Henry Fuller "12 Foot" Davis - History

Born in the hills of Vermont (U.S.A.) in 1820, H.F. (Henry Fuller) Davis came to be a legend in the Peace River Country. During his long and colourful career as a prospector and trader in western Canada, the illiterate Yankee established a reputation for shrewd, but honest dealings with Indians and white men alike.

One of the original "Forty Niners" of the California gold rush, he soon moved on to the Cariboo area of east central British Columbia. The new rush there had attracted so many gold seekers that by the time Davis arrived, all the prime claim areas had been staked out. Two miners were doing particularly well at two adjacent claims. Though he was unable to read and write, Davis discovered that there was a 12-foot (3.4 metres) gap between them. He quickly filed on this narrow strip and within a short period of time, had extracted $12,000 dollars worth of gold from it. This was the origin of the nickname he bore for the rest of his life ‘Twelve Foot’ Davis.

As soon as he was satisfied that his claim would yield nothing of further value, he moved on to the Peace River area, where he used his new wealth to establish a string of trading posts. Unlike the practice of others who brought in their supplies from the east, Davis relied on a firm in Quesnel, British Columbia for his trade goods. He maintained his own outfit of packhorses...

Because he was illiterate, Davis had to rely on his employees to do his reading and writing for him. Sometimes this caused him trouble. Once he received a note from a friendly rival - the factor of the local Hudson’s Bay post. Being too proud to admit his inability to read to the servant who delivered it, Davis made a great show of studying the message. Letter writing was, in any event, a rare activity which was usually reserved for request for help in emergencies. Thus, Davis concluded, after only being able to identify an arabic number two in the note, that his friend had fallen ill. He had just the remedy for whatever it was that ailed the man and put it into the hands of the messenger to be delivered post haste to his chief - two bottles of his choicest whisky.

Later, when literate friends came by, Davis told them of the factor’s ‘problem’ and showed them the note. It was, they said an invitation to dine at the Hudson’s Bay Company Post in celebration of the new year.

Davis vainly tried to shrug off his embarrassment. "It was that darned two set me wrong", he grumbled.

On the trail Davis was indefatigable. He would commonly carry loads of up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds) on his back, double the weight required of his men, with little or no food. Because of this, the respectful Indians named him ‘The Wolf’.

"He was the dirtiest son of a gun I ever met", said Fletcher Bredin, another well-known Peace River trader. But even if the crusty old tobacco chewing Davis was a ‘mite ripe’, his cabin and company were favourites with the countless travellers who stopped by for a meal or a place to sleep. Even when he was gone for prolonged lengths of time, Twelve Foot Davis’s cabin was never closed to anyone who chose to avail themselves to his absentee hospitality.

His kindness to others was repaid with the same coin during his later years. As Davis grew older, his eyesight and legs began to progressively fail. In time, he became blind and unable to walk. But even these afflictions did not stop his activities. He was returning to his post at Fort Vermilion when he died in September 1900 at the mission at Lesser Slave Lake. Before he breathed his last, one of the nursing order of sisters tending him asked if he feared death. "No, Ma’am", he responded. "I ain’t never kill nobody - I never cheated nobody. Just like the good Lord wants, I allus tried to help fellers and be their friend. I know I ain’t lived perfect, but I think the Lord understands. No Ma’am, I ain’t afraid to die."

Later in keeping with an earlier promise he had made to Twelve Foot Davis, Peace River Jim Cornwall - another legendary figure of the region - had the remains of the old trader buried at the spot with the commanding view of the Peace River and his adopted land. The marker at this serene gravesite reads:

Twelve Foot Davis
Pathfinder, Pioneer, Miner and Trader
He was Every Man’s Friend and Never
Locked his cabin Door

A Narrative History of FORT DUNVEGAN by Daniel Francis and Michael Payne

Portions of the book addressing the history of Henry "Twelve-Foot" Davis

Pages 21-23


The trading monopoly enjoyed at Dunvegan by the Hudson’s Bay Company since 1821 came to an end in the 1860’s when free traders began arriving in the Peace River Country. The first newcomers were miners from British Columbia who spilled across the Rockies in the summer of 1862 to look for gold near Fort St. John and Rocky Mountain Portage. In 1863 - 1864, two miners from Quesnel wintered at Rocky Mountain Portage where they traded furs from the local Indians. The following winter the miner-traders returned, this time travelling as far down the river as Dunvegan where Henry ‘Twelve-foot’ Davis set up shop opposite the Hudson’s Bay Company post.

