Founded in 1835 on lands seized a few years earlier from the Choctaw and Chickasaw, the town of Davis was originally incorporated as “Okatibeha” after the old Native American name for the place. A great battle had once been fought there by the Chickasaw against the Choctaw, hence the name Oke-tibe-ha or “Fighting Water.” It has been since its inception the county seat of Pollocona County, which is Choctaw for “flying squirrel country.”

Following the Civil War, in which the town changed hands seven times (“Not even the Confederates seemed to much care if they retained the spot,” remarked Ulysses S. Grant in his Memoirs), the town was renamed Davis in 1879. Then-mayor Gaius Valerius Catullus Vardaman (second cousin once-removed of the future governor of Mississippi J. K. Vardaman) remarked in an editorial at the time that “giving up an alien and savage name for one that lay bloodstained yet blameless and holy is the height of civic virtue.” Jefferson Davis himself attended the name changing ceremony, an event commemorated by a statue that still stands in the courthouse square; he was quietly paid $5000 from the town purse to deliver an oration which is inscribed at the statue’s base.

Railroad trade brought significant growth to Davis from 1879 to the turn of the century, culminating in the foundation of the North Mississippi Normal School in 1901, which would later grow into the University of Northern Mississippi (UNM). Thanks to its favorable position within the state, closer to the main Illinois Central railroad and later I-55 than either Oxford or Cleveland, UNM grew into the fourth-largest university in the state and enjoyed a modest regional reputation that continues to this day. While it has no football team to drive tourism like Oxford, and its literary heritage is limited, the people of Davis pride themselves as being far more down-to-earth than the “folks down Lafayette way.”

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