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  • Jack Bowerman

Werter Renick Davis - The First President

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Werter Renick Davis was born on April 1, 1815 in Circleville, Ohio to Henry and Alice Davis. Werter grew up in a distinguished family. His brother, Edwin Hamilton Davis, was a doctor of medicine, but he is most famous for his investigations of the mound builders. He was co-author of “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848)” which contributed to the early development of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Another brother, Joseph Slocum Davis was a lawyer and law partner of U.S. Congressman and Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano. He served two terms as Probate Judge of Knox County, Ohio and was the Mayor of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Werter’s preparatory studies were taken at the Hillsboro Academy in Hillsboro, Ohio and, at the age of fifteen, he entered Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. By the time he entered Kenyon, he had already joined the Methodist Church. Kenyon was controlled by the Protestant Episcopal Church, which was his father’s denomination, and they looked upon Methodists with derision. As a result, his life at Kenyon became intolerable and he left without graduating to become, at age 19, an itinerant preacher. William Alfred Quayle, who was Davis’s son-in-law and went on to become a President of Baker and a Bishop in the Methodist Church, delivered the eulogy at Davis’s funeral and said that Davis’s favorite phrase was: “paternally I am an Episcopalian, maternally a Presbyterian, but by the grace of God a Methodist.” (1) (3) (6)

In 1835, he was licensed to preach and joined the Ohio conference of the Methodist Church. He was assigned to a circuit in Virginia (now West Virginia) and was minister at Guyandotte, Virginia and Ripley, Virginia. During his time in Virginia, he was briefly imprisoned for preaching antislavery sentiments. He served for eighteen years in Ohio and received appointments to Wilmington, Union, Eaton, Germantown, Zanesville, Putnam, Hebron, Rushville, Dayton, Lebanon, Hamilton and Rossville. In 1853, he was transferred to the St. Louis Conference and took charge of the Ebenezer Chapel. In 1844, The Methodist Church had split in two over the issue of slavery and the Ebenezer Chapel was the only Methodist Episcopal Church North in the city. In 1854, he was appointed to the chair of natural sciences at McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois, which was founded by Methodists and is the oldest college in the state. He remained there for 5 years serving as acting president in his last year. During the course of his ministry, he received degrees: Master of Arts, Indiana University, 1854; Doctor of Medicine Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery (now The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine), 1858; Doctor of Divinity, Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University), 1859. (3) (6)

On May 4, 1843, He married Minerva Russell, the daughter of John Russell, Treasurer of Muskingum County, in Putnam, Ohio. They had eight children of which 5 survived to adulthood: Minerva Davis (born 1846) who married Edwin I. Meeker, a prominent grocer who served as a Captain in the Signal Corp during the Civil War; Werter Russell Davis (born 1850) who became a newspaper editor and merchant; Alice “Allie” Hancock Davis (born 1853), who married Andrew Jackson Perry, the son of a prominent Lawrence grocer, in 1873. After his death in 1877, she married Joseph William Robbins who became the Surveyor General of the State of Arizona in 1880. He died in 1883, and she married William Alfred Quayle in 1886. Quayle became the President of Baker University and a Bishop in the Methodist Church. Alice’s daughter from her first marriage married Charles S. Parmenter who taught at Baker for 40 years and for whom Parmenter Hall on the Baker campus is named; Kate “Katie” B. Davis (born 1857), who married Uriah North, a carriage manufacturer in Leavenworth and who ran a rooming house in Palmyra after her husband’s death; and Henry Thomas Davis (born 1868) who became a Methodist minister and served a number of communities in Kansas and Oklahoma. (3)

On March 18, 1857, a group of Methodist ministers met at the home of Henry Barricklow (Barricklow’s home was on the site of Kibbee’s cabin) to consider the question of a college. Several sites were considered and Palmyra, which had promised 800 acres of land, was selected. On April 17, 1857, the Kansas-Nebraska Annual Conference adopted a report endorsing the establishment of Baker University on the land donated by the Palmyra Association and on February 3, 1858 the Kansas Legislature granted a charter to the new institution. The 800 acre section of land was surveyed into lots and sold, the proceeds being used to erect the college building. Business buildings were also erected and one by one the business enterprises of Palmyra moved to the newly established area and new businesses started up. One of the most notable enterprises was a saw and grist mill that had been built by a man named John Baldwin at Fifth and Indiana Streets. Baldwin had arrived in 1857 from Berea, Ohio where he had founded a college which came to be known as Baldwin Wallace University. No doubt the founders of Baker and the residents of the new area which came to be called Baldwin City in his honor were hoping that talent and wealth of John Baldwin would be a major force in building the town and the University, but his influence proved to be short-lived. In April 1858, Baldwin’s son, Milton, was chosen to be the principal of the preparatory department of the new college, but he died four months later. In his grief after Milton’s death, Baldwin could not bear to continue to live in the town that bears his name and returned to Ohio. (4) (6)

Work on a building to house the new college began in earnest. Simply called the “College Building” it was supposed to be a temporary structure and therefore was not located on the land set aside for the Baker campus. This building, which became known as the “Old Castle” still stands today.

