The Distilling Davises of North Carolina and Ontario

Long Point, ON is a sandy projection in eastern Lake Erie which fronts on the townships of Norfolk County. They were settled by thousands of Americans after the Revolutionary War who came from the Canadian Niagara after making the crossing at Niagara River. They had petitioned Governor Simcoe for land to recompense losses for supporting the Crown in the late battles. Simcoe wanted to open up the area around Long Point, which was largely virgin forest and by its location and other factors felt suitable for settlement.

Many may not realize that not all Loyalists were Northeasterners: quite a few came from the south, as far afield as North Carolina and Florida.

R. Robert Mutrie is a modern local historian in Ontario who has placed online numerous materials printed in hard-to-find local publications. Some pertain to the Davis settlers of Long Point and can be read here.

The Davis clan originated in Orange County, NC and migrated to Upper Canada after an earlier, exploratory visit. John Davis set up a well-constructed mill and distillery in Norfolk County. Quite a few details are known, as the account linked above, The Davis Family of Norfolk County by James Stengel, shows.

There were two stills for example with a known capacity, the second smaller and obviously the spirit still. This is drawn from license records discussed by Stengel whose account is referenced in an academic fashion. John Davis was granted a licence to operate these stills in 1800.

What is further of interest is that the Davis family were distillers and brewers on their plantations in North Carolina. Stengel makes the point distilling was a family tradition, implanted to Canada.

This 1898 book, a well-known chronicle by Egbert A. Owen of early Norfolk County, ON pioneer life, explains that rye and corn were used in distilling. Numerous ads attest to the same appearing throughout Ontario in the first decades of the 1800s.

These grains were not the only ones used in early Ontario distilling but rye and corn feature prominently in many early accounts and ads. They were the basis as well of American distilling.

As there were at least 200 legal distilleries in Ontario through the 1840s, and as much of the province was settled by Americans, it is obvious general whiskey knowledge arrived here as a cultural acquis, given too that before the Americans came, whiskey, as I discussed earlier, was not a usual drink here.

But Stengel’s account is an example where specific distilling expertise came to Canada from the U.S. as well.

Note: Stengel calls John Davis a “pioneer distiller” in Norfolk County and a “pioneer industrialist”.