“W.D. Davis is Dead: Prominent Yukoner Gone to Rest,” proclaimed the headline in the Dawson Daily News for June 6, 1906.
Donald Watson (W.D.) Davis was only 56 years old, and he left behind 10 offspring from two marriages. He also left behind a remarkable career. While he was prominent in Klondike circles, he was far more well known, and far more notorious for his accomplishments in Alberta, before he came north on the cusp of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Davis was originally an American, born in northern Vermont on November 23, 1849. He joined a Vermont regiment of the Union Army at the age of 13, and was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg. Towering over 1.8 metres in height as an adult, he was probably tall enough even as a young teenager to meet the requirements for recruitment.
He later trained as a bookkeeper before signing on with the U.S. Army and being shipped to Montana where he became the acting quartermaster sergeant at Fort Shaw, south of the Alberta border.
After he left the army, he was hired by Hamilton and (J.J.) Healy, and found himself in charge of Fort Whoop-up, selling whiskey and earning the substantial wage of $150 per month. In letters home, he confided he wanted to make plenty of money without hard labour, and at that he succeeded.
When the mounted police arrived at Fort Whoop-up in 1874, the whiskey trade ended. He eventually became the Canadian manager of I.G. Baker and Company, an American firm that was bigger than the Hudson’s Bay Company until the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
During this period, he established a relationship with a Blood Indian woman named Revenge Walker, with whom he had four children. The eldest of whom, a son named Jeff, was sent to Trinity College School in Port Hope Ontario, then later enlisted in the Canadian Mounted Rifles, where he obtained a commission as a lieutenant, and was awarded the D.S.O. during the Boer War.
Shedding his less savoury reputation as whiskey trader, Davis eventually abandoned Revenge Walker in favour of a young Fort Macleod school teacher named Lillie Grier, whom he married in 1886, and with whom he had six more children.
He diversified into ranching and other respectable pursuits, purchased interests in the Fort Macleod Gazette and the Calgary Herald, and became a community leader in Fort Macleod. With the financial support of the I.G. Baker Company, he ran for office in the federal election of 1887 in which, for the first time, a seat had been allocated to Alberta. He won, and was returned for a second term in 1891.
During his career as member of Parliament, he was known as a staunch champion of the interests of big ranching in Alberta. His leader, Conservative prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, died shortly after the 1891 election, and the party disintegrated over the next few years.
Davis did not run in the following election. Instead, in 1896, he secured a position as collector of customs in the isolated post of Fort Cudahy, adjacent to the mining town of Forty Mile. One of the big mysteries of Davis’s career is why he would switch careers, from one in which he was one of the most prominent citizens in western Canada, to that of a civil servant in one of the most remote outposts in the entire nation. Davis had always liked the opportunities offered by the wide-open frontier. By 1896, Alberta no longer offered those opportunities. Perhaps his former boss and friend, J.J. Healy, told him of the opportunity that the Yukon offered an enterprising spirit.
He departed for St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon by ship on July 8, 1896, and was steaming up the Yukon aboard the steamer Portus B. Weare, when gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek. If he thought he was going to a sleepy little hideaway in a remote part of the nation, he was wrong; if he thought he would find opportunity, he was right.
When the district was overwhelmed by the influx of thousands of stampeders, Davis used his own judgement to deal with the situation, relocating to Dawson City in early 1897, and taking charge of the customs office without waiting for the slow response from his eastern headquarters. His actions were later endorsed by Ottawa, and he retained his job as collector of customs in one of the busiest ports in the nation. Having known both Superintendent Sam Steele and Inspector Zachary Taylor Wood from their Mounted Police days at Fort Macleod must have been a plus for him in executing his duties.
Davis served on a management committee for the community under Sam Steele and became active in establishing a fire department in Dawson. He was the chairman of the fire commission when two big fires struck the growing town in 1899. He became partners with another member of the fire commission, J.J. Rutledge, and they acquired numerous claims on Gold Run Creek, a tributary of Dominion Creek south of King Solomon’s Dome.
Davis had always been a staunch Conservative in politics, and when he ran for the office of mayor in the 1904 civic election, he was supported by prominent politicians in the community. Despite their support, he lost by 32 votes, placing last in a field of three candidates.
His political career may have floundered in the Klondike, but his mining career blossomed. Rutledge and Davis became one of the most prominent mining partnerships in the Klondike. This may have created conflicts of interest that compromised his post as collector of customs, and he resigned his post in 1902 after six years of service. Davis left his post upon the arrival in Dawson of the Chief Customs Inspector McMichael. Local authorities were tight-lipped about the affair, but the Calgary Herald implied grave irregularities in the customs department hastened his departure.
He invested in the Whitehorse Navigation Company, but got squeezed out of the business by competition from much larger companies. His mining concerns floundered in later years, but by 1906, he was suffering from failing health. He died June 5, 1906, leaving behind 10 children and an estate heavily mired in debt.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org