Davis was born on December 4, 1816, the son of John S. Davis and Jane W. Matthews Davis, the second of his three wives. They resided in Goochland County, the probable place of his birth. The record of Davis’s birth that a niece later copied into a family Bible includes a middle initial E., but the initial appears in no other document, and if he had a middle name it is not known. He was probably not closely related to Hector Davis, of Hanover County and the city of Richmond, who served in the Convention of 1850–1851.
Sometime in the 1840s Davis moved to Richmond, where city directories and newspaper advertisements identified him most often as an auctioneer. In reality, for more than a decade he operated a slave jail, a place of confinement for enslaved persons whose owners had consigned them to auctioneers for sale. Davis became well known during the 1850s in Virginia and also to traders and planters in other states who sold him slaves or purchased slaves from him. He and the other large-scale traders in Virginia annually purchased and sold between 8,000 and 10,000 men, women, and children for transportation to markets in the southwestern states. They engaged in the largest commercial business in the state. In 1859 Davis’s Richmond auction house, alone, sold slaves with a market value of more than $2.67 million, more than the value of all of the flour exported from Virginia that year, when Richmond had two of the largest mills in the country, and almost equal to the value of all of the tobacco exported from Virginia to other countries.
David M. Pulliam operated their auction enterprise as Pulliam & Davis. In 1850 Davis lived next door to Silas Omohundro, another prominent slave trader. Davis occupied buildings in the city’s Shockoe Creek area north of East Franklin Street near Fifteenth Street. The fashionable Exchange Hotel stood diagonally across from the Davis establishment, and his office was in the nearby and equally fashionable Saint Charles Hotel. Davis’s large brick and stone jail was still standing in 1937. Visitors to the city before the Civil War left several descriptions of his jail and of sales at his auction house and in other, similar houses in the same vicinity. Also recording an account was Wallace Turnage, who was thirteen years old when Davis bought him early in 1860 to work in the jail and auction room. After a short time, Davis sold Turnage for $1,000 and made an easy $50 profit.
A successful trader in one of the city’s most lucrative and important businesses, Davis earned the respect of the city’s other business leaders. Early in 1860 he and thirteen other men, including several other slave dealers, chartered the Traders Bank of Richmond, perhaps to assist with financing their trading. Davis became the president of the bank. The $50 banknotes that it issued depicted an enslaved man carrying a large basket of cotton, and the $20 notes featured a paternalistic engraving of a male slave picking cotton, a woman spinning thread with factory smokestacks in the background, and a portrait of Henry Clay. The images were intended to appeal to southern planters and to men of commerce.
Davis never married. He served as guardian for the three daughters of one of his brothers, but, like his fellow traders Robert Lumpkin andand perhaps others, he had a long-term physical relationship with an enslaved woman, who had three daughters and one son born during the 1850s, all of whom were probably his. When Davis wrote his will in March 1859 he bequeathed $15,000 to be divided equally among his three orphaned nieces and left $5,000 to a nephew. He also ordered that his “servant woman Ann” and her children be freed and sent to a free state and that $20,000 be invested in state securities for her and for the children’s education. Davis specified that any resources remaining after those bequests should be applied for the benefit of one of his sisters and her children. The servant, Ann Davis, and her children had resided in Philadelphia as early as 1860. Whether they intentionally passed as free and white or let other people decide for themselves is not clear, but census enumerators did not list them as black or mulatto. Davis’s son, Audubon Davis (who married a white woman and named his own son Hector Davis), became a journalist.
Davis died in Richmond on January 7, 1863, at the midpoint of the Civil War. His burial place is not recorded. One motive for creating the Confederate States of America in 1861 had been to preserve a way of life based on slavery, but thein 1865 and also the plans for aiding his family that Davis had outlined in his will. At the time of his death his estate, in addition to land in Richmond and Arkansas, was valued at nearly $100,000, including about $14,000 worth of slaves and a large quantity of bank stock. The fire that consumed Richmond’s business district in April 1865 also burned his bank and rendered that stock worthless; and the state and Confederate securities that his executor had purchased for the benefit of Ann Davis and her children also became largely worthless after the war. Davis’s sister sued his executor to obtain what she could for her children, a lawsuit that preserved valuable information about the Davis family and his finances but revealed that little money remained for his legatees. Ann Davis also sued Davis’s sister and brother-in-law, asserting the prior claim of herself and her children to a large part of the estate, but because the resources invested for their benefit were then worthless, she and they received nothing.