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DAVIDSON, WILLIAM (John Godsman), lumber merchant, shipbuilder, and office-holder; b. John Godsman c. 1740, at Cowford, parish of Bellie (Grampian), Scotland, son of William Godsman and a daughter of William Davidson; m. Sarah, daughter of Phineas Nevers, probably at Maugerville (N.B.) some time between 1777 and 1779, and they had five children; d. 17 June 1790 at Miramichi, New Brunswick.

As a young man, John Godsman was engaged in the salmon fishery in Scotland. In 1765 he immigrated to Nova Scotia with the idea of establishing a fishery on some river in that colony. He arrived in Halifax, assumed the name of William Davidson, and formed a partnership with John Cort, a native of Aberdeenshire, about whom little else is known. Davidson became the dominant member of the partnership. The two men visited the Miramichi in the summer of 1765 and on their return to Halifax applied for and received a grant of 100,000 acres (two-thirds to Davidson and one-third to Cort). The concession, which included land originally part of the seigneury of Richard Denys* de Fronsac, extended 13 miles on either side of the Miramichi River and conveyed rights to the fishery and the timber, including white pine. Davidson and Cort were required to clear and improve the land and to establish one Protestant settler for every two acres. Since they were primarily interested in the fishery, these stipulations were to cause trouble later.

Davidson was a capable man and he made considerable progress in the next ten years in spite of a number of setbacks. After receiving the grant he travelled to New England to secure men and supplies and in the spring of 1766 arrived at Miramichi with about 25 men. In the following years more settlers and labourers were brought from New England and Britain. Davidson was soon shipping fish and furs to the West Indies and Europe. Most of the work in the fishery ceased in the winter, however, and the men were usually idle for several months. In order to provide year round employment, Davidson, who had quickly realized the potential of the fine stands of pine on the river, had the men employed cutting timber. In 1773 he brought out a master-builder, shipwrights, and other craftsmen from Britain and began the construction of the first ship ever built on the river, the schooner Miramichi. She was lost off the coast of Spain on her maiden voyage, and a second vessel, launched in 1775, was wrecked off the northern tip of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. 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. Moreover, rebel sympathizers such as John Allan* stirred up the Indians, and the settlers at Miramichi were raided on several occasions. When the firm buying his timber and fish closed its business in North America, Davidson was left with tons of wood and no market for it. By 1777 he had become discouraged and in November moved inland to Maugerville. He took most of his workers with him, leaving John Cort behind to look after their interests at Miramichi. Some time during the war Cort died.

In 1779 Davidson visited Lieutenant Governor Richard Hughes* in Halifax and proposed a scheme whereby he would deliver masts and yards, trimmed and ready for shipping, to the mouth of the Saint John River. Davidson’s proposal was encouraged but he received no financial support because rebel activities in the area made the venture risky. However, that November Michael Francklin, the superintendent of Indian affairs, wrote to Pierre Tomah, an influential Malecite chief, requesting that the Indians protect Davidson from rebel attack. As well, he gave Davidson letters for the magistrates and settlers on the river asking them to assist and protect the project. With this support Davidson decided to take the risk and thereby began the timber industry of the Saint John. He was so successful that he soon attracted competitors, chief among them William Hazen* and James White, who had been established in a trading partnership at the mouth of the river since 1765. Davidson soon had a large section of the population in the Maugerville area employed in the woods. With their support he was elected in 1783 a member for Sunbury County in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly.

As the war drew to a close, Davidson, apparently because of the competition on the Saint John River, decided to return to the Miramichi. He must have known that large numbers of refugee loyalists would soon be arriving to demand grants on the Saint John, and he certainly hoped to exploit the valuable timber that covered much of his own grant on the Miramichi. Most of the men who had come to Maugerville with him agreed to go back, and in May 1783 he purchased two vessels in Halifax, loaded them with provisions, and set out to re-establish his business. When he arrived at Miramichi, he discovered that all his buildings and fishing craft had been destroyed by the Indians. Re-establishing proved to be an expensive undertaking. He furnished provisions and supplies to the settlers on credit and expended some £5,000 in building stores, a shipyard, and a sawmill. He was soon shipping fish, furs, and lumber, and between the years 1783 and 1785 he built three vessels. He also pursued his masting operations on the Saint John through agents there. Bad luck continued to plague Davidson, who lost several vessels and cargoes during the period 1783–85. As before, he encouraged settlement but brought out only craftsmen who could be employed in the fishery or the shipyard and mill until they established themselves on the land. He also tried to expand his business by sending vessels out of the river to fish for cod.

