CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

March 4, 2013

Wallace State Faculty Member and Local Scholar Explores Centuries Old Mysteries


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CULLMAN — Robert S. Davis, history professor at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, loves a good “who done it” but not the kind where the solution comes already published in the last chapter. He has been trying find answers to historical mysteries of Alabama and Georgia for his whole adult life and has scores of historical publications to show for it. His latest quests have yielded very special lost history.

More than 30 years ago, for example, Davis tried unsuccessfully to learn the identity of a self-identified Georgia planter who wrote letters that appeared in an anonymous book on agriculture in colonial America in 1775. Recently, he determined that the planter was actually in South Carolina and the famous patriot was John Lewis Gervais. More importantly, knowing the writer of the letters proved that the author of the book was Scotsman Richard Oswald, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on earth in 1775. Oswald had published the book to persuade the British people to keep the American colonies from revolting. He published the book American Husbandry anonymously in 1775 to avoid being publically humiliated as had been done to his acquaintance Benjamin Franklin. Oswald’s pleas went unheeded although in 1783 he met with Franklin and together they negotiated the Treaty of Paris, signed in Oswald’s apartment, that ended the American Revolution. An article on this lost history has been tentatively accepted for publication.

In another case, Davis was presented with the problem of a portrait sold by a bankrupt university in Tennessee. It was credited as the likeness of the notorious Revolutionary War Tory, Thomas Brown, what for scholars would be a huge find as no other likeness of Brown has turned up. In the painting, a young looking man stands in the center with a hunting piece. Sitting beside him is an old man with another gun and a badly scarred head. As likely also an add-on, a black servant boy appears on the right of the painting. Davis believed that the old man could be Brown years after being nearly tortured to death in 1775 and the black servant could be Brown’s much loved mixed racial son.

A request to have the back of the painting examined, however, revealed a note attached claiming the painting as Thomas Broun, a member of the Scottish gentry, and painted in 1766 by the artist Archibald “Laughlin.” McLauchlan did famously paint Broun’s wife and daughter in 1766. The painting matches the artist’s known works. To try to find the answers, Davis contacted Thomas Brown’s descendants, searched for estate records, contacted the college that sold the painting, researched McLauchlan, and consulted experts in many fields.  The leading authority of paintings of that subject and period concluded that it is of Thomas Broun and painted by McLauchlan in 1766; that the figure in the center is likely age thirty and that the old man was probably a servant scarred from being branded as a horse thief. The Thomas Brown descendants do not accept that analysis but unless the painting can, at great expense, be x-rayed, more evidence is not likely to turn up.

Finally, Davis has written a book length manuscript on a Wilkes County, Georgia, fort involved in the Revolutionary War battle of Kettle Creek. He is helping archaeologist Dan Elliott of the Lamar Institute in trying to locate Robert Carr’s fort for excavation. It was the site of a battle between Patriots and Tories on February 10, 1779, and was burned by the Indians and Carr killed one month later. No one before explored the history of the frontier stockades or argued that they were more than just fortified houses. He claims that as community centers and often the beginnings of towns and cities, they had huge political importance at the time and that studying the forts tells things about life on the frontier for all people in America’s first war. The report will be consolidated with the archaeological findings and published online this summer by the Lamar Institute.

Robert Davis teaches history at Wallace State and also offers non-credit continuing education courses in research for family historians on Friday mornings, including introduction to family history research, southern genealogy, book publishing computer research, and Civil War research. His more than 1,000 genealogy publications include books on research in Alabama and in Georgia.  For information on his continuing education classes contact Melinda Edwards at 256-352-8172 or email robert.davis@wallacestate.edu.