DICKSON, THOMAS, merchant, office holder, jp, politician, and militia officer; baptized 19 Feb. 1775 in Dumfries, Scotland, son of John Dickson; m. first 17 Nov. 1799 Eliza Taylor, née Wilkinson, and they had one son; m. secondly 20 Sept. 1803 Archange Grant, daughter of Alexander Grant*, and they had two daughters; d. 22 Jan. 1825 in Queenston, Upper Canada.
John Dickson was a successful merchant and provost of Dumfries. After he suffered financial setbacks his sons Thomas, Robert, and William* left home to join their cousin, Robert Hamilton*, a wealthy Scots merchant established in what would soon become Upper Canada. Thomas Dickson arrived at Queenston in 1789 and, following an apprenticeship with Hamilton, opened a shop at Fort Erie in 1793. There he sold goods to the small garrison and received and forwarded goods on Lake Erie, mainly for the British military and the fur trade. By 1796 he had moved his shop to Queenston and he gradually built up a clientele which, by 1809, extended as far west as Long Point, on Lake Erie, and as far north as the Forty (Grimsby), on Lake Ontario. He also maintained a business connection with John Warren*, a prominent merchant at Fort Erie, to forward goods on the lakes. In 1801 Dickson received permission to build warehouses at Queenston, Chippawa, and Fort Erie; he does not, however, appear to have implemented his plan to start a portaging business. From 1804 he held the licence to operate a ferry from Queenston to Lewiston, N.Y.
Dickson’s involvement in local society and politics was more limited than that of his brother William or of Robert Hamilton. He did hold local office. Following the dismissal of the deputy collector of customs at Queenston, Samuel Street*, Dickson assumed the post, on 28 March 1803. At the same time the port was removed from the control of the collector at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Colin McNabb*. Dickson had served on the first Heir and Devisee Commission for the Niagara District and had been appointed justice of the peace on 30 June 1800: he served continuously in the latter capacity, receiving his last commission on 9 May 1823. After Hamilton’s death in 1809 Dickson became chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions.
In 1800 Dickson made his first foray into politics. He urged Thomas Welch*, a leading office holder in the London District, to support a favourite of the Niagara merchants, Surveyor General David William Smith*, who was running for election in Welch’s area. In 1807 Dickson himself was persuaded to accept nomination, albeit rather reluctantly, for one of the Niagara seats in the House of Assembly. If he ran, he lost. He was elected to the sixth parliament in 1812 for the riding of 3rd Lincoln. Unfortunately the records for this parliament are only fragmentary. In the third session (February–March 1814) Dickson was absent for part of the time and barely emerges from the journals. He was, however, highly conspicuous in the fifth session (February–March 1816). He moved the formation of a committee to study the militia laws and sponsored a bill to appropriate money for militia purposes. His interests as a merchant figure in much of the legislation he promoted during this session. He introduced bills to amend the act for the speedy recovery of small debts, extend the jurisdiction of the Court of Requests (essentially a small claims court), and facilitate the circulation of army bills issued by the Lower Canadian government. On a broader scale, he brought forward bills to provide a sum for improving navigation on the St Lawrence River, to allow the lieutenant governor to designate additional ports of entry and appoint more collectors of customs, and to continue the provisional agreement with Lower Canada respecting customs duties at the port of Quebec. The latter two bills indicate a concern with augmenting government revenues and to that end he seconded bills placing additional duties both on ship and tavern licences and on licences for hawkers and pedlars. He introduced several pieces of legislation defraying the expenses of individuals serving in various non-remunerative public offices. He proposed bills to increase the salary of the speaker of the assembly and to provide salaries for judges in district courts, although he voted with the minority against wages for assemblymen. He sponsored an amendment to the school act of 1807, which was defeated, and he initiated measures extending the limits of the town of Niagara, regulating the police in Kingston, and empowering jps to regulate the price of bread in several towns within the province. Finally, he opposed, unsuccessfully, further liberalization of the province’s restrictive marriage laws.
Dickson’s experiences during the War of 1812 were varied. On one occasion he barely eluded capture by the Americans at his Queenston home. In 1813 he moved to Thorold and made his will, “thinking it necessary in the present eventful times . . . in case of my death either in battle or otherwise.” Dickson served with the 2nd Lincoln Militia; taking command of the regiment during the absence of Thomas Clark, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 5 Jan. 1814. Under his leadership, the unit distinguished itself at the battle of Chippawa on 5 July 1814. Dickson was wounded slightly and mentioned in Major-General Phineas Riall*’s dispatches for his “most exemplary” conduct and great zeal. He was also active in a civil capacity. On 24 March 1814 he was appointed one of the commissioners to secure traitors within the Niagara District. It is worth noting that a few months earlier his previous action as a jp handling the case of Jacob Overholser*, an American-born farmer persecuted by some of his Upper Canadian neighbours and later tried for treason, indicates a humane and sympathetic magistrate. In the spring of 1814 Dickson sat as an associate judge at the special assizes held at Ancaster to try suspected traitors. Towards the end of the war, in August 1814, Administrator Gordon Drummond* used Dickson and Robert Nichol to urge farmers in the peninsula to thresh their grain earlier than usual so that the troops could hold out until further supplies arrived. Dickson acted on behalf of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada, distributing money to individuals and families who had suffered during the war. Never a strong man, he spent his last years quietly.
AO, ms 198; RG 1, A-II-5, 1, Niagara District reports. General Reg. Office (Edinburgh), Dumfries, reg. of births and baptisms, 19 Feb. 1775. PAC, MG 19, F10, Robert Nichol to Walsh, 17 March 1807; RG 1, E3, 20:155; E14, 8: 600–3, 615; RG 7, G16C, 3: 95–96; RG 8, I (C ser.), 272: 116–18; 684: 56; RG 68, General Index, 1651–1841: 30, 410, 416, 418, 425, 428, 437, 450. PRO, CO 42/471: 9. UWOL, Regional Coll., “Index compiled in 1950 to the ledger of Thomas Dickson, Queenstown, 1806–1809.” “Early records of St. Mark’s and St. Andrew’s churches, Niagara,” comp. Janet Carnochan, OH, 3 (1901): 17, 31, 55–56. John Askin papers (Quaife), 1: 542. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1912. Select British docs. of War of 1812 (Wood), 2: 114–17. Quebec almanac, 1801. Lois Darroch Milani, Robert Gourlay, gadfly: the biography of Robert (Fleming) Gourlay, 1778–1863, forerunner of the rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837 ([Thornhill, Ont., 1971?]), 140, 151, 170–71, 211. Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton. J. E. Kerr, “Sketch of the life of Hon. William Dickson,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.30 (1917): 19–20.