THE ONLY FATHER
Wm. HEATH DAVIS EVER KNEW: JOHN COFFIN JONES, Jr.
William Heath Davis’s natural father, William Heath Davis, Sr., died in 1822, the same year in which Davis, Jr. was born. In 1826 Davis’s mother, Hannah (who stopped using the Davis surname as a widow and resumed her maiden name of Holmes), became the consort of John Coffin Jones, Jr., and Jones would become the only father that Davis ever knew. Jones enrolled Davis (and Jones’ other children) in the secular Ohahu Charity School, established in 1833, served as a trustee and chairman for the school, and even provided the bell for its cupola. Although he would admonish Davis to apply himself to his studies, Davis was not a scholar and appreciated sailing with his stepfather on journeys to the continental United States, much more than sitting behind a school desk.
Jones was from a prominent Boston family; his father had served as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Jones went to sea at an early age, and at the age of 24 presented to the Boston Athenaeum a small oil painting of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I. This presentation indicated that he had already traveled to the Sandwich Islands by that time.
Jones arrived in Honolulu permanently in the spring of 1821 to become the United States Agent for Commerce and Seamen, a quasi-diplomatic and commercial post. Initially he had tremendous official standing in the Sandwich Islands, and upon the death of popular Queen Keopulani in Lainaina in 1823, Jones led the procession of foreign dignitaries at her Christian funeral. His official standing also provided him with a wooden house which was also known variously as the “American consulate” or “Mr. Jones’ store.” The wooden house was a two-story prefabricated structure that had been brought to Honolulu on the ship, Paragon. The house was said to have been handsomely furnished and boasted the first wallpaper seen in the Hawaiian Islands. Within two years of arriving in Oahu, there were four mercantile commercial operations in the Sandwich Islands: Hunnewell’s, Jones’s, Nor’west John DeWolf’s (from Bristol, RI) and another NY firm. It was said that “the foreign settlement at Honolulu, with its frame houses shipped around the Horn, haircloth furniture, orthodox meeting house built of corral blocks, and New England Sabbath, was as Yankee as a suburb of Boston.” This was the Hawaii that William Heath Davis grew up in.
Jones maintained at least two families in Hawaii, the first with Hannah Holmes (period of 1822-1827) and also with Lahilahi, a daughter of Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin and his Hawaiian wife. With Hannah, Jones fathered Elizabeth and John, stepsister and brother to William Heath Davis. He also served as stepfather to both of the Davis boys. With Lahilahi, Jones had three children. Jones’ relationship with Lahilahi was the subject of much concern in the closed Protestant society of the Islands, since Lahilahi was a Catholic, and Catholics were not well regarded in Hawaii. (Catholic missionaries had arrived in the Sandwich Islands in 1827 and were imprisoned by the government for worshipping crosses and statues until the Declaration of Rights was signed in 1839 granting religious freedom). By 1838, Jones may have been working on his third family, as he returned from a trip to California with a third woman of Spanish origin, who he publicly introduced as his “wife.” Hannah was so enraged at this affront to her standing (neither she nor Lahilahi had been ceremoniously or civilly married to Jones) that she petitioned the Hawaiian government for a divorce based on Jones’ purported bigamy, and a month later after granting relief, the King also dismissed Jones as the US consul .During the 1830’s Jones’ standing with the Hawaiian rulers had already suffered, as his womanizing was disapproved, and he opposed much of the work of the missionaries since he approached life from a perspective of a man of commerce, rather than one of religion.
Davis’ first home with his stepfather Jones in Honolulu was not without its excitement. When Davis was five years old a British sea captain brought the heads of two Maori chiefs killed during the wars there. The heads were preserved in alcohol and were washed in Jones’ store where the Jones-Davis family lived. In order to discourage lookie-loos, one of Jones’ workers threw the wash water from the heads on people who had come to gawk. The heads were last seen being dropped into the harbor from the wharf near Kapapoko. While we do not know whether Davis actually was involved in the heads incident, he certainly would have known about it at the time.
Text from the 2009 exhibit “William Heath Davis in Hawaii”