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DICKSON, WILLIAM, businessman, lawyer, jp, office holder, colonizer, and politician; b. 13 July 1769 in Dumfries, Scotland, second of six sons of John Dickson, a merchant, and Helen Wight, daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman; m. 12 April 1794 Charlotte Adlam in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, and they had three sons; d. 19 Feb. 1846 in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake).

Following reverses in his father’s business, William Dickson arrived in western Quebec in 1785 to join his cousin, Robert Hamilton*. Under the supervision of Hamilton’s partner, Richard Cartwright*, he was a forwarding agent at Carleton Island (NY.); later he managed Hamilton’s mills and store on the Twelve Mile Creek in the Niagara peninsula. About 1790 he settled at Niagara, opposite the fort, where, as Thomas Clark* later wrote, he “sells merchandise to the Military, and trades with the Settlers for grain &c. which is bought up to supply the Garrisons – he has been but a short time in Business for himself – short as it is, he has made out excedingly well.” Business was sufficiently prosperous that in 1790 the 21-year-old Dickson built the first brick house in the peninsula.

Using his profits from merchandising, Dickson moved into large-scale land speculation, often in conjunction with his cousins Clark and Hamilton. In 1792 he petitioned Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe* for 48,000 acres in the “Mississauga Tract” [see Kineubenae*]. His request failed, and as a result his scheme to settle the land with a “decent and loyal yeomanry” recruited in Scotland came to naught. In 1793 Dickson and Samuel Street* “discovered” that the Six Nations Indians desired to sell a portion of their Grand River lands, and they asked Simcoe to allow the sale. The lieutenant governor was opposed, believing that the 570,000 acres granted to the Indians along the river was for their use alone, but his interpretation was actively resisted by Six Nations spokesman Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*]. In 1797 Administrator Peter Russell* finally agreed that the Indians might dispose of land, and by 1798 some 350,000 acres had been divided into six blocks to be offered for sale. The story of the dealings in Grand River lands is a murky one, but a certain amount is known about Dickson’s involvement, which was considerable. In 1795 he had been the agent for an American group anxious to purchase tracts of land from the Six Nations. After 1798 he often acted as the Indians’ land agent, and later as their lawyer in many of the transactions involving the blocks (in 1803 the legislature passed a bill authorizing the lieutenant governor to license him to practise law). He handled the 1803 purchase by Pennsylvania Mennonites of land in block 2 [see Samuel D. Betzner*], as well as the dealings of Richard Beasley who had sold it to them. On 13 March 1809 the Six Nations surrendered 4,000 acres to Dickson at the mouth of the Grand River, adjacent to block 5, for his professional services on their behalf.

He also speculated in the Grand River lands on his own account. By 1807 he had purchased an option on block 5, valuable because it fronted on Lake Erie. But in spite of an agreement with his brother Thomas* and Hamilton that they would buy all or some of it, he sold his rights to the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas*]. Dickson had a particular interest in block 1. In 1802 he mortgaged more than 15,000 acres to Isaac Todd* for the express purpose of buying land, possibly to finance his share in one, or more, of the failed schemes to acquire block 1. In 1808 he hatched an unsuccessful plan with Augustus Jones to use Jones’s father-in law, Henry Tekarihogen* (titular head of the Six Nations), to facilitate their purchase of the block. Finally, in 1811 he purchased it with his cousin Thomas Clark, although at the time Dickson’s full partnership in the deal was concealed; five years later all the lands were transferred to him.

Dickson was involved with a number of local activities. He belonged to the Niagara Agricultural Society and the Niagara Library, and was a trustee of the district grammar school. A justice of the peace, he was an associate justice in 1801 at the trial of Mary London [Osborn*]. In 1803 he was elected poundkeeper for Niagara Township. A key figure in the mercantile élite surrounding Robert Hamilton which dominated the peninsula, Dickson, with Samuel Street, represented that interest in the election of 1800. The two were defeated by Isaac Swayze* and Ralfe Clench* in spite of an address by Dickson that Robert Nichol* described as “one of the best Speeches (perhaps) ever delivered in Upper Canada.”

