Davis was born about 1820, not far from where the great Dunvegan trader, Harmon, had retired and published his journal telling 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, that 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 his claim #2 at Barkerville. Unlike many discoverers he could keep his mouth shut until he had recorded his find with the Department of Mines. Out of it 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 1860’s and early 1870’s. 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 traditional hold on the native trappers. 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 unshakeable reputation for treating them 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 Hudson Hope to handle freight over the old Portage Road.
Davis in his time employed hundreds of men, white, Indian and Chinese. 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 post. 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 Year’s 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 a verbal invitation but no whisky.
Davis’ kindness and hospitality became legendary. In 1886-7 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 between 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 and 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. He replied “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.” It has the ring of truth, in spite of a bit of gossip about his honesty that appears (as far as ever heard) only in the book of another missionary, Father Morice, raconteur of Cariboo tales. It probably originated with the miners from the adjoining Barkerville who resented the discovery of their mistake, and considered the gold “stolen”.
For many years his bones lay in the little mission cemetery at Lesser Slave Lake. Then his old friend, Col. Cornwall, the one time mail carrier of the Peace, kept his 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. The bones were disinterred and buried again at this beautiful spot. A log-shaped monument, not a cross, marked the head, and on it is a simple epitaph, “Pathfinder, pioneer, miner, and trader. He was every man’s friend and never locked his cabin door.”
Sixty years later the town of Peace River commemorated him by erecting a carved wood statue near the banks of the river that had known so many of his canoes and “sturgeon heads”, scows and barges, and the paddling songs of employees who were also friends. When I went back in 1971 to visit the tomb, I was sad to learn that vandals had been at work. The historic headstone and fence were no longer visible. A huge, ugly and meaningless “modernistic” block of concrete had taken its place. To me it symbolizes a kind of attempt to keep the kindly man from following the free life he loved. Why so ugly a monument to a man that loved the clouds, the flowers, the rolling hills, and silver-gleaming waters at Sagitawa, a place that even the Indians had perpetuated in their folklore?
It was gratifying to hear that a newcomer to Peace River Town had sensed the symbolism of the old “tree trunk” headstone. After much searching she found it, discarded and about to be buried by bulldozer and brought it to the town museum. There it should be a memorial also to the other kindly transportation pioneer, Jim Cornwall.