Benjamin Montgomery was born an enslaved African in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. His master was Joseph Davis, a Mississippi planter and older brother of future President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis. Blackinventor.com mentions that Davis’ children taught Montgomery how to read and write, and he was assigned to run the general store on the Davis Bend Plantation. Because of his excellent work, Davis put Montgomery in charge of overseeing the entirety of his purchasing and shipping operations on the plantation.
Montgomery learned to survey land, techniques for flood control and the drafting of architectural plans. Commerce flowed through the rivers connecting states, and navigation became difficult due to the differences in the depths of water. Merchandise would be delayed for days if the steamboat were to go adrift, Blackthen.com states. To solve this problem, Montgomery created a propeller for the steamboat that would allow for better navigation through shallow water.
Davis attempted to patent the device. It was denied on June 10, 1858, because Montgomery was an enslaved African, not considered a citizen of the United States, and the patent could not be in his name. According to Blackinventor.com, Davis and his brother attempted to patent the device in their name but were denied because they were not the true inventor. On June 28, 1864, Montgomery, no longer enslaved, filed for a patent for his device and was again denied.
After the Civil War ended, Davis sold his plantation to Montgomery and his son Isaiah. The sale was made based on a long-term loan in the amount of $300,000.00. PBS.org states that Benjamin and Isaiah pursued their dream to use the property to establish a community of former enslaved people. However, their crops were destroyed and they were unable to pay off the loan. The property was sold back to the Davis family.
Although Montgomery died in 1877, Isaiah continued his dream of building an independent Black colony. He purchased 840 acres of land, and along with a number of other former enslaved people, founded the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887.