Early life and first military career
Davis's paternal grandparents each immigrated separately to North America from the region of Snowdonia in North Wales in the early 18th century. The rest of his ancestry was English. After arriving in Philadelphia, Davis's paternal grandfather Evan settled in the colony of Georgia, which was developed chiefly along the coast. He married the widow Lydia Emory Williams, who had two sons from a previous marriage. Davis was an Episcopalian.
Their son Samuel Emory Davis was born in 1756. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, along with his two older half-brothers. In 1783, after the war, he married Jane Cook. She was born in 1759 to William Cook and his wife Sarah Simpson in what is now Christian County, Kentucky. In 1793, the Samuel Davis family relocated to Kentucky, establishing what is now the community of Fairview on the border of Christian and Todd counties. Samuel and Jane Davis had ten children; Joseph was the oldest son, born in 1784; Jefferson was the last and was born on June 3, 1807 or 1808, on the Davis homestead in Fairview. The year of his birth is uncertain; Davis gave both 1807 and 1808, at different points in his life. Samuel had been a young man when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Jefferson was the third President of the United States, and Samuel, admiring him greatly, named his last son after the president. Coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln was born eight months later, less than 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast in Hodgenville, Kentucky. In the early 20th century, the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site was established near the site of Davis's birth.
During Davis's youth, his family moved twice: in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and less than a year later to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. The international slave trade was prohibited in 1808, and planters used the domestic slave trade to procure laborers for developing cotton culture in the Deep South. Three of Davis's older brothers served in the War of 1812. In 1813, Davis began his education at the Wilkinson Academy in the small town of Woodville, near the family cotton plantation.
His brother Joseph, who was 24 years older, acted as a surrogate father and encouraged Jefferson in his education. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student at the school. In 1818 Davis returned to Mississippi, studying at Jefferson College at Washington. Three years later in 1821, he returned to Kentucky, where he studied at Transylvania University in Lexington. (At the time, these colleges were like academies, roughly equivalent to high schools.) His father Samuel died on July 4, 1824, when Jefferson was 16 years old.
Joseph arranged for Davis to get an appointment and attend the United States Military Academy (West Point) starting in late 1824. While there, he was placed under house arrest for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas 1826. Cadets smuggled whiskey into the academy to make eggnog, and more than one-third of the cadets were involved in the incident. In June 1828, Davis graduated 23rd in a class of 33.
Following graduation, Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory. Zachary Taylor, a future president of the United States, had assumed command shortly before Davis arrived in early 1829. In March 1832, Davis returned to Mississippi on furlough, having had no leave since he first arrived at Fort Crawford. He was still in Mississippi during the Black Hawk War but returned to the fort in August. At the conclusion of the war, Colonel Taylor assigned him to escort Black Hawk to prison. Davis made an effort to shield Black Hawk from curiosity seekers, and the chief noted in his autobiography that Davis treated him "with much kindness" and showed empathy for the leader's situation as a prisoner.