DAVIDSON, GORDON CHARLES, historian, army officer, university professor, and author; b. 8 Aug. 1884 in Union, Elgin County, Ont., one of the eight children of James Davidson, a farmer and blacksmith, and Jane Grant; d. unmarried, by suicide, 30 May 1922 in Vancouver.
Gordon Davidson moved to British Columbia at a young age and in 1906 he acquired his undergraduate degree extramurally from the University of Toronto through New Westminster’s Columbian Methodist College, where two of his brothers had taught. He remained in the west for his graduate training; in 1908 he completed a master’s degree in history at the University of California in Berkeley, writing a thesis entitled “Report on the manuscripts on British Columbia in the Bancroft collection.” After teaching high school in California for three years, he returned to Berkeley for doctoral studies. He spent 1914-15 in England on a travelling scholarship and completed his phd in 1916. His thesis on the fur trade in the Canadian west was based upon exhaustive research in Canadian, British, and Californian archives and was published two years later in Berkeley as The North West Company.
The major academic contribution of Davidson’s brief career, The North West Company provides a detailed narrative of this fur-trading company from its formation late in the 18th century [see Simon McTavish*] to its union with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 [see Simon McGillivray*]. The first academic study devoted to the company itself, it was described by historian and author Lawrence Johnson Burpee* as “an excellent piece of work, scholarly, painstaking, accurate and at the same time readable.” Burpee noted that perhaps its greatest contribution lay in the vast primary material Davidson had consulted and made available for the first time in published form.
In his focus on research in primary sources, Davidson represented the ideals of an emerging generation of university-trained, professional historians in Canada. Indeed, he was himself the product of an American graduate program, where the research ideal – the premise of the nascent historical profession – was stronger than in either Canada or Britain. Davidson’s approach in The North West Company also reflected American influences. At Berkeley he had studied under Herbert Eugene Bolton and had been attracted by his hemispheric approach and his focus on material forces and the “westward movement” of history across the continent. Thus, Davidson’s work was unfettered by the political-constitutional focus and the emphasis upon central Canada which dominated the historical writing of his own country.
Davidson’s promising career would be cut short, a legacy of World War I. In June 1916 he had enlisted in the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion in Vancouver, and while overseas he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles Regiment. He soon distinguished himself in action on the Western Front, winning the Military Cross at the battle of Passchendaele in October 1917. He also received a serious head wound (shrapnel fractured his right jawbone) and spent six months recuperating in hospital. Demobilized on 31 March 1919 Davidson eventually resumed his academic career, securing a temporary position in 1921 at the University of British Columbia (where his brother James Grant Davidson was associate professor of physics). Davidson was unable to escape the shadow of the war, which already had claimed the lives of two of his brothers. After he had been only a few months at UBC, the pressures of teaching weighed heavily on a psyche made fragile by combat and injury in France and Belgium, and Davidson was informed that his appointment would not be renewed. On 30 May 1922, while packing for a scheduled trip back to his father’s farm in Union, he used his service revolver to end his own life.
Had he lived, Davidson would no doubt have made significant contributions to Canadian – and most particularly British Columbian – historical writing. Well versed in the primary holdings and exposed to the research ideal and latest historiographical trends of the American west, Davidson was one of the first academic historians to undertake a scholarly and analytical study of Canada’s far west.
Gordon Charles Davidson is the author of The North West Company (Berkeley, Calif., 1918; repr. New York, 1967), based on his doctoral thesis of the same title, completed in 1916 at the Univ. of California, Berkeley. The notes he made for his thesis and a copy of his “Report on the manuscripts on British Columbia in the Bancroft collection . . .” (m.litt. thesis, Univ. of Calif., 1908) are at the Bancroft Library, Univ. of California.
AO, RG 80-2-0-211, no.6046. LAC, RG 31, C1, 1891, Yarmouth, Ont.; RG 150, Acc.1992-93/166, box 2319-49. Univ. of B.C. Library, Univ. Arch. (Vancouver), President’s office, corr.; W. N. Sage, boxes 32-39 (misc. corr.). Vancouver Daily Province, 3 June 1922. Vancouver Sun, 31 May, 1 June 1922. World (Vancouver), 31 May 1922. L. J. Burpee, “The North West Company . . . ,” CHR, 1 (1920): 71-74.