Memorable Manitobans: Robert Atkinson Davis (1841-1903)
Born at Dudswell, Lower Canada (now Quebec) in 1841, he attended St. Francis College and became a school teacher. He and his brother spent several years after the American Civil War in the American Rockies. In 1870 he came to Winnipeg, arriving on 10 May while the provisional government was still in control of the settlement. He bought George Emmerling’s hotel, renaming it Davis House. Its saloon became the social centre of the Ontario volunteers who came with the Wolseley Expedition, and Davis was able to expand his operations to include a barbershop, billiard parlour, and store. Davis soon became a spokesman for the newcomers in the village, who struggled with the Hudson’s Bay Company for control.
In 1873 Davis took the lead in drafting a bill to incorporate Winnipeg. Soon afterward he became a leader of the Patrons of Husbandry, using this group’s influence to gain election to the Assembly in April 1874. He soon became provincial treasurer under Premier Girard and, in the unstable political situation of the time, assumed the premiership as leader of the Ontario faction in the House of Assembly. He was re-elected in December 1874.
At the opening of the first session after Davis became Premier, the hall was filled with Manitoba’s elite. For the occasion, Davis wore a closely fitting, tightly buttoned dress coat with a gold nugget in the centre of his shirt, inset with a large diamond. He was not an eloquent speaker, but speaking slowly took up a good deal of the time. When speaking on a Government measure, he began his speech by saying: “Mr. Speaker, the Government of which I am the head”—and when speaking of Her Majesty, the Queen, always spoke of her as, “Our Sovering Lady the Queen,” and in addressing an opponent would in reply say: “I certingly don’t agree with the Honorable gentleman opposite.”
Fluent in French, he managed to persuade the French faction that he supported French rights, and his ministry did uphold the system of dual education and maintain legislation limiting speculation in Métis lands, despite pressure to do otherwise. He lobbied successfully for the route of the transcontinental railroad to pass through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk. His government was responsible for the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1875. It also negotiated better financial terms with Ottawa.
Having in 1875 married an American resident of Illinois who did not move to Manitoba, Davis joined her and their child in the United States after his retreat from politics in 1878. The couple moved to Chicago in 1880, and Davis prospered in real estate speculation. His later years were marked by scandal. He was charged with breach of promise in 1890, and he publicly separated from his wife in 1896.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 5 May 2014
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