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DAVIDSON, JAMES IRONSIDE, farmer, livestock breeder and importer, and politician; b. 6 June 1818 in Monquhitter, Scotland, son of John Davidson and Mary Ironside; m. there 15 July 1841 Barbara Hendrie (Henry) (1819–1900), and they had four sons and one daughter; d. 15 Feb. 1902 in Pickering Township, Ont.

James I. Davidson arrived in Upper Canada in 1842 and worked as an agricultural labourer near Balsam (Pickering). Shortly afterwards, he bought a small farm in the area with a log house and 40 cleared acres. He was to replace the house in 1865 with a substantial stone dwelling, which he enlarged in the 1880s; his acreage would eventually reach 200. He started with a team of horses (cost, $165), six common Canadian cattle ($80), and four sheep. Despite following a careful system of rotation for his crops, Davidson soon noticed that the fertility of his soil was declining, a general problem on provincial farms at the time. To counteract the trend, he began to keep more cattle in order to manure the fields, acquiring cross-bred stock and feeding them for Christmas beef, a frequent holiday meal. By 1861 Davidson was using a Shorthorn bull on grade cows and gradually building up a small number of pure-bred females. He had made an attempt to import a Scottish heifer as early as 1854, but the price was too high. In 1871, however, he joined John Dryden in buying Shorthorns from Amos Cruickshank of Sittyton farm in Scotland, breeder of the most important beef cattle in the world.

It was interest in cattle with good feed conversion that drew Davidson to the short, thickset animals raised by Cruickshank. In 1873 he imported more stock from Sittyton, and the following year he determined to concentrate on Shorthorns. His decision was courageous. At this time it was hard to sell Cruickshank-type cattle; designed as they were solely to produce meat, rather than bred for both meat and milk, they were not popular in Britain or North America. In the late 1870s Davidson often made purchases in conjunction with John Miller and his family (who also had become focused on Scottish animals). The Miller home, Thistle Ha’, was only a few miles from Davidson’s Sittyton Grove, which was named after Cruickshank’s farm. Davidson occasionally shared with John Miller and Sons the cost of bulls to be used on both farms. His close relations with families dealing with Shorthorns would continue: in 1876 his daughter, Mary Ironside, married William M., son of John Miller, and in 1903 Mary and William’s daughter Margaret would become the wife of William Arthur Dryden, son of John Dryden, who was by then Ontario minister of agriculture.

By 1880 a turning of the tide with regard to desirable cattle style had taken place. The tall, dual-purpose English animals of the kind originally bred and promoted by Thomas Bates and others, which had brought huge prices in the 1870s, no longer commanded the same respect. There was a growing North American interest in the Scottish type (Cruickshank stock in particular), and Americans began to frequent Canadian quarantine stations to check out such imports. In 1881, almost 40 years after emigrating, Davidson made his first return trip to Scotland and met Cruickshank. The two established an intimate friendship, and Davidson became the Scot’s prime agent in North America. Between 1881 and 1886 he gained a virtual monopoly over the North American market for Cruickshank cattle. Americans would often be waiting at Davidson’s farm when new animals arrived. The relationship with Cruickshank brought Davidson to the forefront of the livestock-importing business. He proved to be a good judge of values and a first-class salesman, demanding only a profit that was reasonable; Cruickshank later praised his “downright honesty.” An accomplished breeder himself, Davidson began selling Shorthorns back to British producers in 1891. Throughout this period he was also a successful importer and breeder of Clydesdale horses. Among the organizations to which he belonged were the Dominion Short-horn Breeders’ Association and the Clydesdale Horse Association of Canada.

The threat of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, which broke out at the quarantine station for incoming livestock at Lévis, Que., in 1886 and entailed the slaughter of some 200 head of cattle, ended Davidson’s happy arrangement with Cruickshank. Although cattle continued to be brought into Canada, quarantine regulations [see Duncan McNab McEachran*] rendered the situation unstable. Canadian ports were sometimes closed to British cattle because of eruptions of lung-plague on arriving ships. Making the situation worse, Americans, who had often imported animals via Canada to avoid their entry through the disease-ridden eastern states of their own country, now hesitated to do so. Meanwhile, cattle from Britain could easily enter the United States, which did not start regulating the trade until 1888. The result was that Cruickshank began to deal directly with American buyers, shifting the inflowing stream of his valuable stock away from Canada and into the United States. Cruickshank wrote to Davidson in 1887 that there was no hope of shipping to Canada until government regulations changed.

The following year Cruickshank decided to retire and sell his herd. He hoped Davidson would buy it. Davidson tried to form a consortium to do so, but prices for pure-bred cattle were poor throughout North America and he and his potential associates concluded that the risk of acquiring the animals was too great. If Davidson had succeeded in the purchase, the finest breeding beef herd in the world would have resided in Canada.

In 1891 Davidson had been asked to run as a federal Liberal candidate for Ontario South. He was returned to the House of Commons in March, and served as part of the official opposition under Wilfrid Laurier* during the first parliamentary session, after which the election in Ontario South was declared void; he did not reoffer in the ensuing by-election. Davidson died quietly of pneumonia on his farm after a five-day illness, and his remains were buried in Burns Presbyterian Cemetery in nearby Ashburn (Whitby). His portrait may be found in the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, the home of the picture collection of Chicago’s Saddle and Sirloin Club.

Margaret E. Derry

AO, F 1232 (Miller family fonds); RG 80-8-0-269, no.19175. National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh), OPR Banns & Marriages, Monquhitter (Aberdeen), 15 July 1841; OPR Births & Baptisms, Monquhitter, 6 June 1818 (available online at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk). Univ. of Guelph Library, Arch. and Special Coll. (Ont.), XA1 MS A139001–12 (Miller-Davidson family coll.). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1880, vol.10 (report of the Dept. of Agriculture, 1879): 138. Amos Cruickshank, The Shorthorns of Scotland – Sittyton: letters of Amos Cruickshank, 1873 to 1891, with an appreciation by T. B. Marson (Edinburgh, 1948). M. [E.] Derry, Ontario’s cattle kingdom: purebred breeders and their world, 1870–1920 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 2001), 19, 20, 43, 46, 47. Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine (Winnipeg), 5 March 1902. Farming (Toronto), 14 (September 1896–August 1897): 21, 24. “Live stock notes,” Canadian Breeder and Agricultural Rev. (Toronto), 2 (1885): 615. [J. W.] G. MacEwan, Highlights of Shorthorn history ([Guelph], 1982). D. [McL.] Marshall, Shorthorn cattle in Canada ([Toronto], 1932). A. H. Sanders, Red, white, and roan … (Chicago, 1936); Short-horn cattle … (Chicago, 1900). “Thistle Ha’: a national historic farm”: www.thistleha.com (consulted 26 Jan. 2017).

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Cite This Article

Margaret E. Derry, “DAVIDSON, JAMES IRONSIDE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_james_ironside_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_james_ironside_13E.html
Author of Article:   Margaret E. Derry
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2019
Year of revision:   2019
Access Date:   September 27, 2023