DICKSON, JAMES, self-styled “Liberator of the Indian Nations”; fl. 1835–37.
James Dickson, variously described as a gentleman, visionary, filibuster, and pirate, briefly and dramatically touched the history of Rupert’s Land. Everything concerning his career prior to his appearance in Washington and New York near the end of 1835 is conjectural. His apparent education and financial backing, his impressive appearance (Hudson’s Bay Company governor George Simpson* described his face as “covered with huge whiskers and mustachios and seamed with sabre wounds”), and his air of command led to rumours of a distinguished lineage. He may have had English, Scottish, or possibly Indian ancestry. By his own account, he had spent several years in Texas, and he claimed acquaintance with a number of American army officers who had served in the west.
Early in 1836 Dickson was expressing his dream of setting up an independent Indian state and, as his plan rapidly matured, the boundaries of his state became vast indeed – from Rupert’s Land to Texas and California. His main destination was said to be Texas, but he frequently referred to his “California expedition.” The first steps toward recruiting a military force led him northward. He may have visited Montreal himself; in any case about 30 young men from that area, many of them sons of fur traders and Indian women, were induced to join him. They were told that the expedition would follow the Great Lakes, then the fur-trade route to the Red River, and thence southward. There is no indication that Dickson gave them as much information as he volunteered to New York acquaintances: that he wanted Indian and Métis support for an attack on Santa Fe (N.Mex.) (which he expected to fall easily) and that its capture would open the way to California, where he would set up a utopian state in which Indians would hold all the property and where only a few white officials would be permitted.
The military force that was to achieve these objectives was supposed to number about 200, but when it assembled at Buffalo, N.Y., in late July 1836 with Dickson as general of the so-called Indian liberating army, it comprised only 60 men. Second in command was John George MacKenzie, a Métis son of a retired Nor’Wester and described as secretary of war with the rank of brigadier-general. Martin McLeod, whose journal gives the day-to-day record of the expedition for the next five months, was commissioned as major, and there were six captains, three lieutenants, and two ensigns. Some of the recruits were American, but almost all the officers were from the Canadas. From Buffalo the army set out in the schooner Wave for Sault Ste Marie (Ont.), a journey that occupied an entire month. One week was spent in Detroit repairing the damage done in a storm; two more days were lost in an encounter with law enforcement officers in Michigan before the army was able to clear itself of a charge of stealing three cows. Arriving at Sault Ste Marie on 31 August, Dickson decided to stay there for two weeks. By this time all of the American and some of the Canadian recruits had departed; the most significant loss was MacKenzie, who had been forced to return to Montreal because of bad health. Accordingly, it was a force of less than 20 men who set out by Mackinaw boat along the south shore of Lake Superior for Fond du Lac (Duluth, Minn.), dangerously late in the season.
Dickson had told William Nourse, the HBC clerk at Sault Ste Marie, that he had first intended to follow the north shore of Superior and the former trade route to Red River, but that he had now resolved on a different route, although he would still veer northward to Red River from Fond du Lac, and then go south to Santa Fe. In a manifesto intended for the inhabitants of Santa Fe, dated November 1836, he called himself Montezuma II. McLeod’s journal records the grim details of the journey overland through northern Minnesota. In its last days, Dickson left his party to go on ahead without firearms, and with insufficient food, matches, and heavy clothing. Starving and nearly frozen, he reached Red River in advance of the others. Ten men joined him there on 20 December.
The reasons for struggling northward in winter are as obscure as those for the initial grand plan of attacking Santa Fe by way of Rupert’s Land. In so far as any rational purpose can be discerned, it must concern the strength of the Métis community at Red River, and a hope that Cuthbert Grant*, the warden of the plains, would use his influence on behalf of the expedition. Grant was a hospitable host through the next months, but there was no possibility of providing military aid to an army that was already decimated. Each of the survivors of the venture made his personal decision and departed from Red River, some for employment hastily offered by the HBC and Martin McLeod for Minnesota, where he later served as a member of the territorial council. Dickson himself bade a dramatic farewell to Grant and presented him with his ceremonial sword (now in the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature), then departed across the American border in the spring of 1837. While Dickson was at Red River, he had written to former associates, giving them different accounts of the route he intended to follow: one, across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River, the other (which it seems likely he did follow), by way of the Missouri River to Fort Leavenworth (Leavenworth, Kans.).
Some have viewed such contradictions as evidence of the sinister nature of the plan he devised; others, including William Nourse and Charles Bankhead, secretary of the British legation at Washington, have seen the project as the product of a confused mind. But two considerations continue to make the expedition worthy of attention. In its initial stages, Governor Simpson took it more seriously than might have been expected. Knowing nothing about Dickson’s capabilities or the extent of the support he could call upon, Simpson was fully aware of the potential damage to his company’s interests represented by men like John George MacKenzie, men with some education and organizational ability, familial ties in the northwest, and a strong sense of grievance over HBC policy in the matter of appointments and promotions and over the trade monopoly the company sought to exercise. It soon became apparent, however, that Dickson, at least by the time he lost MacKenzie at Sault Ste Marie, had no hope of success. But out of failure came a folk memory, whose significance it is difficult to estimate. Dickson’s foray into the history of Rupert’s Land, and his cry for the liberation of its people, was the subject of a haunting song of might-have-beens written by Pierre Falcon*, Cuthbert Grant’s brother-in-law. He sang of the arrival of the great general who came to enlist the Métis, and then of Dickson’s departure with only two guides. Such a ballad can be seen as an early and emotional expression of the unspecified longings of the Métis more than a decade before they could mount any effective challenge to the HBC’s monopoly.
A copy of James Dickson’s manifesto, Articles of war and of the government of the army of the liberator (Washington, 1836), is preserved along with several of his letters and a list of the officers in his army in the Martin McLeod papers at the Minn. Hist. Soc. (St Paul). Some of this material has been published, with notes by G. L. Nute, in “Documents relating to James Dickson’s expedition,” Mississippi Valley Hist. Rev. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), 10 (1923–24): 173–81. McLeod’s journal, in the same collection, was edited by Nute and published as “The diary of Martin McLeod” in the Minn. Hist. Bull. (St Paul), 4 (1921–22) : 351–439.
PAC, RG 7, GI, 78: 471–531. D. B. Sealey, Cuthbert Grant and the Métis (Agincourt [Toronto], 1977). Margaret Arnett MacLeod, “Dickson the liberator,” Beaver, outfit 287 (summer 1956): 4–7. M. E. Arthur, “General Dickson and the Indian Liberating Army in the north,” OH, 62 (1970): 151–62. J. [S. H.] Brown, “Ultimate respectability: fur-trade children in the ‘civilized world,”’ Beaver, outfit 308 (spring 1978): 51–52. G. L. Nute, “James Dickson: a filibuster in Minnesota in 1836,” Mississippi Valley Hist. Rev., 10: 127–40.