Under new directionColorado native keeps Beauvoir in the family

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, July 21, 2012

BILOXI — It’s a long way from Colorado to Mississippi, and it has taken Bert Hayes-Davis most of a lifetime to make the trip. The 64-year-old great-great-grandson of Confederate President Jefferson Davis became the executive director of his famous ancestor’s historic home, Beauvoir, on July 4.

“I think we always knew we were going to be here,” he said, speaking for himself and his wife, Carol. “We always knew we were coming to Biloxi, that at some point we were going to live here, that we would be engaged in Beauvoir no matter what, maybe just as a representative of the Davis family. I never thought the opportunity would happen to become a significant part of this organization.”

Beauvoir, built before the Civil War, was a gift to Davis by an admirer in his later years. The home faces the Gulf, and thus the name, which means beautiful view. The house was sold to the United Confederate Veterans after the death of Jefferson Davis in 1889 and is now owned and operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It has survived numerous coastal storms and hurricanes, even Katrina, but it suffered severe damage and restoration is an on-going process.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Hayes-Davis, seated on the porch of the Hayes Cottage on the grounds of Beauvoir, talked recently about his earliest memories of the house and of his plans for the future. He spoke with enthusiasm, his voice with inflections that are almost melodious. His manner was pleasant, one of genuine warmth and charm, but with a tone of determination that he plans to get things done.

He doesn’t know when he first came to Beauvoir — he was probably about 7 or 8 — and he isn’t sure when he became aware that the portrait hanging on his wall at home was a famous ancestor, Jefferson Davis, or just who he was, “but I knew he was special.”

Hayes-Davis’ great-grandparents, Joel and Margaret Davis Hayes, moved to Colorado about 1885 because of his poor health. It was thought the drier climate would be beneficial, as he had lung problems. He secured a position with a bank in Colorado Springs.

Bertram Hayes-Davis was born there in 1948,went to the University of Alabama in 1967 to study geology, was in the Army for two years, finished his degree at a college in Alamosa, Colo., then went back to Alabama where he earned a master’s degree. He lived in New Orleans and then Dallas while working as a geologist, then went back to Colorado in public relations and fundraising, but returned to Dallas in 2008.

When he married Carol, a Cleveland, Ohio, girl, she had no idea who Jefferson Davis was “because in my high school history text there was only one sentence about him.” She could hardly believe it when she saw people standing in line to get her husband’s autograph because he was a Davis. They have a son, Joel, and a daughter, Sarah Taylor.

Being a Davis has its pluses and it, drawbacks. Unlike some other leaders of the Lost Cause, Davis never asked for a pardon for he felt he had done nothing wrong. Though some historians consider him to have been a great man, to the victor belong the spoils “and never has history been kind to Jefferson Davis,” Hayes-Davis observed. He has been called the most maligned man in American history by another Southern-born president, Woodrow Wilson.

Activities during the Civil War Sesquicentennial will often focus on Davis. There has been a re-enactment of his first speech as president, which was made in Vicksburg, and of his inauguration in Montgomery. The job as president of the Southern states has long overshadowed his many other accomplishments. In his public career he was a congressman, senator, military hero and Secretary of War.

To Hayes-Davis, the high point of his career has to do with the construction of the nation’s capitol. As Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce part of his responsibility was overseeing the completion of the building. He fired the three architects who were pulling in opposite directions, hired one, and among his instructions was to make the capitol magnificent with an imposing dome. He personally chose the Statue of Freedom to crown it.

The list of accomplishments is lengthy, including plans for the first transcontinental railroad, and he was instrumental in establishing the Smithsonian where he was on the board of regents.

When Davis traveled in the north he drew vast crowds of admirers and was presented an honorary doctorate by Bowdoin University. Because of misfortunes that befell the Pierce family, he was considered “acting president” during that administration. Many historians believe that he would have become president of the United States if the war had not occurred.

Though the Davis genealogy appears in Brook’s Peerage of American Presidents, there still exists a lot of misconception and prejudice about the man. When Hayes-Davis was invited to attend a meeting of descendants of the presidents in Missouri several years ago, there were those who asked, “What are you doing here?” Hayes-Davis was given the opportunity to address the gathering, and “They realize now that whatever they thought is not true.”

Educating the public includes the South. Several years ago when Hayes-Davis visited Fort Davis in Texas he found no mention of the man for whom the fort, the county and the nearby mountains were named. Instead in the visitor center, run by the National Park Service, was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Hayes-Davis hasn’t always been interested in family history, but that changed when the Davis’ kin organized in 1976 and elected him president.

“Man, I was shocked, shocked for a long time,” he said. “It changed my life dramatically.”

Since then he has represented the family and the name of Jefferson Davis in functions from coast to coast as Davis left his imprint all across America. There are also many other direct descendants — in Colorado, California, Alaska, Mississippi and Texas, and collateral kin from Maine to Alabama. An irony of history is there are no Lincoln descendants.

Even though his name is hyphenated, Bertram Hayes-Davis realizes that the name still resonated in many places, and as he has the lineage “the expectations are, ‘You are a Davis. Live up to that.’ It has taken me a long time to get there. I did have my rebellious period, but age and experience and opportunity make a difference.” Living in the shadow of Jefferson Davis and walking in his footprints hasn’t always been easy.

There were accounts handed down about the hyphenating of the family name, but four years ago his great-aunt Lucy, who was the daughter of Margaret Davis Hayes, told him the story. In New Orleans in 1889, as the body of Jefferson Davis was lying in state, his wife, Varina, said, “There lies the last Davis. Is it not a shame that we can’t do something about that?” Then and there the idea was born, and Margaret’s 7-year-old son Jefferson Davis Hayes’ name was changed. It was a time in America when hyphenated names were almost unheard of.

Though much restoration and rebuilding has been done at Beauvoir since Katrina, a lot remains, the most immediate challenge the completion and opening of the presidential library, which will happen soon. Within another year, landscaping, which will include the recreation of Varina’s gardens, will make it one of the most magnificent places in the South. Special tours and exhibits will draw more people.

As a teenager on a summer vacation to Beauvoir many years ago, Bertram Hayes-Davis found the humidity almost unbearable for a Colorado boy, and after hearing enough complaints from him, his mother (who was from Canton) said, “Young man, it’s worth every drop of sweat to live in Mississippi and don’t you forget it.”

Now older and wiser, he agrees, and Carol is of like mind. “I love it,” she said. “I love everything about the South.”