Davis, from the United States, earned his nickname in the goldfields of British Columbia where he parlayed a 12-foot strip of land squeezed between two other claims into a $15,000 strike. He continued trading on the Peace until his death in 1900. In later years he was blind, deaf and partly paralyzed and a manservant carried him about in a litter. He was buried at Lesser Slave Lake, but his body later was moved to a hill overlooking the town of Peace River.

Twelve-foot Davis was the most famous free trader on the Peace. Other traders included his partner, William Cust, also from the United States, who had come west to the gold rush, and the Elmore brothers who arrived on the Peace in 1874 and were soon operating seven posts from Fort St. John to below Vermilion. This trickle of independent traders into northern Canada became a flood after the turn of the century. Even more of a threat to the Hudson’s Bay Company was Revillon Freres, a Paris-based fur retailer which decided to get involved in the wholesale end of the business. As part of its ambitious expansion into the North, Revillon in 1903 purchased a Peace River fur-trading concern belonging to Jim Cornwall and Fletcher Bredin. The business included posts at The Forks and Lesser Slave Lake, along with several outposts, one located just downstream from Dunvegan. The French company remained in the vicinity of Dunvegan until about 1915. Eventually the entire operation, like so many other rivals of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was bought out by the British company.

The Hudson’s Bay Company combated the free traders in the time-honored way. Servants at Dunvegan kept a close eye on the activities of the opposition and made regular visits to the camps of the Indians to secure their furs. "Do all that you possibly can to prevent him getting any furs," the clerk at Dunvegan advised regarding Twelve-foot Davis, "have all his movements closely watched, otherwise you may be sure he will receive lots of furs." Another clerk in charge of the post, James Dunlop, received permission to be more liberal with credit for fear of driving the Indians into the arms of his rivals. As well, he was allowed to raise the value of some furs. "It is also evident," advised Alexander Christie from Fort Chipewyan, "that a persistence in adhering to our tariff prices while the Traders are outbidding us, will as surely entail a heavy loss on us besides giving a decided advantage to them." "Though such a policy might result in temporary losses." argued Christie, it "would also tend the most speedily and entirely to ruin the opposition."

Pages 66-67

The level of satisfaction with company service among the employees is difficult to evaluate from the sources, but records which exist do not reveal much dissension. Following the arrival of free traders on the river in 1862, a few Hudson’s Bay Company men chose to desert to the competition, either to obtain higher wages or to get out of their Hudson’s Bay Company contracts. During the summer of 1863, J.B. Lamoureaux and Ed Picken bolted to post to join a party of miners who had come across the mountains from Quesnel. In May 1874, Chief Trader Donald Ross complained about the activities of free trader William Cust during a trading expedition down the river.

Continually tampering with our men, but I am happy to say he has failed to secure any of them... At the last moment Cust got one of our trippers to leave the boats offering him 100M(ade) B(eaver) to accompany him back to Dunvegan -- After a good deal of rather plain talk I got my man back to the boats and started, thankful to get clear off with all my men -- Jim Courtoreille, John Flett and Isadore McKay all got the offer of $500 p. annum each if they would leave our employ and engage with the Trader -- but they all refused.

That summer, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company men, William Calder, did succumb to the blandishments of the free traders and deserted to Twelve-foot Davis’s camp. Whether it can be interpreted as a sign of contentment with Hudson’s Bay Company policy or not, very few servants went over to the opposition at Dunvegan.