During the Niagara assizes in 1806, William Weekes*, a lawyer prominent in the province’s political opposition, made abusive remarks about the deceased lieutenant governor, Peter Hunter*. The presiding judge, Robert Thorpe, allowed them to pass without censure whereupon Dickson, Weekes’s fellow counsel in the cause, protested. The resulting breach between the two men could not be patched up. Weekes then demanded an apology or satisfaction and a duel was fought on 10 October on American soil in the vicinity of Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). Dickson was unharmed but Weekes was mortally wounded and died the next day. No legal action was taken against Dickson.

By 1812 Dickson had built a second brick house and had purchased a magnificent library of over 1,000 volumes imported from England; he estimated its worth at more than £600. Unlike his brothers Thomas and Robert*, William did not play a major part in the War of 1812. He was taken prisoner with a number of other civilians on 19 June 1813 when the Americans occupied Niagara. Confined at Albany, N.Y., he was released in January 1814. The previous December his house, valued at £1,000, was burnt by the retreating American army. Although Dickson had not participated directly in the war effort he suffered no loss of status and continued his advancement in Upper Canadian society. In November 1815 he was appointed to the Legislative Council with Clark, Thomas Fraser*, and Neil McLean*.

After the war Dickson began intensive planning to develop block 4. With his agent, Absalom Shade*, Dickson toured the lands in 1816 and authorized a survey. The first settlement began at Shade’s Mills, on the future site of Galt. Dickson was frustrated in his attempts to promote settlement by a government regulation which effectively prohibited land grants to American immigrants. In 1817 he may have backed an abortive attempt in the House of Assembly, led by Robert Nichol, to overturn the offending regulation. When that tack failed, he began the same year to encourage Robert Gourlay*, whose wife was his cousin. Dickson had first met Gourlay during a trip to Scotland in 1809. Gourlay’s views of the Upper Canadian situation were heavily influenced by conversations with Dickson and other land speculators in the peninsula. In the hope that it would spur British immigration, Dickson supported Gourlay’s plan to produce and publish a statistical account of the province. When strong opposition to Gourlay from officialdom in York (Toronto) made any further association with him untenable, Dickson then became a firm, if opportunistic, opponent. He was instrumental in the arrest of Bartemas Ferguson*, editor of the Niagara Spectator, for publishing Gourlay’s material and in the arrest of Gourlay himself in 1819 under the terms of the Sedition Act of 1804. Dickson, in fact, was one of the magistrates who interrogated Gourlay and then ordered him to leave the province.

After the Gourlay episode, Dickson spent his later years developing his lands in Dumfries Township. During his trip to Scotland in 1809 he had assessed attitudes there regarding emigration to Upper Canada and had also made some preliminary arrangements concerning agents. Once the initial settlement was established, he sent his Scottish agents printed prospectuses concerning his township, wrote articles to the Scottish press, and contacted leading Scots, concentrating his efforts on Dumfries and Roxburgh and Selkirk counties. In all he treated his settlers paternally. They were moved immediately to their land and provided with stock, implements, and provisions. He was noted for making large advances of money and for not requiring substantial down payments. By 1825 his settlement was doing well and Dickson moved his entire family to Galt. He retired to Niagara in 1837, leaving the administration of his lands to his sons.

Bruce G. Wilson

AO, MU 875–77. DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., John Askin papers. PAC, MG 19, A3, 15: 5161–63; E1, ser.1: 14404–5; McDonell papers, vol.10, Baldoon settlement letter-book, McDonell to Selkirk, 28 Nov. 1808; MG 23, HI, 1, ser.3, 2: 356; ser.4, vol.6, packet A17: 5–6, 34–35 (transcripts); MG 24, B130, Thomas Clark to Samuel Clark, 12 Oct. 1792 (copy); RG 8, 1 (C ser.), 690: 120–24; 1225: 8–10; RG 19, E5(a), 3740, claim 5. QUA, 2199c, letter-books, Cartwright to Todd, 18 April 1801 (transcripts at AO). John Askin papers (Quaife). “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U. C.,” AO Report, 1909. Niagara Argus (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]), 4 March 1846. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology (1967). Darroch Milani, Robert Gourlay, gadfly. James Young, Reminiscences of the early history of Galt and the settlement of Dumfries, in the province of Ontario (Toronto, 1880). J. E. Kerr, “Sketch of the life of Hon. William Dickson,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.30 (1917): 19–29.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce G. Wilson, “DICKSON, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dickson_william_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dickson_william_7E.html
Author of Article: Bruce G. Wilson
Title of Article: DICKSON, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: October 1, 2014