Birth and family background
Jefferson Finis Davis was born at the family homestead in Fairview, Kentucky, on June 3, 1808. He sometimes gave his year of birth as 1807. He dropped his middle name in later life, although he sometimes used a middle initial.[a] Davis was the youngest of ten children born to Jane (née Cook) and Samuel Emory Davis; his oldest brother Joseph Emory Davis was 23 years his senior. He was named after then-incumbent President Thomas Jefferson, whom his father admired. In the early 20th century, the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site was established near the site of Davis's birth. Coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, only eight months later, less than 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast of Fairview.
Davis's paternal grandparents were born in the region of Snowdonia in North Wales, and immigrated separately to North America in the early 18th century. His maternal ancestors were English. After initially arriving in Philadelphia, Davis's paternal grandfather Evan settled in the colony of Georgia, which was developed chiefly along the coast. He married the widow Lydia Emory Williams, who had two sons from a previous marriage, and their son Samuel Emory Davis was born in 1756. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, along with his two older half-brothers. In 1783, after the war, he married Jane Cook. She was born in 1759 to William Cook and his wife Sarah Simpson in what is now Christian County, Kentucky. In 1793, the Davis family relocated to Kentucky, establishing a community named "Davisburg" on the border of Christian and Todd counties; it was eventually renamed Fairview.
During Davis's childhood, his family moved twice: in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and less than a year later to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Three of his older brothers served in the War of 1812. In 1813, Davis began his education at the Wilkinson Academy in the small town of Woodville, near the family cotton plantation. His brother Joseph acted as a surrogate father and encouraged Jefferson in his education. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student at the school. Davis returned to Mississippi in 1818, studying at Jefferson College in Washington. He returned to Kentucky in 1821, studying at Transylvania University in Lexington. (At the time, these colleges were like academies, roughly equivalent to high schools.) His father Samuel died on July 4, 1824, when Jefferson was 16 years old.
Early military career
Joseph arranged for Davis to get an appointment and attend the United States Military Academy (West Point) starting in late 1824. While there, he was placed under house arrest for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas 1826. Cadets smuggled whiskey into the academy to make eggnog, and more than one-third of the cadets were involved in the incident. In June 1828, Davis graduated 23rd in a class of 33.
Following graduation, Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory. Zachary Taylor, a future president of the United States, had assumed command shortly before Davis arrived in early 1829. In March 1832, Davis returned to Mississippi on furlough, having had no leave since he first arrived at Fort Crawford. He was still in Mississippi during the Black Hawk War but returned to the fort in August. At the conclusion of the war, Colonel Taylor assigned him to escort Black Hawk to prison. Davis made an effort to shield Black Hawk from curiosity seekers, and the chief noted in his autobiography that Davis treated him "with much kindness" and showed empathy for the leader's situation as a prisoner.