polished and buffed forged metal objects. Davis is listed as 75 years of age, his wife Sarah is 63 years and their son Charles W. Davis, a physician, 44 years old. The Davis household had three slaves.11 John Davis and his second wife Sarah Walker Davis (Sarah was 94 at her death in 1881) had five children.
---(The Washington Post, September 13, 1881)

At the age 78, John Davis of Abel died on January 22, 1853 in the District of Columbia.


Grave of John Davis of Abel
John Davis of Abel is buried in the Congressional Cemetery R55/16.
His wife Sarah Walker Davis's adjoining grave can be seen to the left side of this photo.

John Davis of Abel, was for many years, the Master Plumber of the Washington Navy Yard.
He is listed on the Washington Navy Yard payroll document dated 1819.
See : 1819 Payroll Document

John Davis of Abel, is also listed on the apprentice indenture of Joseph Holroyd, dated 1826.
See : Apprentice Indenture document

John Davis of Abel
writes of being Impressed into the Royal Navy

From the end of the Revolution till the conclusion of the War of 1812. American merchant crewman and some sailors on US naval vessels were at risk of impressments by British naval forces. Typically ships were stopped on the high seas and a party of British sailors and marines accompanied by their officers would board the vessel and take anyone who did not have documents proving their American nationality. As Washington Navy Yard Master Blacksmith, John Davis of Abel (1774 -1853) makes clear in his letter to the National Intelligencer of October 12, 1813 wherein, he recounts, his 1797 impressment ( forcible recruitment) by the Royal Navy. He also notes his extremely rare good fortune, that the American Vice Consul was able to secure his rapid release.

In transcribing this newspaper account I have used the spelling, punctuation strikes, abbreviations, use of ampersands, etc., of the original document.

John G. Sharp         July 14, 2008

To the editors of the National Intelligencer
In the month of February, 1797 I belonged to the Ship Fidelity, Captain Charles Weems, lying in the harbour of St. Pierre Martinique. About one o'clock Sunday morning, I was awakened by a noise on the deck, and going up, I found the ship in possession of a press gang. In a few minutes all hands were forced on board the Ceres frigate. We were ordered on the gun deck until day light by which time about 80 Americans were collected.

Soon after sunrise, the ships crew were ordered into the cabin to be overhauled. Each was questioned as to his name &c when I was called on for my place of birth and I answered "New Castle Delaware". The captain offered not to hear the last; but said "Aye Newcastle he's a collier; the very man. I warrant him a sailor" "Send him down to the doctor" Upon which a petty officer - whom I recognized as one of the press gang made answer "Sir I know this fellow" "He is a schoolmate of mine and his name is Kelly. He was born in Belfast Tom you know me well enough so don't sham Yankee any more"

The next was a Prussian who had come aboard in Hamburg as a carpenter of the Fidelity in September, 1796 - He offered when questioned not to understand English; but answered in Dutch. upon which the captain laughed and said "this is no Yankee Send him down and let the quartermaster put in with the Dutchmen; they will understand him and the boatswain will learn him to talk English" He was accordingly kept. I was afterwards discharged by the order of Admiral Harvey on application of Mr Craig, at that time American vice consul. I further observed that a full one third of the crew were impressed Americans.

John Davis of Abel         Oct. 12, 1813

Last Will & Testament of John Davis of Abel
September 27, 1774 - January 22, 1853
Transcription method:
This transcription was made from a copy of the holographic Last Will and Testament of John Davis of Abel, filed in the District of Columbia Orphans Court. John Davis of Abel's Last Will and Testament is on file as 1853 Box 22, in the District of Columbia Archives.
In transcribing this document I have used the spelling, punctuation strikes, abbreviations, use of ampersands, etc., of the original document. Where possible I have identified individuals mentioned in the will in the endnotes.

In the Name of God Amen. I John Davis of Abel12 of the District of Columbia and county of Washington do make ordain constitute and appoint this my last Will and Testament revoking and annulling all others heretofore made.

      It is my Will & desire and I hereby bequeath unto my Daughter Caroline Coote13 the sum of Five Hundred dollars to be paid to her brother Abel G. Davis14 who I hereby appoint as her Trustee in this behalf within six months after my decease, should she yet bear children and be dead herself, then this legacy to go to such child or children, but in case of her death before me without issue then this bequest be null & void.

      Secondly It is my Will and desire that all the real and residue of my estate real personal and mixed be the right and estate of my beloved wife Sarah Davis (formerly Walker) during her natural life; should it so happen that she should marry again, then in that case she shall retain only one third thereof, but should she remain single and unmarried the whole of my estate (with the exception above stated to Caroline) to be at her absolute disposal and controul.

      As both my sons Charles15 and Abel are provided with ample means of support I am induced to make this disposition of my property and estate to insure the comfort and support of their mother, who I well know would share her last morsel with them in weal or woe.

