Manitoba's Forgotten Premier

by George Siamandas


Of all the premiers of Manitoba, none is more overlooked than Premier R. A. Davis, who served from 1874 to 1878. this second premier of Manitoba took office on December 3, 1874. Robert Atkison Davis came to Winnipeg in May 10, 1870 during the Louis Riel uprising. He bought a hotel that was located at the north west corner of Portage and Main from an American called George Emmerling and renamed it Davis House. This hotel appears in many early photos of this corner. Apparently the hotel-saloon was a bonanza because it was always full of travellers to early Winnipeg. Davis did very well and expanded it to include a barbershop, billiard hall and store.

Davis was an early proponent of the incorporation of Winnipeg. He was on the Board of Trade. He became involved with a secret society called the Grangers a group that tried to give political voice to ordinary people. Davis, who had been in the legislature for only six months, was chosen as a compromise candidate to become premier. Davis was able to hold on to the Ontario British vote but also was favoured by the St. Boniface French community led by Joseph Royal and Dubuc in part because he came from Quebec and was bilingual. Davis was also described as being good at handing out patronage. He won the editorial support of the Free Press by offering editor Luxton the government printing contract. And he did the same thing with the "Le Metis" paper in St. Boniface.


Davis was interested in railway development and led the group of businessmen trying to move the CPR line from Selkirk to the Forks. He was successful in obtaining better financial treatment from Ottawa. He was an early practitioner of governmental restraint and was often criticised for not building enough roads, bridges and schools.

He retired from Manitoba politics in 1878 at age 35 and moved to Illinois. Davis had many ties with the US. In 1875 he married Elizabeth McGonagil. During the rest of Davis' term as premier, she refused to come to Red River and instead lived in Calona, Illinois where she gave birth to a son. In 1880, after the death of their young son, Davis moved to the south side of Chicago where he became a real estate developer.

But it seems that Davis had faced some personal problems while he had been premier. More than a decade after he had left, he faced charges of breach of promise, seduction and libel by a Mrs. Matilda Bruns who claimed she became pregnant by him. Hearings were held in Winnipeg in 1890 and more than thirty witnesses appeared. Davis came to Winnipeg to deny the charges and claimed he was being black-mailed fourteen years after the fact. The newspapers of the day were sympathetic to Davis.

Davis retired in 1878. He had lived in Manitoba only eight years. He seems to have been overshadowed by people like Norquay. And excepting a portrait that was painted of him 38 years later in 1916, there is nothing else that commemorates his memory. His great great niece Ruth Ellen Swan has been lobbying to have a plaque put up outside of the location of Davis House near the TD Bank at Portage and Main.


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