IT was in this week of 1790 that the death occurred of William Davidson, one of the more important figures in the development of Canada.

Very much one of those Scots who is more revered abroad than he is at home, Davidson was instrumental in the establishment of the Canadian timber industry, and forestry remains a huge success story for Canada which is the world’s second largest exporter of wood products.

Davidson’s personal story is hugely inspiring as he rose from humble beginnings as a salmon fisherman on the River Spey to becoming an important entrepreneur and politician in Nova Scotia and then was a founding father of New Brunswick province.

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He also overcame many challenges and bounced back from a run of bad luck, as we shall see.

Davidson was born John Godsman in Cowford in Bellie parish, near Fochabers in Banffshire, now in Moray, in 1740. His father Alexander was involved in fishing and William began his working life catching fish on the River Spey. At some stage, he changed his name to that of his maternal grandfather William Davidson.

He emigrated to Nova Scotia at the age of 24, and with his business partner John Cort from Aberdeenshire, he obtained a grant of land from the authorities in the provincial capital Nova Scotia.

It was a huge grant of 100,000 acres and with it came timber and fishing rights. All Davidson and Cort had to do was bring in 500 Protestant people to clear and settle the land which was a virtual wilderness on either side of the Miramichi River.

Cort had one third of the land and appears to have played an administrative role, Davidson being the undoubted driver of the business. Davidson struggled to find settlers, but nevertheless he persevered and set up profitable fisheries which exported dried and salted fish to Europe and the West Indies.

Acknowledged as the first European permanent settler in the Miramichi area, Davidson did not always enjoy good relations with the native tribes in the area. He also brought in settlers from New England and when not engaged in fisheries, his workers cleared timber for the building of ships on the river.

In 1773, he brought in shipbuilders from Britain and his first ship, launched shortly afterwards, was a schooner proudly named Miramichi. It met with disaster, sinking off the coast of Spain on its maiden voyage. Davidson was determined to keep going but his second ship did not even get out of Canadian waters, sinking off the north of Prince Edward Island on its maiden voyage.

Such setbacks would have ruined many another man, but Davidson quickly built ships and began successfully trading in fish and timber. Another huge stroke of bad luck hit him in 1776 with the outbreak of the American War of Independence.

The online Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB) explains what happened next: “Other cargoes reached Europe safely, but the American Revolution was to curtail Davidson’s shipping activities.

“At the outbreak of the war, Davidson entered into a contract with a British firm, which guaranteed markets for his fish and timber for seven years. However, all shipping activities in North American waters became risky because of American privateers.”

The settlers at Miramichi were raided on several occasions and when the firm buying his timber and fish closed its business in North America, Davidson was left with tons of wood unsold.

Davidson promptly moved inland to Maugerville, a small settlement on the east side of the St John River. That move brought him a wife, Sarah Nevers, and eventually they would have five children. He had left John Cort to look after their interests on the Miramichi river, but Cort is believed to have died soon afterwards.

On the St John River, his fishing and lumber businesses continued to prosper, and he built more ships, with some foundering. Yet he did not give up, even after the government cancelled his land grants on grounds that he had not met his target of settlers.

The reality was that the government needed land for the so-called Empire Loyalists who had flooded north with the ending of the American War of Independence.

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He was allowed to keep his various business sites and 15,000 acres of land, and perhaps it was this setback that persuaded Davidson to enter politics. In 1783, he won an election in Sunbury County and represented the area in the Assembly of Nova Scotia.

Later that year, he went back to Miramichi with two boatloads of supporters and cargo. He found that the natives had destroyed many of his facilities, but nothing daunted, Davidson invested huge sums in rebuilding his business and expanding it.

He gained election for Northumberland County and was made a Justice of the Peace. The New Province of New Brunswick was being developed at that time and by 1785, Davidson was elected as one of the first representatives to the new Province’s Assembly.

He clearly irritated the government’s favoured candidates, one of whom wrote that Davidson was “an ignorant, cunning fellow … who has great influence over the people here, many of them holding land under him, and many others being tradesmen and laborers in his employ”. In truth, Davidson was just a good political operator with a strong local support.

Successful in business and politics, Davidson’s bad luck eventually led to his death. In February, 1790, while travelling upriver on snowshoes, he was caught in an unexpected blizzard and almost froze to death while sheltering in a haystack. He developed a severe cold, his health worsened quickly, and Davidson passed away on June 17, 1790, aged 50. He was survived by his wife Sarah and their children.

The DCB concluded: “Davidson was a man of vision and great energy. He founded the first English-speaking settlement in northern New Brunswick, developed the fishing industry far beyond that begun earlier by the Acadians, and was the principal founder of the lumber industry on the Miramichi and Saint John rivers.”