Voices from History: Researcher's Book Review
By Pat Schley, DDMF Researcher
This summer I read the book, The Greater Journey, by David McCullough. It is not a new book having been published in 2011. While I expected it to be a good read, I was amazed at how many of the people discussed in the book were names which come up in the Davis’ correspondence, were people they knew, or people whose accomplishments affected their lives or their children’s lives.
First, let me give you a sense of the world in which David and Sarah Davis lived:
-They were both born in the 2nd decade of the 19th century and died in the 3rd quarter of the century.
-When they were born, the Little Ice Age, which began around 1300 AD and would, among other things, be at least partially blamed for the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, would not end for another 34-35 years, in 1850.
-James Madison was the president of the United States when they were born.
-Sarah Davis, born on September 4, 1814, was 6 months older than her husband. She was born just 10 days after Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the Star Spangled Banner during the twenty-five hour bombardment of Fort McHenry at the head of the river leading to the Baltimore harbor, on September 13-14, 1814.
-Rutherford B. Hayes was president when Sarah Davis died on November 9, 1879, at the age of 65. That same year, on February 15, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill that allowed female attorneys to argue in Supreme Court cases.
-David Davis was born on March 9, 1815. That was the year, on August 6, 1815, in which piracy on the high seas by Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli was effectively ended by a flotilla from the United States.
-Grover Cleveland was president when David Davis died on June 26, 1886, at the age of 71. It was just the month before, on May 8, 1886, that Dr. John Pemberton, a Georgia pharmacist, invented coca-cola, a carbonated beverage. On May 29, Pemberton began to advertise Coca-Cola in the Atlanta Journal. Four months later, the 1st (Unofficial) World’s Series took place at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis MO. The St. Louis Browns beat the Chicago White Stockings 4 games to 2.
-When David Davis went to Kenyon College in late 1828, it was very much a work in progress and still under construction. Davis was 13 years old and nearly penniless. He worked his way through Kenyon by working on building construction and on the College farms:
“The Bishop’s account books contain an early entry: ‘Coll. Buildings, …to D. Davis, 17 ½ days work at $10 [a] month, $6.73.’ And a similar entry shows the College farms indebted to him for ‘extra work on Sundays’ in the total sum of $9.81. He must have milked many cows on Sundays to earn a sum almost equal to that for a month’s work on the buildings. He never lived at home [with Franklin Betts, his stepfather, and mother, Ann Mercer Davis Betts] again, but worked on the farms and building all through vacations. With his own hands he helped to hew a college out of the wilderness, and as he saw it rise he felt sure that the West was the place for him.”
The Greater Journey, begins in 1830, just 2 years before 17 ½ year old David Davis graduated from Kenyon: “[David McCullough] tells…the story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, and others who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900….What they achieved would profoundly alter American history.”, to which one might add, “and the lives of David Davis and Sarah Walker Davis.”
While most of the travelers to Paris in the 1830s were of the same generation as David and Sarah Davis or slightly older, their backgrounds and life experiences to that point were very different: “With few exceptions, they were well educated and reasonably well off, or their parents were.”
Of those who were older by 10 years or more, 3 had already earned a reputation: James Fenimore Cooper, as the author of The Last of the Mohicans, (published in 1826); Samuel F. B. Morse, who was an accomplished portrait painter; and Emma Willard, founder of Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, who was the first woman to take a public stand for the higher education of women.
They faced a dangerous journey in the early years via sailing ship (steamships would not begin making transatlantic journeys until 1838). With luck the journey direct to Le Havre could take as little as 3 weeks, however, it was more likely to take a month to 6 weeks! Many ships were lost en route and never heard from again. What made so many Americans willing to make the journey to Paris?
There were many reasons for making the trip, but education, either formally at the various universities or through private instruction or informally by visiting art galleries, museums, salons, and historic sites, was the main incentive. Paris was renowned for its medical schools so many young physicians went there to get training in techniques that were not yet taught in the United States. “In the 1830s, [there were] only twenty-one medical schools in the United States,…not even one per state, and these were small, with faculties of only five or six professors. Most aspiring physicians in America never attended medical school but learned by apprenticing themselves to ‘respectable’ practitioners, most of whom had been poorly trained.”
By comparison, “At the Ecole de Medecine, a faculty of twenty-six delivered lectures on Anatomy, Physiology, Physics, Medical Hygiene, Medical Natural History, Accouchments (births), Surgical Pathology, Pharmacology and Organic Chemistry, Medical Pathology, Therapeutics, Pathological Anatomy, Operative Surgery, Clinical Surgery, Clinical Medicine, Clinical Midwifery, Diseases of Women and Children, and Legal Medicine. Enrollment was as high as 5,000 students, or approximately twice the number of students then in all medical schools in the United States. The American students at the Ecole in the 1830s and ‘40s were but a tiny part of enrollment, numbering only about 30 to 50 annually.”
