David Paton Balfour was born on 12 July 1841 at Monikie, Forfarshire, Scotland, the son of David Balfour, a carrier, and his wife, Jane Paton; there were a number of other children. Schooling was encouraged, but David absented himself frequently. He worked for a shoemaker, then for a ropemaker, and at the age of 10 or 11 he became a cowman on a farm, working from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. He left when he was 13 to become a high-country shepherd at Glenisla.
David Balfour's mother having died, his father took the family to Australia. They landed in Melbourne on 1 March 1856, and David found odd jobs before moving to a large sheep station; there he was given the responsibility of tallying and pasturing the sheep. After some years in this position he joined the goldrush to Otago, New Zealand, in 1862, but had no luck as a goldminer. He then worked on a sheep station at Moeraki, where William Guinness was the overseer. Realising that education was the key to success, he attended night school in 1864 and quickly became literate. He supported himself with work on various South Island stations.
Balfour longed to own his own land; and so when Guinness, who now owned Moeangiangi station in Hawke's Bay, offered him the position of overseer in 1866, he accepted. He arrived in Napier with only his swag. Having bought some sheep of his own, he was then encouraged to purchase the lease of nearby Kākāriki station, a rough tract of land situated some miles up the Mōhaka River. In 1868 Balfour took George Farrow as his partner. It was a bad time to be farming in Hawke's Bay: wool prices were acutely depressed, farming profits were almost non-existent, and wild pigs and cattle frequently destroyed crops of cereal and vegetables.
The activities of the Hauhau movement were also causing concern. Frequent gunfire terrified Balfour and Farrow so much that they spent most nights hiding in the bush. Balfour joined the settlers who drilled with rifles to defend their families. He was also recruited to act as a scout, reporting on the movements of the Hauhau. On 10 April 1869 Te Kooti Arikirangi attacked the settlement at Mōhaka, killing several Pākehā and many Māori. Balfour was fortuitously absent, but returned in time to help bury the dead. Farrow was now so afraid that he returned to England, after selling his share of the run to Balfour.
Balfour was now in serious financial trouble, lonely, and fearful that each day would be his last. He accepted without regrets the position George Carlyon offered him in 1872 of managing Gwavas station. In 1873, however, he took up employment with John Kinross who owned Mangawhare station. He married Elizabeth Roberts on 18 November 1876 at Puketapu; they were to have three children.
Aside from farming, Balfour studied astronomy and botany, the latter enabling him to collect plants for William Colenso. He had accumulated an extensive library, which in 1878 he made available to the station staff and community; they had previously contributed money of their own to buy books for winter reading. Land-ownership excepted, he had by now achieved most of his ambitions: education, marriage, a family, financial security and respect as both a farm manager and a man. But the depression of the 1880s brought further bad times to farming and Balfour was forced to become a Hawke's Bay County Council roading supervisor. He drowned at Puketapu on 13 July 1894 while trying to rescue a sheep from a drain; at the time he had been weakened by influenza.
For his children David Balfour wrote an account of his life, which, together with a number of letters and his diaries (begun in the 1880s), is a valuable source of information about contemporary life in New Zealand. His career exemplifies the opportunities available to a man of intelligence and determination, as well as the difficulties of maintaining a newly won position.