When the “Nearest White Person” is Jefferson Davis

The Nervis family of East Carroll, Louisiana and Warren, Mississippi is an affiliated line of the Atlas family. Read about their connection to the former President of the Confederate States of America and the Exoduster movement. Photo: Home of Jefferson Davis, three generations. Source: Library of Congress.

The Nervis family are not strangers to me.  In fact, they are my cousins through my Atlas line, and until recently, I only knew a lot about the family members who made that connection take place – Frank Nervis, Sr. (1916-1997) and Nancy Ruth Russell Nervis (1916-1996).

Frank Nervis and Nancy Russell Nervis.
Frank Nervis and Nancy Russell Nervis. Source: Nervis family.

Frank Nervis, Sr. is Not Really Frank Sr.?

Frank Nervis, Sr. was born September 22, 1916(1) in Lake Providence, East Carroll, Louisiana.  He was oldest child and possibly only son of Frank Nervis and Rosa Lee McDaniel.  Frank Sr. was a farmer in East Carroll and was one of the first 26 African American voters in the parish to vote since Reconstruction as part of a landmark voting rights case (for more on this, click here.) He married Nancy Ruth Russell Nervis on December 29, 1935 and they had seven children.  Frank died on February 13, 1997 (1)(2) in Lake Providence, East Carroll, Louisiana. Nancy was my maternal grandmother’s first cousin.

A Short Life – The Original Frank Nervis, or Frank I

Frank Sr.’s  father, also named Frank, only lived to see age 36 (3) while his widow, Rosa Lee, was left to raise their children, most of whom were under the age of 18.  Frank and Rosa Lee were likely married between 1910-1920 and were documented as husband and wife in 1920, while living in Madison Parish, Louisiana (4), and in 1930, living in nearby East Carroll, Louisiana (5). Frank I was a farmer, could read and write, had four children with Rosa Lee, and died on March 22, 1934 in East Carroll, Louisiana.

Despite his short life and being born during “The Black Hole,” I was able to trace Frank, herein referred to as Frank I, to his parents, William Nervis and Julia A. Johnson Nervis through US Federal Census records (1900, 1910). (6) (7)

Frank Nervis Sr and his two sisters.
Frank Nervis Sr and two sisters. Source: Clifton Jackson.

From Warren, Mississippi to East Carroll, Louisiana

In 1910, Frank I and his parents, William and Julia, were living in East Carroll but in 1900 and 1880, they were in Warren County, MS. William was a farmer born in Mississippi and Julia was a homemaker born in Mississippi. (7) (8) The jury is still out on why they left Warren County for East Carroll Parish, but their close proximity suggests it may have been for more opportunity or because other family members had relocated to the area.

© 2010, ns2 photography | http://www.ns2photography.com

William and Julia were married on January 7, 1875 in Warren County, MS. (9) William was approximately 25 years old and Julia was about 21 years of age.  They had the following children:

  1. Lewis Nervis, born about 1877 in Mississippi
  2. Cane Nervis, born about 1878 in Mississippi
  3. William Nervis, Jr., born about 1886 in Mississippi
  4. Julia Nervis, born about 1888 in Mississippi
  5. Lucy Nervis, born between 1876-1877 in Mississippi
  6. Lizzie Nervis, born between 1890-1892 in Mississippi; and
  7. Frank Nervis, born November 12, 1897 in Vicksburg, Warren, MS, died March 22, 1934 in Lake Providence, East Carroll, LA
© 2010, ns2 photography | http://www.ns2photography.com
As with many southern counties, records in Warren County MS were segregated by race. These are marriage books for the “colored” (aka black, Negro, African American).

1870…and the nearest white person

Researchers focused on African American genealogy have tried many strategies over the years to narrow down the last slaveholder of their formerly enslaved ancestors. One of the most practiced strategies is “looking for the nearest white person” living near the formerly enslaved ancestor on 1870 US Census. This is usually done to generate a solid lead since the 1870 US Census was taken just five years following the 13th Amendment. Sometimes this tactic is successful, but in my experience, I’ve found that it is not 100 percent foolproof. I’ve seen folks spending decades chasing down “the nearest white person” only to end up emptyhanded.  *Raises both hands* But I digress, especially since well, keep reading.  LOL

© 2010, ns2 photography | http://www.ns2photography.com
The Old Warren County MS Courthouse in Vicksburg.