      And I do hereby nominate constitute and appoint by beloved Wife Executrix of this my last Will and Testament. In Testimony whereof I hereunto set my hand and affix my seal this twenty third day of December in the year of our Lord 1837.

Signed and sealed published                         [Signed] John Davis of Abel {SEAL}
pronounced and declared by
the Testator to be his last Will
& Testament in our presence who
have hereunto at the request of the
Testator & in his presence & in the
presence of each other subscribed
our names as Witness hereto

  Phillip Inch 16
Amon Woodward 17    
John Holroyd18
[Signed] March 1/53

District of Columbia
Washington County February 25, 1853
            This duly appoints Sarah Davis the Executrix
            named in the foregoing instrument of witness purporting
            to be the last will & testament of John Davis of Abel,
            late of Washington County aforesaid deceased & solemnly
            sincerely truly affirmed that the aforegoing is the true whole
            & last will & testament of John Davis of Abel
            deceased & that she doth no know of any other.

Sworn before
                                    Ed N. Roach Rec of Wills [Signed]

District of Columbia Orphans Court
Washington County to wit March 5- 1853-

      This day appeared Amon Woodward one of the subscriber Witness to the aforegoing last will & testament of John Davis of Abel late of Washington County aforesaid, deceased Sworn oath on the Holy Evangels of almighty God, that He did see the Testator wherein named sign seal this will that he published pronounced & declared the same to be his last will & testament of his apprehension of sound & disposing mind memory & understanding & that together with Phillip Inch & John Holroyd the other subscribers as Witnesses to this will; in the presence & at the request of the Testator & in the presence of each other-

            Test; Ed N. Roach Rec of Wills

District of Columbia Orphans Court
Washington, County to wit March 8, 1853
      This day appeared John Holroyd one of the subscribers witness to the foregong last will & testament of John Davis of Able late of Washington County aforesaid deceased & made oath on the Holy Evangels of Almighty God that he did see the Testator therein named sign & seal this will; that he published pronounced the foresaid to be his last will & Testament that at the time of so doing he was to
      [here document breaks off - page missing?]


End Notes

1 Benjamin King business with John Davis of Abel "Said Davis was engaged in business at the time (1801) with Benjamin King, the brother of Mrs. Yool." Reports of the Committees of the House, A.O.P Nicholson Printers, Washington, DC, 1854. page 2 and see Washington Personal recollections of early Washington and a sketch of the life of Captain William Easby, a paper read before the Oldest Inhabitants of the District June 4, 1913 by Mrs. Wilhelmine M. Easby -Smith published by the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, Washington DC 1913 p. 20 and also The Olive Branch or the Faults of Both Sides Federal & Democratic The Olive Branch, Matthew Carrey, published Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1815 page 213 reprints a 12 October 1813 letter of John Davis of Abel, to the National Intelligencer of Davis service on the merchant vessel Fidelity, being pressed at Sr. Pierre Martinique and his release. That Benjamin King and John Davis may have met in the Caribbean is conjectural but Benjamin H. Latrobe notes in his Journal that Benjamin King fought with the French Army in Santo Domingo 1799-1801 placing both men in the same area which makes such a meeting possible, see Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1799-1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans Volume 3 p 67-69

2 Commodore Thomas Tingey letter to Commodore John Rodgers dated 17 September 1815 National Archives and Records Administration, RG 45.

3 John Davis & the White House note 6 and The letter of Commodore John Rodgers to Commodore Thomas Tingey, dated 20 May 1817,
The Commissioners of the Board has decided that the President house _ you will instruct Mr. Davis and other necessary assistants to attend to this work - the Commissioner of the public buildings will pay the wages of those employed and will pay the wages of those on this operation. It is expected that in two days all the work require may be completed. The amount which the commissioners may pay to Mr. Davis must be deducted from his salary, and the names of the persons employed, must during such employment, be stricken from the Rolls of the Yard.

4 John Davis of Abel salary is listed at for 1819 is at

5 John Davis of Abel & the Yard Rifle Company
Benjamin Henry Latrobe Washington Navy Yard engineer in a letter to John Mason dated 17 July 1807 conveys his reaction to the creation of the Yard Rifle Company. "Upon the whole I find that the Navy Yard cannot perhaps produce a single good rifleman. But if there were more then one to be found, no know better then yourself that to acquire competent skill as a marksman much leisure devoted to constant practice is necessary. This leisure the mechanics of the Yard can only obtain, by sacrifice of their time and pay, a sacrifice which they can, nor will make. If they had resolved to organize themselves into a Company of Artillerists, they would I think have made a better choice..." The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe Volume 2 1805-1810 Edited By John Van Horne Yale University Press New Haven 1986 p.453-454. The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser for March 23, 1808 carries the notice that "Navy Yard Rifle Volunteers meet at the House of Lt. Dobbins - John Davis of Able, 1st Sergeant."

