Larry Evans: Twelve Foot Davis of the Peace River Country


While researching stories about the Fort St. John area we run across reference to the many interesting characters that helped shape the area and has made the Peace an interesting place to live. 

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One of those characters is Twelve Foot Davis. Stories about Twelve Foot Davis are prolific in Peace River, Alberta, as that was where he lived for many years. However, Mr. Davis also made the Fort St. John area his home for a time. Reference information was taken from many sources, but in particular from the history book written by James G. MacGregor entitled The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis.

Henry Fuller Davis was born in Vermont in 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. Is it possible Henry Davis heard the stories that sent him wandering to the Peace River Country that Harmon spoke of and wrote about?

 By the time he was 29, he had become an efficient miner in California. By the 1860s he was in the Cariboo. Although he couldn’t read or write, he could add and subtract or “figure.” Davis was a shrewd man and with a bit of sleuthing he discovered the original discovery claim on Williams Creek and one adjacent claim were performing particularly well. Late one night, Davis stepped off the borders of the two claims and found both were slightly over their legal limits. Davis promptly filed a claim for the resulting fraction, a 12-foot strip of unaccounted for land between the two claims. Davis recovered $12,000 to $15,000 worth of gold, and then sold the fraction for a further sum of money. 

In 1864, there was a push for the western lands to be opened up to the settlers. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold its land rights to the Confederation of Canada, making the land available that opened up the country. Until then, the Hudson’s Bay had complete control of the trade in Western Canada. The Peace River was administered from Edmonton, as it was not part of B.C. at that time. The fur traders came down the Peace from as far south as Quesnel on their way to the east to sell their furs. Finally, the free traders were able to trade with the First Nations people.

Around 1865, a short, powerful figure of a Yankee trader and miner with a squeaky voice came down the Parsnip River. He had travelled from Quesnel, making the portage from the Fraser to the Parsnip at Giscomb (in the Pine Pass). 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, who was now stuck with the nickname Twelve Foot, arrived at the Peace River country. He established a series of trading posts along the river, using his gold money to finance them. He set up his main post directly opposite that of the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company. Taking advantage of the lethargy that dogs large corporate enterprise to this day, Davis varied the prices he paid trappers for furs so they were always just a bit better than the Bay’s prices. HBC had to wait for changes to be approved by the head office in Winnipeg, which gave Davis plenty of lead time. HBC tried many times to stop Davis’s trading but was never able to. 

Davis sold or traded supplies and food to the miners and the First Nations. The Bay began to lose its hold on them. For decades, they had supplied the natives with “jawbone” or credit at the beginning of the trapping year. The natives were inherently honest, and nearly always paid up. Davis began to employ them as canoe men and packers. He had an unshakable reputation for treating the First Nations people fairly. In folklore passed on by native leaders to Professor Robin Ridington, they say they had never had anything except scrub horses until Davis, whom they had named “The Wolf,” brought them the wiry, strong packhorses, including Appaloosas, whose descendants are still seen today in pack trains of hunting guides. Whenever you see a spotted horse, think of Davis who introduced them to the Hope to handle freight over the old Portage Road.

Davis employed hundreds of men. They said he never asked a man to do what he wouldn’t do himself. A “piece” of freight, especially furs, weighed 90 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. At some of the places where he built little posts not far from the HBC, he planted pumpkins. They ripened in the long summer days in the mission gardens. Long ago in his boyhood he had worked as a pastry cook in Boston, so “Davis Punkin Pies” became famous all down the Peace. Doubtless they drew a few trappers away from the cheerless Bay posts. 

Until almost the end of his life, he continued his journeys to Quesnel, Dunvegan, Peace River, Vermilion, Edmonton, and Victoria. During the last five years, he was blind and crippled, so he had to be carried from canoe to post or from wagon to fort. His last trip was to Edmonton and he died at the Mission at lesser Slave Lake on September 13, 1900. For many years, his bones rested at the mission cemetery until his friend, Colonel Jim Cornwall, the one time mail carrier of the Peace, kept his promise to Davis and had him re-buried at Sagitawa, where the Smoky and the Peace meet. His epitaph reads: “Pathfinder, pioneer, miner and trader. He was every man’s friend.” His door was always open.

Davis was just one of a Northern fraternity of free enterprisers as close-knit as the bush pilots who succeeded them. There was the genial giant Pete Toy, a Cornish man, who was reputed to have found a fabulous gold strike at Pete Toys Bar, where he took out $70,000 worth of gold. He was as generous to the Sikanni people as Davis was to the Beaver people. Although he was famed as a river man, the Black Canyon of the Omineca took him. His cache of gold has never been found, however it is now under Williston Lake as well as the old post of Cust and Carey, somewhere under the great dam. 

As we all know, there could be no more beautiful country than that along the Peace near Fort St. John. No stretch of river in the world has such a series of magnificent views as the Peace River from Fort St. John to Hudson Hope. The highway along its north shore exhibits these to perfection. Mile after mile, it presents new views of the majestic river curving around its gravel-flanked islands densely covered with their dark green spruce and cottonwoods, and here and there skirting the margin of large quartz-strewn gravel bars smoothed out and trim. In the latter part of the 1800s, each of these bars had two or more men disturbing the gravel and delving for gold. The wooded islands glowed with the red of their many campfires. In time, these miners departed, the river bearing their little rafts on its broad bosom. As they departed, it watched the embers of their campfires cool and pale to downy white ashes. The light breeze picked up the ashes and swirled off down the river after the miners. Then the river set to work, tidying up its gravel bars and erasing all traces of the miners.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News


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