In 1870, I found an 18 year old Wiliam Nervis living in Davis Bend, Warren, MS. (10)  Wait. Davis Bend? You mean the same Davis Bend that had the plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother, Joseph Emory Davis? (11) Why yes, it was THAT Davis Bend.

Brothers Jefferson and Joseph Davis had adjacent plantations on what was known as Davis Bend (now Davis Island), about twenty miles down the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. Joseph built his “Hurricane” estate in the 1820s, and Jefferson began clearing “Brierfield” in 1835. The modest main house…was constructed in 1848 after Davis returned from the Mexican War. After the Civil War, Davis had to sue the heirs of Joseph E. Davis to regain possession of the plantation, which he did in 1878. The house was destroyed by fire in 1931, and the grounds are currently a private hunting reserve, inaccessible by land transportation. (11)

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis. Source: National Archives.

Since William was born in Mississippi between 1849-1851, he likely was born right after Brierfield was built. But, if I was going to tie William to the Davis family, I would need more definitive proof than just the fact that he was living in the area that held their plantations during slavery.  It’s more than possible that he could have migrated there from elsewhere. So, I then went searching for more…and boy, did I find it.

Slave quarters of Jefferson Davis plantation, circa 1860-1870. Source: Library of Congress
Slave quarters of Jefferson Davis plantation, circa 1860-1870. Source: Library of Congress

A Letter to My Missus

Jefferson Davis died December 6, 1889.(11) Letters poured in from his associates and even his former slaves.  One of those former slaves was William Nervis.(12)

How much more proof did I need? 🙂 Of course though, things got even more interesting.

Mississippi to Kansas

After some Googling, I came across another tie to Mississippi history. I unearthed a letter from Isaiah T. Montgomery to the Kansas Governor John P. St. John dated May 23, 1879.(13) Isaiah was a former slave of Joseph Emory Davis and his father, Benjamin Montgomery, managed Hurricane Plantation and eventually purchased it from Joseph. (14) So, it’s more than likely that both Isaiah and Benjamin knew William well.

In Isaiah’s letter, he details the migration of 25 African American families from Mississippi to Kansas from March 5, 1879 to April 1, 1879 and the horrible conditions they faced on their journey and upon their arrival, as seen through his own eyes and through an account he heard from William Nervis.

They most all concentrated at Wyandotte, and while there through one of their number Wm Nervis frequently advised me of their destitute and suffering condition, and finally asked that some arrangement be made for them to return home. Our firm immediately placed the necessary funds in St Louis Mo. And I wrote Nervis giving the proper explanation to make the money available, at the same time stating that I would come up if telegraphed for. In answer to that letter came the enclosed telegram, worded as follows (Kansas City Mo 22/79 recd at Vicksburg Apr 22nd 1879 To

Page 2

Dr Bowmar. Tell Montgomery meet me St Louis with the people that left Bend W M Neras (should be Nervis) On receipt of this dispatch I immediately, left for St Louis. arriving there I learned the people were still in Kansas City in Wyandotte and concluded to go on up there where I met them found many sick and them all in bad condition generally some eight or ten had died of the rest some were living in improvised board shanties, some in Box Cars that happened to be left near the Elevator many were camping on the River Bank. They were apparently overjoyed to meet me. (13)

Now, why on earth would they have left Mississippi for Kansas? They were seeking a better life as newly emancipated people.

The Exodusters, as they are commonly referred to, numbered at least 1,000 and caused a stir as they made an attempt inhabit new communities that weren’t prepared for their arrival.(15) Promises of assistance abounded, but lodging and nutritional sustenance were issues and boiling racial tensions following the Civil War made the situation even worse.