6 John Davis of Abel & membership on the District of Columbia City Counsel
John Davis of Abel was an alderman on the 10th and 11th council 1812 and 1813 repetitively. See Forms of Local Government in the District of Columbia by Wilhelmus Bogart 1903 Bryan p. 32, published by McGill and Wallace, Washington DC In a letter Thomas Tingey to John Rodgers dated 29 July 1816 related Davis's resignation
In consequence of your letter of 23 inst: I caused a fully enquiry to be made, what mechanics employed in this yard, "are holders of civil offices within the city" and learned that there are only two Viz Mr. Jn Davis of Able, who is a member of the city council , but will resign it. The other is Th. Halliday who is only a journeyman, and consequently when absent from the yard can receive no pay, being in such cases checked on the Muster roll of the yard. Mr. Halliday is unwilling to resign his seat.

7 John Davis of Abel & the defense of the City.
John Davis was appointed at mass meting on 8 May 1813 of the District of Columbia citizens to a committee for the defense of the City. Centennial History of Washington DC with Full Outline (no author given) United Brethren Publishing Company, Dayton Ohio 1892 p2 .

8 John Davis of Abel & his apprentices,
John Davis, like other Yard Master Mechanics had over the years employed and trained numerous apprentices one of whom was William Easby Hutchinson, (1827-1907) his nephew, see District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeships Volume V, 415 - 416.

9 John Davis of Abel & his slaves:
Like many of WNY Naval Officers and senior civilian employees John Davis owned slaves whom he leased to the Yard, the exact number varied The 1850 Census for the District of Columbia Slave Schedules enumerate John Davis of Abel as possessing three slaves a 47 year old enslaved female, and two enslaved males listed s age 20 and 16 years of age respectively. In 1815 Commandant Thomas Tingey wrote:
as Mr. Davis is now appointed, I mention to the Board that he owns a Black man who has worked in the Shop for several years at full wages, he owns a black apprentice at 75cts per day and has a white apprentice - its is his wish to employ them in the Shop , if this indulgence is allowed on the first beginning the Board will find there never will be any end to the applications for apprentices.
Sources: Letter, WNY Commandant, Commodore Thomas Tingey to Commodore John Rodgers, President, Board of Navy Commissioners dated 15 August 1815 & District of Columbia Slave Schedule

10 John Davis of Abel witness
re Investigation of Benjamin King 12-20 dated February 1829 Records of the Board of Naval Commissioners. National Archives and Records Administration RG45 transcription below of these unpublished records is mine.

He has no personal knowledge of any fact or circumstances of later years, which would lead to a belief of any peculation on the part of Mr. King or his son Robert. About 20 years ago, some lead & copper belonging to the yard was used in putting gutters to a house which Mr. King was building. Some years ago before the yard was burnt Mr. King was in the habit of sending his boys out to his house, during public time & after answering Muster in the Yard who were employed in digging his garden to private purposes. In the year 1806 when the Shop in the Yard was building, Mr. King had a number of fires outside of the yard doing public work considerable quantities of Iron was sent out for this purpose; when his public shop was completed & the workmen had returned to the yard, the iron that was left was said to have been sold by Mr King. Witness was subsequently told by Mr. Smith a blacksmith, that he had received public Iron from Mr. King. He does not know that any report was made at the time, or that any investigation took place. Two grates were made in the Yard for Mr. King's house when building, in the years 1805 or 6 -

11 John Davis of Abel 1850 census information a finisher is a specialized metal working trade involving the finishing or polishing of objects

12 John Davis of Abel (1774 -1853) WNY Master Black Smith, for a short biography of John Davis of Abel,
see above biography at beginning of this page.

13 Caroline Coote nee Davis of Abel despite a through search I was unable to find any documentation regarding Davis's daughter Caroline.

14 Abel G. Davis (abt 1812 -1872)
The 1850 census for the District of Columbia, enumerates Abel Davis as 38 years of age, a finisher and having property worth $500.00, his wife Mary E. is 38 and they have one child living with them, their daughter Francis age 20. The census for the District of Columbia slave schedule year 1850 lists Abel G. Davis as owning one slave. The 1870 census reflects Abel Davis's rising prosperity his worth is now $15,000.00 real-estate and he has $ 3,000 in personal property and two domestic servants.

15 Charles W. Davis (1806 -1870) is enumerated as a physician Charles lives with his parents and apparently is unmarried.

16 Phillip Inch WNY Master Painter died 28 January 1844. Inch was the Supervisor of Michael Shiner WNY slave & later freeman who kept a diary. Both John Davis of Able and Phillip Inch are mentioned by Shiner.

17 Amon Woodward, is listed in the Washington Directory for 1827 as "city pump maker residing at south side En btw 12 and 13 w "

18 John Holroyd became John Davis apprentice in 1826 and served under him for six years as an apprentice.

Genealogy Trails
Copyright © Genealogy Trails 2006 -
All rights reserved for original submitters.