Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Governor" Gil Davis and the Civil War

In regards to the previous entry, which made me wonder who this "Governor" Gil Davis was...

Not long after that entry came a letter to the editor, Part 3 in what seems to be some kind of debate between two readers.

Were I a resident of New York, and had I, up to this time, felt somewhat doubtful about the security of Real Estate in Brooklyn, and did I now place implicit faith in the first communication, put forth by "A Citizen," I would sooner invest my money in lots in that part of "Coney island" under the government of the celebrated "Gil Davis" (so immortalized, I think, by Joe Sykes) than touch a foot of Brooklyn soil.

--Brooklyn Eagle, September 15, 1843

In an excerpt from A Memoir of Charles Hallock published in The American Angler, Hallock seems to be hearkening back to the good old days at Coney Island:

"...I learned to build a correct fire, and cook shell-fish on iron hoops, as practiced at Coney Island in the old days when it was only a waste of sand dunes and salt grass, and Gil Davis was 'governor.' "

From other searches it appears "Governor" Davis was a leader among the clam-diggers, self-proclaimed governor of Coney Island. The New York Times obituary for Davis' son Gilbert F. Davis has some excellent information. Evidently Davis was known for his apparently very witty satirical or "burlesque" map that sounds almost like an editorial cartoon against the land speculation of the day. No wonder he was beloved! The article implies he died circa 1870.

This New York Times editorial from November 12, 1860, claims that Gil Davis "dissevered" Coney Island from the US prior to the Civil War! (The editorial appears to be facetious, noting that Virginia's then-governor Henry A. Wise vowed he wouldn't stay in the Union after Lincoln was elected, so they're wondering if maybe he went to Coney Island.)

I couldn't find any story about the secession except a 1962 publication of unknown accuracy, listed as public domain. The date of 1861 doesn't mesh with the New York Times date of 1860, but from the story, it sounds like there was a lot of talk around election time, which would have been November. So it's possible the declarations started in 1860 finally came to a head in 1861.

Clamdiggers Seceded, Too

A local incident of the Civil War which escaped the history books but which is true nevertheless, was the secession of a large group of organized clamdiggers at the west end of the island. It happened in 1861, shortly after the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, although that event, it is understood, had nothing to do with it.

The center of the disturbance that led up to the so-called secession was along the south side of the island from the Rockaways westward as far as Coney Island. It started when clamdiggers in that area asked the State of New York to provide adequate protection from bands of New Jersey-ites and residents of New York City who were raiding their clam beds. When State protection failed to materialize, the local clamdiggers organized into an armed force under the leadership of one Gil Davis who had long been known as the "Governor" of Coney Island.

Several shooting affrays between "Governor" Davis' night patrols and the clam pirates in which the gunners maintained an arms agreement to use only birdshot, produced minor casualties on both sides. During the election campaign of 1860 the clam-diggers issued a decree to local political bosses of both major parties declaring "No protection; no votes." With Southern states threatening secession from the Union, it was only natural that "Governor" Davis should make a similar threat to Albany, but not to Washington.

As more and more clamdiggers joined the Union army and left for the front, leaving fewer clamdiggers to patrol the clam beds, the pirating increased, as also did the shooting. It may have been the inaugural ceremonies of President Lincoln in Washington on March 4, 1861, that prompted "Governor" Davis (no relation to Jeff) to notify Governor Morgan at Albany that Coney Island and outlying sections had seceded from the state ending his proclamation with the words, according to one version: "Henceforth we are Unionists, but not New Yorkers."

Governor Morgan's prompt response was to send a detail of militia to Coney Island to suppress the uprising and place Davis under arrest. The detail actually found no uprising, nor Davis either. He was not at home nor in any of his usual haunts. Inquiries as to his whereabouts brought the same reply: "Guess he's gone clamming." If so, he kept right on clamming day and night for more than a week, at the end of which time the militiamen had left the area, and the whole affair came to an end.

"But," "Governor" Davis was later quoted as saying, "We won our point. That militia gave those Jersey pirates such a scare that they never again bothered our clam beds."

--Long Island Forum Volume 25 (Direct link to this issue at )

No comments:

Post a Comment