In 1785 Davidson faced a new problem. The British government, looking for homes for the thousands of loyalists who had come to Nova Scotia and the new colony of New Brunswick, was no longer eager to make large grants like that given to Davidson and Cort in 1765. It also began to escheat those holdings which had not been improved. Davidson asked for two years to fulfil the conditions of his grant, but his request was turned down. An investigation found that only 30 settlers had actually been established on the land. Davidson’s workers, who numbered about 50, were not counted since they owned no property. His grant was therefore escheated, and he was given a smaller one of 14,540 acres which included his improvements, stores, shipyard, and mill site.

By 1785 the organization of the new colony of New Brunswick had begun and Davidson became one of the first justices of the peace for Northumberland County. That year, in New Brunswick’s first election, Davidson and Elias Hardy, a Saint John lawyer, were elected as the county’s representatives in the provincial assembly. Davidson, the only local candidate, had supported Hardy against two government candidates. He had no love for the loyalist hierarchy, responsible for the escheat of his old grant, or for the government it dominated. Hardy was its leading opponent in Saint John, and it was to be expected that Davidson, opposed to its attempts to extend its influence into Northumberland County, would assist him. Benjamin Marston, the county sheriff, had tried to secure the election of the government candidates, and he referred to Davidson as “an ignorant, cunning fellow . . . who has great influence over the people here, many of them holding land under him, & many others being tradesmen & laborers in his employ. “

Even after losing much of his land, Davidson continued to bring out settlers; 11 lots were sold between 1785 and 1787. He borrowed large sums of money in Halifax and mortgaged his property to expand his business. He also made several contracts with William Forsyth* and Company of Greenock, Scotland, and Halifax, including one in 1789 to supply the company with masts and yards for the British navy. He had markets for his fish in Europe and the West Indies and, by 1789, three sawmills in operation with contracts for all the lumber he could produce. But bad luck continued to haunt him. In February 1790, while travelling up the river on snowshoes, he was caught in a severe storm and had to seek shelter in a haystack. He nearly froze to death and never recovered from the cold he caught. He died four months later at the age of 50.

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.

W. A. Spray

N.B. Museum (Saint John), Davidson family, papers, 1765–1955. Northumberland County Registry Office (Newcastle, N.B.), Registry books, 1, 2. PANB, “New Brunswick political biography,” comp. J. C. and H. B. Graves (11v., typescript), XI, 28–29; RG 4, RS24, S1-P9, petition of William Davidson, 28 Feb. 1786; RG 10, RS108, Land petitions, series I, Northumberland County, nos.57, 70, 75; RG 18, RS 153, Minutes of the Court of Quarter Sessions, 1789–1807. University of N.B. Library, Archives and Special Coll. Dept. (Fredericton), Winslow papers, 20, 21, 22; Benjamin Marston, Diary, 1776–87. [Patrick Campbell], Travels in the interior inhabited parts of North America in the years 1791 and 1792, ed. H. H. Langton and W. F. Ganong (Toronto, 1937), 63. “Historical-geographical documents relating to New Brunswick,” ed. W. F. Ganong, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., III (1907–14), no.9, 308–41. “The James White papers,” ed. W. O. Raymond, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., II (1899–1905), no.4, 30–72. PAC Report, 1894, 265, 313. Winslow papers, A.D. 1776–1826, ed. W. O. Raymond (Saint John, N.B., 1901), 298–310. Royal Gazette and the New Brunswick Advertiser (Saint John), 22 Aug. 1786. W. H. Davidson, An account of the life of William Davidson, otherwise John Godsman, of Banffshire and Aberdeenshire in Scotland and Miramichi in British North America (Saint John, N.B., 1947). James Hannay, History of New Brunswick (2v., Saint John, N.B., 1909), I, 70. MacNutt, NewBrunswick, 9, 62–63. Louise Manny, Ships of Miramichi; a history of shipbuilding on the Miramichi River, New Brunswick, Canada, 1773–1919 (Saint John, N.B., 1960). Raymond, River StJohn (1910), 304–12. E. C. Wright, The Miramichi . . . (Sackville, N.B.,1944). W. O. Raymond, “The north shore; incidents in the early history of eastern and northern New Brunswick,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., II (1899–1905), no.4, 93–125.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

W. A. Spray, “DAVIDSON, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_william_4E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_william_4E.html
Author of Article: W. A. Spray
Title of Article: DAVIDSON, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1979
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: April 24, 2014