Ben Montgomery was born into slavery in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. In the year of 1837, before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was sold as a slave to Joseph Emory Davis. Davis’s brother, Jefferson Davis, later became the President of the Confederate States of America. After a period time, Davis could see great talent within Montgomery and assigned to him the responsibility of running his general store on the Davis Bend plantation. Montgomery, who by this time had learned to read and write (he was taught by the Davis children), excelled at running the store and served both white customers and slaves who could trade poultry and other items in return for dry goods. It was unusual for a slave to serve in this position.
Impressed with his knowledge and abilities to run the store, Davis placed Montgomery in charge of overseeing the entirety of his purchasing and shipping operations on the plantation. The Davis family also taught him many other skills including land surveying, flood control, and architecture.
On May 21, 1847, Montgomery’s son, Isaiah Montgomery, was born. Due to Ben’s favored position among the Davis Bend slaves by the Davis family, Isaiah was also given the opportunity of receiving an education. Montgomery maintained a close relationship with his son up until his death.
In addition to being able to read and write, Montgomery also learned a number of other difficult tasks, including land surveying, techniques for flood control and the drafting of architectural plans. He was also a skilled mechanic and a born inventor. At the time commerce often flowed through the rivers connecting counties and states. With differences in the depths of water in different spots throughout the river, navigation could become difficult. If a steamboat were to run adrift, the merchandise would be delayed for days, if not weeks.
Montgomery also worked as an inventor. In the late 1850s he applied for a patent for his design of a steam operated propeller to provide propulsion to boats in shallow water. Davis decided to address the problem and created a propellor that could cut into the water at different angles, thus allowing the boat to navigate more easily though shallow water. This was not a new invention, but an improvement on similar designs invented by John Stevens in 1804 and John Ericsson in 1838.(U.S. Patent 588) On June 10, 1858, on the basis that Ben, as a slave, was not a citizen of the United States, and thus could not apply for a patent in his name, he was denied this patent application in a ruling by the United States Attorney General’s office, on the grounds that neither slaves nor their owners could receive patents on inventions devised by slaves.
Later, both Joseph and Jefferson Davis attempted to patent the device in their names but were denied because they were not the “true inventor.” Ironically, when Jefferson Davis later assumed the Presidency of the Confederacy, he signed into law the legislation that would allow a slaves to receive patent protection for their inventions. On June 28, 1864, Montgomery, no longer a slave, filed a patent application for his device, but the patent office again rejected his application.
Following the end of the American Civil War, Joseph Davis sold his plantation and property to Montgomery, in 1866, for the sum of $300,000 as part of a long-term loan. With his son Isaiah, Montgomery established a general store known as Montgomery & Sons. Montgomery worked towards his lifelong dream of establishing a community for freed slaves. He never lived to see his dream come to fruition. Catastrophic floods ruined the crops, and, when Montgomery failed to make a payment on the loan in 1876, Davis Bend automatically reverted to the Davis family as per the terms of the original contract. Heartbroken, Montgomery died the next year.
However, after his father’s death, Montgomery’s son Isaiah purchased 840 acres (3.4 km2) between the Vicksburg and Memphis railroad lines for the purpose of establishing the community of freed slaves his father dreamed of. Along with other former slaves, Isaiah Montgomery established the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887.