The Trustees of the University then turned their attention to finding a president. Their search resulted in asking Werter Renick Davis to become the first president. He was serving as the President of McKendree College at the time and was being asked to consider other opportunities in the East, but he was drawn to the challenge of building a new university on the frontier and he accepted the offer of the Baker Trustees in June 1858. Based on his appearance alone, he seemed like a good choice for the job - from Quayle’s eulogy: “His was a presence which would attract attention anywhere - in form tall, slender, erect as a pine; with a face of rare intelligence; penetrating eyes that revealed love and tenderness, but could flash like drawn swords when occasion demanded; . . . a military carriage to the day of his death” (4) (6)

Davis arrived at the train station nearest to Baldwin on September 1, 1858, but it was 16 miles away. He had not told anyone at Baker when he was scheduled to arrive and no one was at the station to meet him. With no alternative, he determined that he would walk to his final destination, but a young farmer named Clarkson Reynolds happened to be returning to his farm from a nearby saw mill with a load of lumber and came upon Davis. Clarkson asked Werter to join him on the seat of his wagon and the new president made his triumphal entry to Baldwin in the seat of a hay wagon. When he arrived the residents of Baldwin were in the midst of a camp meeting with much singing and celebrating. The Baker Board of Trustees met during the camp meeting and elected Davis to be President. Clarkson Reynolds became a close friend of Davis and served as a Major under Davis in the 16th Kansas Volunteer Calvary during the Civil War. (7) (8)

Classes at the new university started November 22. Twenty students appeared on the first day and the number increased to fifty by the end of the term. The next year, the enrollment was nearly 100. In addition to being the chief fundraiser, his initial responsibilities included organizing the faculty. He returned to McKendree and brought back three professors: Thomas Hicks Mudge, Thomas A. Parker and Byron Rush Cunningham. Davis’s wife, Minerva, also served on the faculty teaching piano and organ. In 1860, a report to the Kansas Methodist Annual Conference concluded that: “Baker University is in a prosperous condition. The College Building for the Preparatory Department has been finished and is sufficiently commodious to meet the present educational wants of the country. The University lands are now relieved from debt, and a good title obtained to them. A good college bell, weighing three hundred pounds, has been presented by Reverend Bishop Osmon C. Baker (for whom the University was named). Resolved, that we will cordially unite with the friends of education in exerting our efforts to build up and sustain Baker University as the one great University of Kansas." In March 1862, the first printed statement of the course of work at Baker included two years of work in the Preparatory Department and four years of work in the College Department. (2) (4) (5)

In addition to his responsibilities as the President of Baker, he was active in supporting the Baldwin community and the Kansas Territory: for a time, he was in charge of the Methodist Episcopal church in Baldwin; in 1859, he edited “The Kansas Message,” the first paper published in Baldwin City; he was chaplain of the Wyandotte Convention that drafted a constitution in July of 1859 which became the state constitution when Kansas was admitted to the Union in January of 1861; he was appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction for Douglas County; he was elected a member of the first state legislature which met in 1861. (1) (2) (6)

While President of Baker, he continued to vigorously support anti-slavery and free state causes. According to Quayle, he was an intimate associate of James H Lane (a jayhawker, Union general and first U. S. Senator from Kansas) and Charles L Robinson (first Governor of the State of Kansas). While President of Baker, he preached a sermon about the “murder” of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. In March 1862, he resigned as President and became Presiding Elder of the Baldwin City District. However, a few months later with the Civil War raging, he enlisted in the army. (6)

He initially he went to the front as chaplain of the 12th Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but soon after he was commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel to raise and organize the 16th Volunteer Kansas Calvary Regiment. He was promoted to Colonel and continued in command of that regiment until it was mustered out in December 1865. His regiment was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and saw action primarily in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Davis was Commandant of Fort Leavenworth for a time. After Lee’s surrender, his regiment was assigned to Fort Laramie, Wyoming and they took part in the Powder River Expedition against the Indians in the Black Hills. According to Quayle, among the mementoes which his wife and children prized most highly were a brace of gold-mounted revolvers and the ivory-hilted saber, presented to him by his regiment. (1) (6)

At the conclusion of his military service, he returned to his home in Palmyra (he and his family later moved to a home in Baldwin). He returned to preaching, serving as the Presiding Elder in a number of districts, including Fort Scott, Baldwin, Leavenworth, Topeka, Salina, Vinland, Pomona and Eudora. He briefly served as President of Baker University two more times when the position was left vacant during the latter half of the 1860’s and Baker was struggling to survive. He served on the Baker Board of Trustees from 1859 until his death in 1893 and was pastor of the Baldwin Methodist church 1882-1885. He was a member of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1868,1872 and 1880. He was a delegate to Methodist Ecumenical Conference in London in 1881 and a delegate to Centennial Conference at Baltimore in 1884. (5) (6)

The funeral service for Dr. Davis were held in the college chapel (which was located in Centenary Hall at that time) on June 21, 1893. In his eulogy, Quayle concluded: “As an educator Dr. Davis shaped the destiny of the first college of Kansas and made his indelible impress on the educational work of the State. But, although a soldier and an educator, he was first, last and most of all a preacher. As a preacher he was fervent and powerful. For years he was conceded to be the most eloquent man west of the Mississippi.” (4) (6)


1. Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1888

2. Cutler, William G., History of the State of Kansas, 1883

3. Cyclopedia of Methodism, 1881

4. Ebright, Homer Kingsley, The History of Baker University, 1951

5. Markham, Osmon Grant, Alumni Record of Baker University, 1917

6. Quayle, William Alfred, Eulogy of Werter Renick Davis, The Methodist Review, 1895

7. Markham, Virginia Gatch, John Baldwin and Son Milton Come to Kansas, 1982

8. Monahan, Elmer P., Semi-Centennial of Baker University, Western Christian Advocate, 1909

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