Until that time the Hudson’s Bay had a nearly complete monopoly to trade in Western Canada. The Peace River was administered from Edmonton. The fur brigades came down the Peace from as far south as Quesnel on their way to headquarters in the East. No free traders could get past the all-powerful Bay factors and trading posts.
But sometime after 1869 a short, powerful figure of a Yankee trader and miner with a high squeaky voice came down the Parsnip River from Quesnel way with a boatload of trading goods. He had entered the area by the back door to become one of the few free traders ever to beat the mighty Bay at its own game, and make himself the tycoon of all northern transportation companies.
A “Northern Freightways” plus department store chain! A friend, counsellor and hero to Indians, white men, and even Chinese. He could not read or write but when he died his empire stretched from Quesnel to Fort Vermilion and south to Edmonton. He was H.F. Davis. Almost nobody seems to know that the “H.F.” stands for “Henry Fuller”, but few people north of Barkerville and Quesnel have not heard the nickname “Twelve Foot Davis”. The Peace Country is sometimes known as “The Land of Twelve Foot Davis”, the title used by J.G. MacGregor in his excellent study of the region.
Davis was born about 1820, not far from where the great Dunvegan trader Harmon had retired and published his journal. The journal told of the great riches of the Peace country soil, the finding of dinosaur bones, and the great beauty of the land. Did the boy hear tales from the lips of the old man himself? Something sent him wandering to die eighty years later and be buried at the place he said was the most beautiful in the whole of U.S.A. and Canada, overlooking Peace River Town? He was well qualified to say!
By the age of 29 he had become an efficient miner in California. By the 1860’s he was in the Cariboo. Although he could not read or write, he could “figure.” He found a twelve-foot wide unclaimed strip of land between Discovery claims #1 and #2 at Barkerville. Unlike many discoverers he could keep his mouth shut until he had recorded his claim in the Department of Mines. Out of his fractional claim he took $12,000 worth of gold, and earned the nickname which has stuck to him until this day.
The gold seekers pushed north towards the Omineca fields, and finally to the Islands of the Peace where 2,000 miners were panning between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope in the late 1860s and early 1870s. They found gold, and had it to spend. Davis saw an opportunity.
Davis turned his gold into trade goods, supplies and food that the miners needed, and soon goods for the Indians, too. The Bay began to lose their hold on them. For decades they had supplied the Indians with “jawbone” or credit at the beginning of the trapping year. The Indians were inherently honest, and nearly always paid up. Now Davis began to employ them as canoemen and packers.
He had an unshakable reputation for treating the Indians fairly. In fact he has passed into their folklore, as related by the last of their leaders to Prof. Robin Ridington not long ago. They say they had never had anything except scrub horses until he brought them the wiry, strong packhorses, including Appaloosas, whose descendants we see today in the pack trains of our hunting guides. Whenever you see a spotted horse think of Davis who introduced them at the Hope to handle freight over the old Portage Road.
Davis in his time employed hundreds of men. They said that he never asked a man to do what he wouldn’t do himself. A “piece” of freight, especially furs, weighed ninety pounds. The little man could always pack two, although he never asked a man to carry more than one.
Besides his strength he had other claims to fame. Among other places where he built a little post not far from the Bay’s was Dunvegan. Pumpkins ripened in the long summer days in the mission gardens. Long ago in his boyhood he had worked as a pastry cook in Boston. “Davis Punkin Pies” became famous all down the Peace. Doubtless they drew a few trappers away from the cheerless Bay posts. Davis was a “big” enough man not to become aggressive like many northern camp cooks who felt that they had to compensate for the lack of prestige of men who did “women’s work.”
An amusing story about an incident at Hudson’s Hope one New Year’s Day shows that Davis did not wholly share the Bay’s views on whisky.
On that occasion he sent a couple of bottles, by accident, to the manager of the Bay post. The Bay man had sent a written invitation to New Years’ dinner at 2 p.m. Ashamed to admit that he could not read, Davis tried to puzzle out the meaning. Reasoning that nothing except desperate illness would induce a man to write, and recognizing the number “2,” he decided that the Bay man was asking for two bottles of whisky, the Northman’s cure for everything that ailed him. So he sent them along. Nobody recorded what he said when the messenger came back with another verbal invitation but no whisky.
Davis’s kindness and hospitality became legendary. In 1886 or ’87 a young missionary had brought his bride to the lonely Dunvegan mission. One can imagine how much she learned from their elderly friend about coping with pioneer housekeeping and nursing. The young couple shook their heads over his non-observance of any religious faith, but his kindness lives on in their memoirs.
Until almost the end of his life he continued his journeys to Quesnel, Dunvegan, Peace River, Vermilion, Edmonton and Victoria. During his last five years he was blind, and crippled, so that he had to be carried from canoe to post or from wagon to fort. His last trip was to Edmonton. On the way back to Vermilion he became ill and was taken to the Mission at Lesser Slave Lake. The kindly missionary nurse grieved that he was not a Christian. She asked him if he were afraid to die. “No miss, why should I be afraid to die? I never killed nobody; I never stole from nobody; I never willfully harmed nobody and I always kept open house, for all travelers all my life.
No miss, I ain’t afraid to die.”
For many years Davis’s bones lay in the little mission cemetery. Then his old friend, Col. Cornwall, the one time mail carrier of the Peace, kept an old promise. Davis had asked no more than to be buried on the hill overlooking Sagitawa, the meeting of the Smoky and the Peace, where he had once taken up a homestead. His bones were disinterred and buried again at this beautiful spot. A log shaped monument, not a cross, marked the head and on it is the simple epitaph,
Davis was just one of a Northern fraternity of free enterprisers as close-knit as the bush pilots who succeeded them in less than fifty years. There was the genial giant Pete Toy, a Cornish man, who was reputed to have found a fabulous gold strike at “Pete Toy’s Bar,” where he took out $70,000 worth of gold, sometimes as much as $400 a day. He was as generous to the Sikanni Indians as Davis was to the Beaver. Although he was famed as a river man, the Black Canyon of the Omineca took him. His cache of gold has never been found. It is now under Williston Lake. So is the old post of Cust and Carey, quite near the great dam. But Colonel Jim Cornwall or “Peace River Jim” was Davis’s closest friend. He was “a riverman, trader, adventurer, soldier and Empire builder” honored alike over the northern half of the province for his wit, enterprise and silent charity.” 1
At one time Cornwall was the mailman for the whole country, often carrying it on his back. He was the first river man to navigate a steamer on the Athabasca River over the McMurray rapids. He cut several of the old wagon trails. He brought in the first pigs from far away Edmonton for a start in that branch of agriculture.
Among the multitude of enterprises, this man found time to do deeds of mercy for which there could be no recompense. Tragedy struck the young missionary Alfred Garrioch and his wife at Dunvegan. Years after they had buried their baby daughter under the maples of the old Anglican mission, Cornwall found the picket fence falling down and the lettering on the wooden slab faded. He repaired and painted the fence of the tiny plot, and had re-lettered on a stone, the pitiful epitaph,
It would be suitable if the rustic log design stone that Cornwall erected to his old friend Davis should be given a place of honour in memory of two great free enterprisers who found time to be friends.