Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

W. T. Montgomery, Black Bonanza Farmer


On this date in 1890, the "Fargo Sunday Argus" published two different stories about William Thornton Montgomery and his brother, Isaiah. William’s story was a biographical sketch about his move to North Dakota. Isaiah’s story covered a lengthy speech he delivered during the Mississippi Constitutional Convention in 1890. Isaiah was the only black delegate, and his speech was so eloquent, that the "New York World" printed it verbatim. So did the "Fargo Argus."

The Mongomery brothers’ father, Benjamin, was born into slavery in Virginia, and was just an adolescent when he was abruptly sold to Joseph Davis of Mississippi. Joe Davis was the brother of the future Confederate President, Jefferson Davis; the two brothers held adjoining plantations along the Mississippi River – the Hurricane and Brierfield.

Young Benjamin immediately ran away from his new owner. Joe Davis caught him, but rather than punishing Ben, he sat down to asked for reasons why. This was the type of act that defined the Davis brothers’ comparatively enlightened attitude toward slaves. The Davis men owned about 550 slaves and were known for their surprisingly humane attitudes toward slaves – generous housing and food allotments, periodic access to education, and a limited amount of self-government. Slaves had managerial positions and were even allowed to run their own businesses.

Ben’s son, Isaiah later wrote, “Father possessed a slight knowledge of reading and writing. Mr. Davis encouraged it, and he came to have a fair education and learned to be a proficient mechanic, machinist and civil engineer, using his talents for the advancement of his master. He conducted a small mercantile business on his own account, keeping accounts with all members of the family, Mr. Jefferson Davis, included. He gradually accumulated a fair library.”

Benjamin married a seamstress named Mary, and they had four children at Hurricane. William, who they called Thornton, was born in 1843 and Isaiah was born four years later; there were also two sisters. The children were educated by their father and also by a slave named George Stewart. The family thrived, and Ben became Joe Davis’s personal business manager. Ben’s contemporaries, both black and white, also recognized his exceptional mechanical abilities. River dikes that he designed and constructed on the plantations are still intact today.

As the Civil War crept closer and closer, Union raids and river gunboats disrupted the plantations. Jefferson Davis became the president of the confederacy, and Joseph went into voluntary exile in a remote spot. Ben and Isaiah joined Union Admiral David Porter’s river boat forces, and William joined the Navy, serving as an officer’s steward on the U.S.S. Carondelet.

The end of the Civil War brought chaos to the south and newly freed slaves. Montgomery and his sons became leaders in restoring order to the plantation. On November 19, 1866, they signed an agreement to buy both Davis plantations for $300,000.

The Montgomerys knew that, during a gun battle on the River, a Confederate boat had thrown cotton bales overboard to lighten their load. They fished out five or six bales, sold them for $1800, and started a small business, Montgomery and Sons. For the next decade, they raised cotton on the plantation, producing 2-3,000 bales a year.

The bottom fell out of the cotton market in the late 1800s, and the Montgomery family retired from the business. Shortly after that, William headed for Dakota Territory to grow wheat. Tune in tomorrow to hear about his venture near Christine and Walcott.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm