DAVIS, ROBERT, farmer, author, and Patriot; b. c. 1800 in County Cavan (Republic of Ireland), son of Hugh Davis; m. Rosina — and they had several children; d. July 1838 in Malden Township, Upper Canada.
In 1819 Hugh Davis, an Irish farmer, brought his large family to North America. The Davises settled in Nissouri Township in Upper Canada’s London District. In 1824 the Executive Council agreed that Hugh’s son Robert be given land next to his father. Robert became a reasonably successful farmer; he married, raised a family, and became, in the words of William Proudfoot*, “a keen Methodist – an Exhorter.”
Robert Davis’s life was not without controversy. An imbroglio with the authorities precipitated by unknown factors landed him and others in the Court of Quarter Sessions in 1837. He was already a reformer, and this experience doubtless helped confirm his belief that a narrow clique ruled the province, persecuting its opponents and lining its own pockets. In 1836 he had journeyed to the United States, and the following year he published The Canadian farmer’s travels. In it, he catalogued reform grievances. A Wesleyan Methodist, he decried the acceptance by his church of government funds and the alliance its leaders had struck with Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head* in the crucial election of 1836. He also contrasted the beauties and economies of American freedom with the sorry state of affairs in Upper Canada. If the reformers ever hoped to reverse the trend of constant decline, he argued, they must be up and doing. Let Head continue on as he was, and “the reformers . . . will awake and revenge the evils done to them. . . . When the lion is once aroused who shall hush him to sleep again?” Clearly, Davis’s book, which was excerpted in William Lyon Mackenzie*’s Constitution (Toronto), helped create the sense of urgency and crisis that made the rebellions of 1837 possible.
In the summer of 1837 Mackenzie and others began establishing political unions and planning a grand reform convention. The high point of their organizational drive in the west came in October when some 1,000 reformers gathered near London. Davis spoke to the throng. At a meeting in West Oxford Township the following month he was chosen a delegate to the proposed convention.
In late November Mackenzie at Toronto decided that the time was ripe for rebellion. He hurriedly prepared a rising there. Though it was easily crushed, one of Davis’s correspondents, Oxford County mla Charles Duncombe*, heard differently. He decided to gather rebels near Brantford to take advantage of the apparent situation and to forestall the anticipated arrests of local reformers. In mid December his force was dispersed by troops under Colonel Allan Napier MacNab* .
Before long, the militia in and about London were hunting up weapons. In Nissouri Davis began organizing men to resist the attempt “to Seize arms for the Queens service.” He soon, however, fled westward to Detroit to escape the wrath of the authorities. District clerk John Baptist Askin*, who thought him a great fool and a “most consummate” poltroon, felt that, had he surrendered, he would have been granted bail, not imprisoned.
In Detroit Davis quickly fell in with refugees from Upper Canada and with Americans preparing to aid the cause of liberty by invading the province. These Patriots stole weapons from the Detroit jail and gathered along the Detroit River. On 6 Jan. 1838 they began their “invasion,” setting out to capture various Upper Canadian islands. They were short of trained men, and Davis, who had no experience of sailing, captained the Anne until Edward Alexander Theller* assumed command. Theller was no better qualified, and on 9 January he grounded the vessel near the Upper Canadian shore. Militiamen under Colonel Thomas Radcliff stormed her, taking off 21 prisoners, including Theller and Davis
Davis had been shot through the thigh and arm, injuries which were to prove fatal, and was carried to Fort Malden at Amherstburg. Here he allegedly wrote a letter to various Patriots, including younger brother Hugh, urging them to abandon their invasion plans. He lingered on in agony until July. After his death the redoubtable Colonel John Prince* recorded that “he was an intelligent & a brave but a most desperate rebel., and he died one to the last.” Theller in his Canada in 1837–38, published in 1841, praised his fallen comrade, who evidently had earned the respect of friends and foes alike for his derring-do.
Robert Davis is the author of The Canadian farmer’s travels in the United States of America, in which remarks are made on the arbitrary colonial policy practised in Canada, and the free and equal rights, and happy effects of the liberal institutions and astonishing enterprise of the United States (Buffalo, N.Y., 1837).
PAC, RG 5, A1: esp. 98408–11, 98951, 99468, 111098; B36, 1–2. Rebellion of 1837 (Read and Stagg). E. A. Theller, Canada in 1837–38 . . . (2v., Philadelphia and New York, 1841). Read, Rising in western U.C. J. J. Talman, “The value of crown lands papers in historical research, with an illustration of their use,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 30 (1936), sect.ii: 131–36.