DICKSON, ROBERT, fur trader and Indian Department official; b. c. 1765 in Dumfries, Scotland, son of John Dickson, a merchant; m. 1797 To-to-win (Helen), and they had four children; d. 20 June 1823 on Drummond Island (Mich.).
Robert Dickson, in an official dispatch of July 1812, was described as “closely connected with the most respectable families” in Upper Canada. His brother William* was at that time a prominent lawyer and land speculator at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake); another brother, Thomas, was a merchant, politician, and, during the War of 1812, militia officer. Robert and his brothers were cousins of Robert Hamilton*, a merchant established in the Niagara peninsula. Some time after the American revolution Robert was employed in the Niagara region by Hamilton’s partner, Richard Cartwright*, in selling and shipping goods to the upper fur-trade posts and in managing accounts, especially those of ex-officers of Butler’s Rangers, a disbanded loyalist corps. The young immigrant soon tired of this drab, routine life, and was pleased to be sent to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) in July 1786 “to learn the art and mystery of commerce.”
According to the dispatch of 1812 Dickson resided “for a number of years in the character of a mercantile Trader,” primarily in the Spanish territory west of the Mississippi, and acquired an extensive knowledge of the distribution and customs of its numerous Indian tribes. In the spring of 1797 he strengthened his association with the Indians through his marriage to To-to-win, the daughter of an influential chief of the Wahpeton branch of the Santee Sioux. Soon afterwards he established a small fur-trading post along the upper St Peter (Minnesota) River at Lake Traverse, a traditional camping ground of the roving Sioux bands, and he gradually became one of the leading traders in an area now comprising southern Minnesota, Iowa, part of Wisconsin, and eastern South Dakota.
In August 1804 he formed a partnership with James Aird* and Allen C. Wilmot of Prairie du Chien (Wis.), which led to the establishment of the short-lived Robert Dickson and Company at Michilimackinac the following year. The firm was composed primarily of Canadian fur traders who hoped to protect their interests in the face of the growing restrictions placed on them by the American government as a result of Jay’s Treaty (1794), the heavy customs duties imposed on their British goods, and the increased competition from American traders throughout the area south and west of Michilimackinac. Robert Dickson and Company was unable to overcome these problems and in 1807 it became part of the larger Michilimackinac Company [see John Ogilvy*], organized for similar reasons by some of the major Montreal partnerships. During the winter of 1810–11 Dickson and Aird were trading for the Michilimackinac Company above the Falls of St Anthony (Minneapolis, Minn.). But this company also bowed to increased pressure and in 1811 it was replaced by the South West Fur Company, in which the powerful American Fur Company under John Jacob Astor and the North West Company [see William McGillivray] held equal shares.
British and Canadian fur traders in the northwest such as Dickson became increasingly bitter over American encroachment on their trading territory and by early 1812, with war between Britain and the United States imminent, they were anxious to cooperate with any military plans which might produce British paramountcy in the region. There is no doubt of Dickson’s own attachment to the British government. Motivated by these twin factors, he quickly responded to a “Confidential Communication” from Major-General Isaac Brock* which sought information on the loyalty of the Indians of the northwest and requested Dickson’s assistance in recruiting “your friends” for the British cause. In his reply of 18 June, the day the United States declared war, Dickson reported that he had gathered about 250 to 300 “friends” whom he would lead immediately to St Joseph Island (Ont.), the nearest British military post.
Indeed, Dickson enjoyed a complete success in raising “His Majesty’s Indian Allies.” His influence was particularly significant during the first critical months of the war. On 17 July Dickson and John Askin Jr, storekeeper for the Indian Department at St Joseph Island, commanded about 400 Indians in the successful attack led by Captain Charles Roberts* against the American garrison at Michilimackinac. That victory secured for the British the support of the Indians of the Upper Lakes region, and the large number of warriors Dickson rallied to Brock’s forces at Detroit played an important role in the capture of the fort and town the following month.
In the autumn of 1812 Dickson travelled to Montreal. There, fur merchants James McGill*, William McGillivray, and John Richardson highly recommended his efforts to Sir George Prevost*, lieutenant-general and governor-in-chief of British North America. As a result, Dickson was appointed agent and superintendent for the Indians of the western nations on 1 Jan. 1813, with a salary of £200 per year plus £300 for travel and expenses, to be paid out of the secret-service fund. He was given a high degree of autonomy, was permitted to hire five officers and fifteen interpreters, and was to report directly to the British military command. In addition, a claim for £1,875 he had incurred in distributing goods to the Indians the previous winter and spring was accepted in full by Prevost, “as compensation for the eminent services which he had rendered to His Majesty’s government by his loyalty, zeal and exertions in bringing forward the Indians to aid in the capture of Michilimackinac and Detroit.”
For the duration of the war Dickson continued to rally Indians to the British cause. He returned to the northwest early in 1813. That summer he brought about 1,400 Indians to Fort Malden (Amherstburg, Ont.); from this post a second siege of Fort Meigs (near Perrysburg, Ohio), directed by Major-General Henry Procter with the support of Shawnee chief Tecumseh*, was launched. The siege was unsuccessful, as was another – in which Dickson participated – at Fort Stephenson (Fremont, Ohio) at the end of July. He spent the next winter among the Indians trying to regain some of the influence lost after these failures. He served in the successful defence of Michilimackinac in August 1814. In September, under the direction of Miller Worsley, he and 200 Indians participated in the daring capture of the American schooners Tigress and Scorpion, which had blockaded Mackinac Island. He then travelled to Prairie du Chien, where he spent the winter of 1814–15 organizing support among the Indians of the region. He unfortunately became embroiled in a bitter feud with Andrew H. Bulger*, commandant at Fort McKay, over the distribution of gifts and the feeding of the various Indian bands. Dickson was accused of favouring the Sioux and of attempting to usurp the authority of the British military officers. As a result, he was ordered back to Michilimackinac in March 1815. The case was referred to London, and in a hearing at Quebec he was completely vindicated; he was rewarded for his services with the title of lieutenant-colonel and retired from the Indian Department with a pension.
The War of 1812 had ruined Dickson’s fur-trade career. While on a brief visit to Scotland after the war, he applied, unsuccessfully, from Perth in June 1816 for the vacant position of superintendent of the Indian Department at Amherstburg. He subsequently returned to the northwest, where he remained popular with the Indian chiefs and warriors. A burly Scot, of full face, tall and commanding, Dickson had been referred to often in council by Indian spokesmen as the Red Head because of his flaming red hair and beard. In 1816–17 he became involved in a futile plan to provision the Red River colony of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] with beef. He also worked on Selkirk’s behalf to try to persuade Wisconsin settlers to move to Red River; the plan was abandoned when Selkirk died. Dickson continued to travel throughout the northwest, probably as a trader for Astor’s American Fur Company. In 1818 he and Aird were trading on the upper Mississippi. He died unexpectedly at Drummond Island on 20 June 1823.
The contribution of Robert Dickson during the War of 1812 is too little known. His efforts in recruiting Indian allies and dispatching the warriors to theatres of active military operations were vital to the successful defence of the Canadas.
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