Pages 81-83

The Arrival of Outsiders - FREE TRADERS

The first group of outsiders to penetrate Dunvegan’s isolation were miners, advance scouts from the Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia who thought to try their luck across the mountains in the upper reaches of the Peace River. These prospectors began appearing in the country in 1861; their numbers swelled at the end of the decade with the discovery of gold on the Omineca River and its tributaries. Many of the newcomers also dabbled in the fur trade. Moving down the river as far as Dunvegan and beyond, they offered the first competition for furs that the Hudson’s Bay Company had known since the days of the North West Company.

Among the free traders, Henry ‘Twelve-foot’ Davis, Bill Cust and the Elmore brothers, and Edward and Dan Carey were the most active in the vicinity of Dunvegan. Davis, for example, established a post across the river from the fort. In the 1880’s and 1890’s a second generation of traders appeared, including LaRiviere and Company, Guillaume Desjarlais, J.B. Rivet, and Allan and Fred Brick, the sons of the Anglican missionary John Gough Brick. Unlike earlier free traders, who had come across the mountains from the west, these traders used Edmonton as their supply centre. They did not all operate posts at Dunvegan, but they were all active on the river competing with the Hudson’s Bay Company for local furs and they visited the post when they knew the Indians would be there.

Relations between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the free traders were guarded, sometimes flaring into angry confrontation. "Today Davis the Yankee trader across arrived to sue me for a cross fox which Francois Tustawitz gave me last month and which was killed with poison that the Yankee gave Francois on the condition that all Francois killed with it he should give to the Yankee," reported James Dunlop in January 1866. "It is none of my business, as I take it, how the foxes are killed and of course I refused to give up the fox though Davis offered to pay me the price I paid for it... The Yankee went off anything but satisfied and threatened that every hair of the fox shall cost me a dollar - so it will be a dear 8 skins worth for the Company."

But there was no question of returning to the bullying and violence which marked the pre-1821 period. As time passed the Hudson’s Bay Company settled into a resigned acceptance of the competition and tried to work out tactics to deal with it. Where necessary the officers at Dunvegan raised their prices to keep their native trappers loyal, hoping that any losses would be offset by driving the free traders out of business. Officers also were urged to visit the Indian camps to acquire furs on the spot. Rivals were not to be permitted to establish themselves unopposed. "That a part of Traders should have succeeded in Establishing themselves at Battle River without any surveillance is a most serious and I fear and irreparable evil," the officer in charge of the Athabasca District scolded James Dunlop in 1866. In 1872, John McAulay actually rented some company buildings on the south shore of the river to Henry Davis. "In future, afford no facilities to Traders," his superior at Chipewyan advised him. "Do all that you possibly can to prevent his (Davis) getting any furs -- have all his movements closely watched, otherwise you may be sure he will receive lots of furs... I rely upon it that you will be able to give me such a good a/c of your operation against Mr. Davis as will have the effect of driving him away for good, besides preventing others from coming to Peace River for purposes of trade.

Page 87

During Tissier’s time at Dunvegan, relations between the mission and the post were strained to the breaking point. Generally speaking, missionaries and the Hudson’s Bay Company had different, often conflicting, aims in the fur-trade country. Both wished to influence the Indians, but in different ways. Missionaries often encouraged the Indians to settle around the missions and to adopt sedentary living habits. The company was loathe to allow this, preferring that the Indians be allowed to go about their traditional hunting activities to the commercial advantage of the trade.

At Dunvegan, Tissier irritated Hudson’s Bay Company officers by objecting to the practice of country marriages, by trading himself with the local Indians and by cultivating close ties with rival traders, in particular Twelve-foot Davis. For his part, Tissier accused the Hudson’s Bay Company of being anti-Catholic. But his superiors apparently agreed with company complaints and sent Father Auguste Husson to take charge of St. Charles Mission early in 1882. If anything, matters only got worse. Tissier remained at the mission sowing discord. Chief Factor James McDougall and Husson fell to bickering over the property line between the mission the Hudson’s Bay Company land. Husson blamed McDougall for the feud, but the missionary did not help matters by allowing a free trader to spend the winter in one of the mission buildings. By the end of 1882 St. Charles was on the verge of collapse.

Information Source: Kevin Jones


Created By DMY on April 4, 1999
Last Updated: September 10, 2001