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GILKISON, DAVID, businessman, office holder, and college clerk; b. c. 1803 in Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada, eldest son of William Gilkison* and Isabella Grant; m. 10 June 1835 Margaret Geddes, and they had at least seven children, three of whom survived infancy; d. 8 May 1851 in Toronto.

David Gilkison was born in Upper Canada, where his Scottish father had commanded a schooner and from 1811 engaged in the forwarding business. David probably received most of his education in Glasgow after his father took his family to Scotland in 1815 in order to further the education of his sons. Returning to Upper Canada in 1827, David entered business by opening the first general store in the fledgling community of Guelph, founded in April of that year by John Galt*, a close friend and cousin of his father and superintendent of the Canada Company.

Gilkison apparently came equipped with some capital and he entered into partnership with William Leaden, a retired army officer, to form D. Gilkison and Company. This business benefited from the cash trade provided by the Canada Company, which purchased supplies for the considerable number of its employees who were clearing the townsite and building company facilities, as well as for some destitute immigrants. Gilkison and Leaden also took advantage of the potential for water-power on the Speed River at Guelph. Their proposal to rent and eventually to purchase a grist-mill, to be built by the Canada Company, was rejected by the company’s directors in London, England, but in August 1827 they purchased a good mill-seat for less than £10 and built a dam and a sawmill. Lumber was in great demand in the boom-town atmosphere and the mill operated day and night. But the town’s rapid growth depended on the Canada Company’s continued stimulation, which came to a sudden halt following Galt’s dismissal in early 1829. The result was a severe local depression in which a number of businesses, including Gilkison’s, failed. Although his store seems to have been continued by Leaden, the firm’s remaining assets were seized by creditors.

For a few years following his unsuccessful venture in Guelph, Gilkison worked as a clerk at the store in West Flamborough Township of James Crooks, another associate of his father. An upturn in David’s fortunes took place when his father decided to return from Scotland in 1832. He was unable to rescue his son’s sawmilling operation, but he did purchase about 14,000 acres in Nichol Township in the fall of 1832 and at a superb mill-seat about ten miles northwest of Guelph he founded the town of Elora. William’s sudden death in April 1833 put David, as the eldest son, in charge of the settlement project even though his father had planned to make a younger son, Jasper Tough, the manager. Their father’s property was divided equally among six surviving sons, but David seems to have sold land for all of them.

In superintending the development of the settlement, Gilkison provided a community infrastructure intended to make the village and the surrounding agricultural land desirable to potential purchasers of land. He appears to have settled in Elora about May 1833 and the combined house and store in which he first lived served as a community centre for religious and social occasions; he was later involved in the erection of an Anglican church. He also acted as a township commissioner and oversaw the building of some of the area’s roads. He took a considerable interest in those to whom he sold land. George Elmslie, a member of a group of Scottish settlers who purchased land for a settlement named Bon-accord in the northern part of the township, wrote of his “kindness and attention” and that “his father’s purchase here and his own exertion undoubtedly gave the first impulse to the settlement of this flourishing part of Canada West.” Gilkison nevertheless decided to leave Elora, perhaps because of the slowness of land sales, and in 1837 he auctioned off his farming equipment and some property, leaving his father-in-law, Andrew Geddes, in charge of his land interests. By September 1838 he was reported to have resettled in Elora, but soon thereafter he attempted, apparently without success, mercantile ventures in Queenston, Upper Canada, and Genesee (Geneseo), N.Y. Because of his wife’s poor health, he had moved to Toronto by October 1841 but as late as 1842 he and his brothers still owned more than 3,000 acres of uncleared land and 40 cleared acres in Nichol Township.

Although Gilkison’s financial situation must have been extremely precarious when he settled in Toronto, he and his wife were able to associate with other Anglicans in intellectual and musical circles. In 1845 he obtained a position as second clerk in the bursar’s office of King’s College (University of Toronto). His wife became a well-known singing teacher and the organist of St James’ Cathedral but was plagued by chronic ill health. Her reputedly delicate condition was probably related to the fact that the Gilkisons lost four children in infancy, including twin boys, between 1846 and 1849.

Gilkison’s career, marked by his constant wandering, fluctuating circumstances, and attempts at many tasks, seems to have been representative of entrepreneurial life on the frontier in his day. Although he was able to take advantage of Scottish connections in a variety of business ventures, commercial activity in Upper Canada was fraught with uncertainty and his efforts failed more often than they succeeded.

Gilbert A. Stelter

AO, MS 497; MS 564, Corr., Thomas Smith to John Galt, 15 Nov. 1828; RG 1, A-I-6: 17525–29; RG 21, Wellington County, Nichol Township assessment rolls, 1842 (mfm. at Wellington County Museum, Wellington County Arch., Fergus, Ont.). Brant County Museum (Brantford, Ont.), Gilkison papers, William Gilkison corr. MTL, Canada Company papers. Private arch., Charles Corke (Guelph, Ont.), William Gilkison letters. St James’ Cemetery and Crematorium (Toronto), Record of burials, 12, 14 May 1847; 18 Jan. 1849; 10 May 1851. Univ. of Toronto Arch., A68-0010, I/A/3, 45: 2. UWOL, Regional Coll., Canada Company, records and papers; William Gilkison papers, diary (transcript). Wellington County Museum, Mary Grant, Nichol Township map, 1948; Map of Elora, 30 Nov. 1832. [L. W. V.] Smith, Young Mr Smith in Upper Canada, ed. M. L. Smith (Toronto, 1980). British Colonist (Toronto), 9 May 1851. Toronto directory, 1846–47: 27; 1850–51: lix. C. A. Burrows, The annals of the town of Guelph, 1827–1877 (Guelph, 1877). J. R. Connon, “Elora” (n.p., 1930); repub. as The early history of Elora, Ontario, and vicinity, intro. Gerald Noonan (Waterloo, Ont., 1974). A. D. Ferrier, Reminiscences of Canada and the early days of Fergus; being three lectures delivered to the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Institute, Fergus . . . (Guelph, 1866; repr. Fergus, 1923). Johnson, Hist. of Guelph. A. I. G. Gilkison, “Captain William Gilkison,” OH, 8 (1907): 147–48.

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Cite This Article

Gilbert A. Stelter, “GILKISON, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gilkison_david_8E.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/gilkison_david_8E.html
Author of Article:   Gilbert A. Stelter
Title of Article:   GILKISON, DAVID
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 18, 2024