Wednesday, October 10, 2012

General James Dickon's Indian Liberating Army

"General" James Dickson, the so-called "Liberator of the Indian Nations", is a curious character, who goes down in Western Canadian history as a brief sojourner with more passion than sense.  Dickson's lineage is vague, but he has been claimed to be the "mixed-blood son of a British trader and Toto-win, sister of Sisseton Sioux Chief Red Thunder."  (Thomas Ingersoll, To Intermix with Our White Brothers , p. 104)  The governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, George Simpson described him as "covered with huge whiskers and mustachios and seamed with sabre wounds."  Elsewhere it has been noted that,
a bizarre character appeared in fashionable circles in New York and Washington in the winter of 1835-36, endeavoring, as he then said, to secure recruits to aid the Texans in their struggle for independence.  He called himself General James Dickson and told fascinating stories of his life in Mexico and of his service in the Texan army. His striking military dress and a very nice attention to the amenities of social life secured recognition for him but seem to have brought him few recruits. (Nute, p.352)
Dickson's claim to fame was an attempt at gathering support for the establishment of a aboriginal state stretching from Rupert's Land to Texas. 
Banner from Martin McLeod's "Attestation Papers", Nute

In 1836, Dickson recruited around thirty men from Montreal to join him in his quest.  All were apparently made officers in his army, and granted dress uniforms complete with "showy uniforms and glittering epaulettes." (Lyman C Draper George Simpson would call these men, "wild thoughtless young men of good education and daring character, half-breed sons of gentlemen lately and now engaged in the fur trade."  (Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood, p.190)  Elizabeth Arthur, writing for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, noted that he may not have told these recruits the full story of his plans to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, attack the fort and continue on to California, where he would establish a "utopian state in which Indians would hold all the property and where only a few white officials would be permitted."
McLeod County Minnesota.  Wikipedia.

One of Dickson's party was Martin McLeod, whose diary has survived the years.  McLeod was born near Montreal, but would later become a member of several councils in the Minnesota territorial legislature.   His presidency of the fourth council may be the reason why McLeod County, Minnesota was named for him.  Once in Minnesota, he would long function as a booster for the area, writing Canadian newspapers in praise of Minnesota. (Grace Lee Nute ed., The Diary of Martin McLeod, Aug 1922)

As McLeod made his way from Montreal to meet Dickson, he travelled Lake Ontario to Toronto, where he spent the day.  From his diary entry of 20 July 1836, it may be said that he did not enjoy his stay:
Remained one day at Toronto, do not like the place.  Saw Al[exander] Robertson of Inverness (an acquaintance at Montreal).  People kind enough apparently, but I think some what pompous.  Why?  God only knows.  What have they to bost of.  Their town or city (as I believe it is call'd) is a muddy hole - but then it is the Capital of [Upper Canada] and they are up to their ears in politics (damn politics) and they have Sir [Francis Bond Head] (whom by the by I saw a cheval) who is very popular &c &c and all that, so you see they are a people of some consequence, and not to be sneezed at, - that is if the d-------d stench of their town would allow a person to take his finger from his nasal organ long enough for that pleasant exercise. (McLeod, p.355)
It was in Black Rock several days later that McLeod would meet General Dickson.  McLeod seemed slightly skeptical of the "General's" abilities noting that Dickson,
privately, informed me of his plans &c relative to the intended expedition to the north via  the great lakes and onwards God only knows where; and where and when it may end.  D[ickson] appears quite sanguine of success. As yet I know little of the man, but if I may judge from so short an acquaintance, he is some what visionary in his views - n'importe I wish to go north & westward and will embrace teh opportunity, but must "look before I leap." (McLeod, p.359)

As Dickson had learned of Cuthbert Grant and the militant abilities of the M├ętis, he intended to gain recruits for his army in Red River.  He set out from Buffalo with only sixty of the 200 men that were initially proposed for the force.  As they had no money or supplies to speak of, they resorted to stealing and slaughtering some cattle near Detroit.  Unfortunately a sheriff's posse caught up with them, and they were made to pay a fine after some tricky negotiating.

The travelling was hard, and made particularly difficult by Dickson's questionable command decisions. (Anne Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families, p.132)  Dickson could not help the damage done by a storm to their schooner on the Great Lakes which almost swamped them, but his decision to press ahead of his party in northern Minnesota without adequate supplies was highly questionable.

On the 27th November 1836, McLeod noted the difficulties crossing Cass Lake after the winds had polished the ice.  The party travelled 30 miles that day.  The next day McLeod noted, "Obliged to rest as a number of the party are unable to proceed from the fatigue of yesterday's march and the bruises which they received from frequent falls upon the ice. Indeed all our men were so "done up " that they did not arrise yesterday till near dark." (McLeod, p. 388)

It was when the party's Sioux guides left them on the 9th of December, that Dickson's leadership began to crumble.  They had left Thief River that day and were still around a week's walk to the Red River settlement, yet were not at all familiar with the open prairie.  As McLeod wrote in his diary:
Saturday 10th Decr At day break we were summoned together,and informed by Gen1 D[ickson] that as our guides had desserted and as we had but five days provisions, and had yet to travel near three hundred miles in a strange country of which we had not an accurate map, he left us all to act, each man for himself, to either follow him, as it was his determination to trust to fortune and push forward, or return to Red lake and there wait untill they could procure a guide. I had previously made up my mind to continue my route at every risk, and all the rest with the exception of two preferring to follow Gen1 D., we made immediate preparations to start.
It was several days later that Dickson left the main group without blanket, food, nor means to light a fire. Dickson arrived in Red River, starving and frost-bitten.  As Lyman Draper noted, "the cold weather set in before their arrival at Red river [sic], and Dickson had his toes frozen off, which crippled him as well as the whole enterprise."  (Draper) 

Sir George Simpson, Governor of the
 Hudson's Bay Company, 1857.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No.
1978-14-3 Source: Manuscript Division,
 W.W. Campbell Collection (MG30 D 8)
Governor Simpson was none too amused with the party, refused his bank drafts and quickly employed the men who had been recruited.  Several of Dickson's recruits were in fact the mixed-blood sons of HBC officials.  Their sense of adventure was probably supplanted by their common sense, after the hard travelling in the company of Dickson.  In the spring of 1837, the Indian Liberator left Red River, incredibly, worse off for resources than when he arrived. (Pannekoek, Snug Little Flock, 90).  As Grace Lee Nute put it in 1922, "America has been the land of roseate dreams; but, among all its visions of wealth and power, where is the equal for novelty and adventure of this mad product of Dickson's disordered mind?" (Nute, 352)

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