One of the medical students who made the journey was a young man named Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, son of Nathaniel Bowditch, a well-known astronomer and mathematician who had made a name for himself after publishing his book, The New American Practical Navigator, in 1802.
Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (1808-1892) has a link to the Davis family. Cornelia Livingston Rockwell, the eldest daughter of Sarah Davis’ eldest sister, Lucy Forbes Walker Rockwell, married Charles Pickering Bowditch (1842-1921) in 1866. Charles was a son of Jonathan Ingersoll Bowditch and a nephew of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch.
Young artists flocked to Paris to study under a noted artist or to go to the Louvre or other art museums just to study the masterpieces or to try to copy them. One young artist who made the journey for the first time in 1834, with the goal of honing his skill as a portrait painter, was 21 year old George Peter Alexander Healy of Boston. Does the name ring a bell? It should if you have ever visited the David Davis Mansion. There are no less than 2 portraits by Healy at the mansion: one of David Davis and the matching portrait of Sarah Davis."The Davis' portraits were painted in 1875-76. It is unclear exactly where the sittings took place but likely they were done either in Healy's Chicago studio or when he was in Washington DC, possibly at both places. Healy also painted a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. It is the last painted portrait of Lincoln showing him without his iconic beard. Healy’s renown as a portrait painter grew rapidly after he painted a portrait of King Louis-Philippe of France. He is known today for his many portraits of the politicians and well-known people of his day.
Men of the same generation but without the means to go to Paris, men like David Davis and Abraham Lincoln, came West armed with the belief that a man with no “name” or fortune or, in the case of Abraham Lincoln, a formal education could, with hard work and determination, make something of themselves there. These were the “self-made men” of which Henry Clay spoke, men without personal means or pedigree, who made their own way in the 19th century by the sweat of their young brows and sheer determination. They, along with their wives, brought genteel culture and values to the frontier. These same people were the happy recipients, over time, of the new science, technologies, and ideas, which the people who traveled to Paris brought with them when they came home. One example would be the telegraph. When the artist, Samuel F.B. Morse, left Paris for home in the fall of 1832, “[he] was taking something …home with him – an idea inspired by a system used outside of Paris to send overland messages…”
The telegraph, and later his code to transmit the alphabet, revolutionized communication enabling messages to be quickly sent over great distances.
As medical advances were put into practice by younger doctors who then went West, medical care improved. Educational advances, especially for women, were brought back by people like Emma Willard who traveled to Paris in 1830, and were later implemented in the new Western settlements. Women’s seminaries were hugely popular in Illinois and the Midwest by the 1850s.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the 1st American woman doctor, went to Paris in 1849 for the same reasons that male doctors like Henry Ingersoll Bowditch did in the 1830s – to further her training in the medical arts, like surgery. In 1861, she helped to establish the Sanitary Commission under the auspices of President Lincoln, which promoted the importance of clean sanitary conditions to good health, especially during the Civil War. In the late 1860s, she opened a medical school just for women, the Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary.
By the late 1840s, artists and entertainers like P. T. Barnum and Tom Thumb, the concert pianist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and the Western artist, George Catlin, were hugely popular in Paris. After returning to the United States, they all used their international acclaim to promote themselves. The performers met with great success as they toured throughout the US appearing in small towns as well as big cities. Sarah Davis saw Tom Thumb and his wife and enjoyed a performance by the pianist, Gottschalk, when they performed in Bloomington.
The story of this group of people is one I had not been aware of before reading The Greater Journey. Without these folks who had the ability to improve and the burning desire to learn more, who were willing to take the risk of a voyage across the sea, America would have been a very different place by the late 19th century. However, those who remained at home, who had the same ability and desire to improve themselves, and who were willing to take the risk of traveling to the unknown of the Western frontier, became the ones who saw the advantages of what the people who went to Paris brought back. They were willing to embrace the advances and new ideas and incorporate them into their lives, which was to the advantage of their communities.
 The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, Brian Fagan, Basic Books, 2000
 Lincoln’s Manager David Davis, Willard L. King, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1960, p.12
 The Greater Journey, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, back cover.
 The Greater Journey, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, p.4
. The Greater Journey, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, p.106
 The Greater Journey, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, p. 107
 The Greater Journey, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, p. 99.