DEASE, JOHN, Indian Department official; b. probably 1744 in County Cavan (Republic of Ireland), son of Richard Dease and Anne Johnson; m. c. 1779 Jane French, and they had eight children, including Peter Warren Dease*; d. 12 Jan. 1801, at the age of 56, in the faubourg Sainte-Marie (Montreal), Lower Canada.
Educated in both Ireland and France, John Dease became a doctor, following the same profession as an uncle and brother. He sailed to New York in the summer of 1771 to take a position as personal physician to his uncle Sir William Johnson*, superintendent of northern Indians. During the next three years he lived at Johnson Hall (Johnstown, N.Y.), attended conferences with the Indians, and watched over Sir William’s declining health. An executor of Johnson’s will, he inherited £500 and 2,000 acres of land on Lake Champlain when the superintendent died in 1774.
On 16 April 1775, just as the American revolution was breaking out, Dease was appointed deputy agent of Indian affairs for the Middle (Cataraqui) District by Guy Johnson*, Sir William’s successor. Along with Christian Daniel Claus* and Alexander McKee*, he drew an average salary of £200. The rebels soon drove the Johnson clan from the Mohawk River and Dease took up residence at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) and Montreal. Little is known about his career between 1775 and 1780, probably because he did not do much. Although generally well liked and considered a “good natured honest man,” Dease was apparently not given any important assignments.
Late in 1780, with Johnson’s support, Dease attempted to secure from Governor Haldimand a captain’s commission so that he would have the authority to command when the absence of other officials left him in charge of Indian affairs at Niagara. Haldimand during the next two years repeatedly denied Dease’s requests for a commission, saying that the appointment might create jealousies. He felt that the Johnson family had too much power in the Indian Department, and he thought well of Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler*, who was also a deputy agent at Niagara. Butler and Dease apparently had a satisfactory working relationship until August 1782, when Dease let it be known that his appointment was senior to Butler’s; Butler resigned in a huff, but his resignation was not accepted. Not even Guy Johnson backed Dease in the dispute. He explained to Haldimand that, although Dease’s commission predated Butler’s, he had “always considered Mr Butlers Experience, and the approbation he found to the Northward as Inducements Sufficient for my giving him the Compliment of Seniority.” Butler and Dease patched up the quarrel.
In April 1783 Sir John Johnson*, who was by that date in charge of the Indian Department, recommended Dease for the post of deputy agent at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.), perhaps to protect his job while government expenditures were being reduced after the end of the American revolution. The appointment, however, was not made for several years. Late in the summer of 1783 Dease accompanied Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea] and other Six Nations deputies when they left for Detroit to talk about unity with the western Indians, Creeks, and Cherokees. In September Dease made his first trip to Michilimackinac, bearing the official word of the cessation of hostilities between the British and the Americans. Following his return to Niagara he was involved in sensitive conferences with the Six Nations, whose lands had in effect been turned over to the Americans by the British in the Treaty of Paris (1783). Meanwhile, beyond the upper Great Lakes, intertribal Indian wars were seriously disrupting the western fur trade. In April 1786 the affected merchants petitioned Sir John Johnson for special envoys to end the hostilities. Captain Michael Byrne, the Indian Department commissary at Michilimackinac, dispatched Joseph-Louis Ainsse to the Sioux country in the summer of 1786, and on 1 October Sir John appointed Dease to go to Michilimackinac as deputy agent and settle the troubles.
Dease arrived at the post in June 1787 to replace Byrne in the direction of Indian affairs. Almost immediately he raised the ire of the local merchants, who, organized into the General Company of Lake Superior and the South, were used to having things their own way. They believed that on his expedition the previous year Ainsse had damaged their business by trading privately in goods intended as presents for the Indians. Dease strengthened their conviction that their trade was being undercut by the Indian Department when he gave some department employees part of their pay in articles from the stores and when he loaned supplies to a former employee whose goods had not yet arrived from Detroit. The ban on such practices, which appear to have been common, had been repeated in the instructions issued by Sir John Johnson on 10 May 1787, following receipt of orders from Governor Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton]. Dease further angered the merchants by refusing to let one of them, Charles Paterson, speak at an Indian council on 11 July. Three weeks later, at L’Arbre Croche (Cross Village, Mich.), Nissowaquet* and his band of Ottawas bitterly complained that there was only one trading house at Michilimackinac. Dease expressed his sympathy for their situation.
Dease also offended the commandant at Michilimackinac, Thomas Scott, who requested lists of the presents distributed to the Indians. Dease did not respond and later remarked that he “found nothing in his instructions that induced him to think himself accountable to Captain Scott for his management of the Indian Department.” Moreover, despite Scott’s opposition he sent Ainsse west again in August on the Indians’ insistence.
On 10 Aug. 1787 the merchants protested to Scott about the behaviour of Dease and Ainsse, and four days later they sent formal accusations to Lord Dorchester. He ordered a court of inquiry, which convened at Michilimackinac on 24 June 1788 with Scott presiding. For two weeks the charges and cross-examination dragged on. Dease was subsequently ordered down country to answer the charges against him. Either he did not receive the directive or he ignored it; he spent the summer of 1789 negotiating with the Indians at Michilimackinac. Finally, on 22 Aug. 1789, Sir John Johnson demanded that he come immediately to Montreal, and on 16 October the dejected agent departed.
It was not until 20 April 1790 that a committee of the Legislative Council began hearings on the case. Late in May, while it was pondering, Dease received permission to return west to get his family. On 5 June the committee decided that in his administration at Michilimackinac he had acted contrary to Dorchester’s orders, and it asked Sir John Johnson for his opinion as to whether Dease’s departure from instructions was unavoidable. Johnson replied in October that “no deviation . . . was necessary to effect the purpose of his mission. . . .” The committee immediately concluded that Dease’s conduct was indefensible and referred the matter to Dorchester. No punishment was apparently imposed, though Dease’s service in the department ended. He was, in fact, a victim of the Indian Department’s problems. In wartime the authorities had been somewhat tolerant of its casual accounting practices and unforeseen expenditures. Dease apparently approached the management of Indian affairs at Michilimackinac with the methods and attitudes he had learned at Niagara during the revolution, and the results ended his career. The problems, however, remained. Within months of Dease’s departure from Michilimackinac, Charles Gautier de Verville, who had been left in charge of Indian affairs, was writing that he had been obliged to ignore the commandant and take coal from the king’s stores for the department’s blacksmith.
Dease spent the last decade of his life on half pay. In his will, made at his home “in the suburbs of saint Mary near the . . . City of Montreal” on 4 Jan. 1801, he named Sir John Johnson an executor. Thus, even in death he remained linked closely with the Johnson clan. He left a relatively modest estate, and his body was interred in the cemetery of Saint-Antoine, in the parish of Notre-Dame, on 19 January.
[The author wishes to thank J. P. Birkett of the PAC for making available information collected there on John Dease. d.a.a.]
ANQ-M, CE1-51, 19 janv. 1801, 21 déc. 1802; CM1, John Dease, 41 Jan. 1801. AO, MU 1750. Arch. de la Soc. hist. de Montréal, Coll. Louis-Joseph Ainsse, 98, 100 (mfm. at PAC). BL, Add.