Colonial Town Gate; Davenport House

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Robin Gibson as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.

The Colonial Town Gate; Davenport House historical marker was dedicated in 1959. View the Colonial Town Gate historical marker listing.

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1. Photograph of Colonial Marker located in Columbia Square, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Robin Gibson, 2016.

2. Photograph of Sarah Davenport located in the Davenport Museum, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Robin Gibson, 2016.

3. Mcnish Collection. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

4. Mcnish Collection. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

5. Mcnish Collection. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

6. Photograph of Sarah Davenport’s desk, Davenport Museum, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Robin Gibson, 2016.

7. Photograph of the Davenport Museum, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Robin Gibson, 2016.

The following essay is by SCAD student Robin Gibson, 2016.

The Colonial Town Gate: Davenport House Marker was erected in 1959 (Figure 1), acknowledging both architecture and landscape. While the marker identifies the Davenport House as an excellent example of Georgian architecture and credits Isaiah Davenport for building the house and completing it in 1820, it neglects to mention his wife, Sarah Rosamond Clark Davenport.

Sarah Rosamond Clark was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on February 22, 1788 to Susannah Sutter of Charleston, South Carolina and. Archibald Campbell Clark of Scotland. Sarah married Isaiah Davenport in 1809, and they were married for 18 years. They had ten children, and six of the children survived. The marriage to Isaiah and the six children that they shared is just the background for Sarah Davenport’s unique experiences. Sarah Davenport is an icon of antebellum womanhood; she accomplished what many women could not when she became a widow in 1827.

Isaiah Davenport died in 1827, only twenty years after the Davenport House was completed, leaving Sarah widowed at the age of thirty-nine. Sarah was also eight months pregnant at the time of Isaiah’s death. Caring for six children and being responsible for nine slaves and a large home would be difficult for any young widow. However, these were not the only responsibilities Sarah faced. Isaiah also left the family in debt with unpaid taxes, uncompleted construction projects, and various other financial responsibilities which had to be resolved (Figure 2).

Sarah’s first responsibility was to properly bury her husband. According to research done for the Davenport House by the consultant Susan Mays, the cost for a coffin and interment, even in 1827, would be exorbitant. Mays located Sarah’s list for these expenses. Aside from dealing with the funeral, Sarah also had to pay off her husband’s creditors so that the estate could be settled.

Sarah accepted the financial responsibilities of the home, which was an unusual role for a widow in the 1800s. Sarah collected money for rental properties, paid taxes, and saw the completion of Isaiah’s unfinished saw mill project. She was also responsible for the sale of property that belonged to the family, a task usually the responsibility of a man. The Georgia Historical Society archives contain several documents lending support to the fact that Sarah sold the property, and controlled her own finances. The McNish Collection contains two legal documents from 1829 and 1831 referencing the sale of Lot 13 in Savannah with Sarah Davenport’s signature. Also in the Georgia Historical Society’s Research Center, as part of the Sarah Davenport Collection,  is a tax receipt signed by Sarah. The aforementioned documents were executed by Sarah Davenport (Figures 4 and 5).

After settling many legal matters, Sarah still had to find a means to support her household, which consisted of six children, nine slaves and a large Federal Style house. Research infers that Sarah’s options for becoming financially solvent were limited. Widows in her situation might teach, take in needlework, or rent rooms to boarders. According to Susan Mays, Sarah decided to rent out rooms in her home. She continued to take in boarders until 1840, at which time the Davenport House was sold (Figure 6). To supplement her income, Sarah also rented out her slaves and collected money for rental properties. Sarah clearly did not just manage to stay afloat, but according to a United States Federal Census of 1830, she purchased three more slaves. During this time period in Savannah, ownership of slaves would be considered a status symbol or at the very least an indicator that she was financially successful.[i]

Sarah  was able to provide clothing, books, and educators for her boys, and sent her daughter to private school. After selling the Davenport House in 1840, Sarah continued to rent rooms out to boarders. Sarah Davenport died in 1869, living without a husband for forty-two years.

Sarah did have some advantages that allowed her to be successful. Aside from her education, owning property and slaves provided her with a strong social status in Savannah (Figure 7). Unlike poor white women in Savannah in the 1800’s, Sarah did not need to marry for either social status or financial means.

Sarah Davenport was atypical for the 1800’s, as she remained a widow. She resolved her deceased husband’s financial debts. She managed to take care of her six children and keep her home. By standards that existed in Savannah in the 1800’s, she prospered. Many questions remain concerning Sarah, including her relationship with the slaves in her household. We know that life for an urban slave differed from the slave living on a plantation, but little information exists that might explain how Sarah Davenport may have choreographed the daily chores and lives of twelve slaves.

Jeff Freeman of the Davenport House tells a story that he heard several years ago.[ii] Supposedly General Sherman’s men tried to usurp the Davenport House for extra housing for Sherman’s soldiers. Furious, Sarah Davenport went to Sherman’s Headquarters and was told that she could not see the general. It was told that she made such a fuss that the general came out of his office. Sarah proceeded to explain that she had sons fighting for both the North and the South and did not feel that she should have to give up her home.

As the story goes, Sherman agreed with Sarah Davenport and sent his soldiers to guard her home. This story may be true or might be a myth; either way Sarah Davenport represents a strong woman, widowed at young age but able to survive and even prosper (Figure 8).

[i] For archival information on Davenport, see the “Mcnish Collection” and the “Sarah Davenport Collection” at the Georgia Historical Society.

[ii] Jeff Freeman, Interview with the Author, Davenport House, Savannah, Georgia. April 12,2016.

“Davenport Household: A Specific Example of Urban Slavery,” The Davenport House Museum flyer.

“Davenport House Timeline,” The Davenport House Museum flyer.

Jeff Freeman,  Interview with the Author. Davenport House, Savannah, Georgia. April 12,2016.

Jeff Freeman, “Sarah as a Southern Widow.” The Davenport House Museum flyer., 2014.

Sharon Hunt,  “In the Boarding House: The Original Working Diet” Edible Vancouver.

Sarah Davenport receipt, MS 0200. Courtesy of the Georgia, Historical Society.

Tim Lockley, “Survival Strategies of Poor White Women in Savannah, 1800-1860,” Journal of Early Republic 32, (2012): 415-435.