Locals of African descent and European descent formed committees to assist migrants in getting to their final destination but cities, such as Kansas City, KS, refused to accept the Exodusters.(15)

Isaiah appealed to the Governor St. John for support to relocate the Davis Bend families back home.  It’s unclear whether or not the state of Kansas provided support. What we do know is that William eventually went back to Mississippi where he was documented in 1880 following his marriage to Julia and his descendants number in the hundreds. They have an amazing history to be proud of.


(1) Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011. Original data: Social Security Administration. Social Security Death Index, Master File. Social Security Administration. Number: 437-12-1718; Issue State: Louisiana; Issue Date: Before 1951; accessed February 5, 2013.

(2) Ancestry.com. Web: Louisiana, Find A Grave Index, 1700-2012 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi: accessed 15 February 2013.

(3) “Louisiana, Deaths Index, 1850-1875, 1894-1956,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FS1Z-HRR : accessed 05 Feb 2014), Frank Nervous, 1934.

(4)  Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.Year: 1920; Census Place: Police Jury Ward 5, Madison, Louisiana; Roll:T625_611; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 67; Image: 1151, Line 61, Frank Nervis; accessed February 5, 2013.

(5)  Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. Year: 1930; Census Place: Police Jury Ward 2, East Carroll, Louisiana; Roll: 792; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0002; Image: 847.0; FHL microfilm: 2340527; accessed February 5, 2013.

(6)   Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Year: 1910; Census Place: Police Jury Ward 5, East Carroll, Louisiana; Roll: T624_513; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 0044; FHL microfilm: 1374526; accessed February 5, 2013.

(7) Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Year: 1900; Census Place: Beat 3, Warren, Mississippi; Roll: 831; Page: 20B; Enumeration District: 0133; FHL microfilm: 1240831. Accessed February 5, 2013.

(8) Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010), Ancestry.com, http://www.Ancestry.com, Year: 1880; Census Place: Beat 3, Warren, Mississippi.Accessed February 5, 2013.

(9) “Mississippi, Marriages, 1800-1911,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/V28G-1Y7 : accessed 05 Feb 2014), William A. Nervis and Julia A. Johnson, 1876.

(10) “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MFSY-1M1 : accessed 12 August 2015), Wm Nervis in household of John Willis, Mississippi, United States; citing p. 15, family 166, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 552,250.

(11) “Brierfield : Rice University The Papers of Jefferson Davis.” Brierfield : Rice University The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Rice University, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015. <https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Brierfield.aspx>.

(12) Davis, Varina. Jefferson Davis: Ex-president of the Confederate States of America, Volume 2. Google Books. Belford Company, 1890. Web. 12 Aug. 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=Z-knAQAAIAAJ&dq=%22nervis%22%2B%22jefferson%2Bdavis%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.

(13) Montgomery, Isaiah T. “Kansas Memory.” Isaiah T. Montgomery to Governor John P. St. John –. Kansas Historical Society, 23 May 1879. Web. 12 Aug. 2015. <http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/208072>.

(14)”Isaiah Montgomery (1847-1924).” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Isaiah Montgomery (1847-1924). PBS, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_people_mont.html>.

(15) Schwendemann, Glen. “The Exodusters on the Missouri.” Kansas Historical Quarterly 29.1 (1963): 25-40. The Exodusters on the Missouri. Kansas Historical Society. Web. 12 Aug. 2015. <http://www.kshs.org/p/the-exodusters-on-the-missouri/13166>.

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2 thoughts on “When the “Nearest White Person” is Jefferson Davis”

  1. I am the daughter of John Nervis my name is Patricia Faye Nervis mother. Name Rosamond Nervis he also has a son name Reginald Curtis Nervis grandchildren name are Tarshaler Nervis. Regina Sibyl Nervis Frederick Nervis Carline Latrice Nervis sharika D.Nervis .Sharika Ruby NervIs .And a host of great grandchildren.

    1. william c Newman

      My name is William Newman, son of Alfred J Newman & Leola Nevis Newman. My mother is the daughter of Frank Nervis, Sr.( the first) & sister of Frank Nervis, Sr. born on Sept. 1916. She is also in the picture (left side) with uncle Frank in the middle and aunt Annie Russell on the right side. interesting bio. I was told my grandfather was a black smith, had another son who lived in Vicksburg, Miss.

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