DISASTER, it said by some, is an opportunity under another guise. Robert Dickson is the perfect example of what happens when adventure and grit meets determination.

Born in 1765, my ancestor Dickson was one of six sons of Dumfries Grain merchant John Dickson and Helen Wright, the daughter of the minister at St Michael’s Kirk, where Robert Burns was later to be buried.When the family business failed during the grain riots, Robert and his brothers William and Thomas sailed across the Atlantic to work for a cousin in what is now Cambridge, Ontario.

While his brothers had successful careers in law and politics, this was not for Robert. Bored with managing accounts, he was pleased to be sent to Mackinac Island, Michigan, the following summer to trap and trade furs on his own account. He preferred life in the rough, canoeing up heavily wooded rivers, crossing swamps, mountains and great frozen plains, often by dog sled.

He spent many years trading among the natives, especially in the Spanish territories west of the Mississippi. In 1797, he met and married the sister of the Wahpeton Sioux chief Red Thunder, Ista. 

To-to-win. By intermarrying he became part of the Metis culture.

Robert spoke French, Spanish and various indigenous languages as well as English. His repute among the natives is best described by a spokesman for the Sioux who said: “We have the good fortune to have the Mescotopah (red-headed man) for a friend … courage made him proceed in severe weather with the goods and food destined for us. He saved our lives.”

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Soon afterwards, Robert established a small fur-trading post at Lake Traverse, a traditional camping ground of roving Sioux bands, and became one of the leading traders in an area that covered southern Minnesota, Iowa, part of Wisconsin, and eastern South Dakota.

In August 1804, he formed a partnership at Prairie du Chien, which led to the firm Robert Dickson & Company being established at Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island). His company comprised Canadian fur traders who hoped to protect their interests in the face of the growing customs duty restrictions placed on British goods by the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor.

In the tense years before 1812, Canadian traders were incandescent about American incursions into their trapping and trading territory in Wisconsin. The Dumfries adventurer was now a man of renown and standing and could count on the aboriginal peoples of northern Canada and several southern territories as loyal friends.

The limestone cliffs of Machinac Island rise 60m above the narrow stretch of land that separates them from Lake Huron, giving the heights a commanding view of the straits leading west to Lake Michigan. Not far north sits the entrance to Lake Superior. Control this island and you essentially control the Upper Great Lakes, the reason Michilimackinac was likened to Gibraltar – a similar natural fortress.

Its importance was scarcely lost on Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in the months leading up to the War of 1812. If Upper Canada was to fend off an American invasion from the south and west, controlling this island in northern Michigan was key. Seize the American fort at Michilimackinac and you secure the fur-trading empire run out of Montreal, upon which the Indians depend. More importantly, you show British resolve in helping the tribes thwart continued American expansion into their lands in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Brock knew Indian allies were crucial if he’s to defend Upper Canada, given the handful of British regulars at his disposal and the untested state of Canadian militia. Which explains why – long before formal hostilities – Brock dispatched Francis Rheaume to go in search of Robert Dickson, the tall red-headed Scot so revered by natives he lived with in the Upper Great Lakes.

Rheaume was armed with a letter, in which Brock wanted to know, in the event of war, how many of Mecotopah’s “friends might be favourable to the British cause, and whether they would assemble and march under your orders”.

Rheaume and a companion travelled hundreds of kilometres south in a quest that was almost doomed when both were arrested by Americans at Fort Dearborn (Chicago). They were released after a cursory search revealed nothing. Why? Brock’s letter was hidden in the soles of their moccasins.

Robert was finally found on June 18, 1812 – the same day the United States declared war – and he quickly sent a note back to Brock saying he and 300 “friends” would hurry to the British post on St Joseph’s Island, north-east of Michilimackinac. They band arrived at the island on June 30, with 130 Sioux, Winnebago and Menominee warriors

The post’s commanding officer, Captain Charles Roberts, was a well-respected veteran but was in poor health. His men were in no better shape; the sparse garrison consisted of a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners, plus 44 officers and men of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion – essentially old soldiers deemed unfit for much more than guard duty.

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Four days later, Roberts had a visit from Toussaint Pothier, an agent for the South West Company, a transnational operation owned by American Astor and his Montreal partners at the North West Company. Being a loyal subject, Pothier passed the “war declaration information” first to the British, giving them a huge tactical advantage. Roberts put his men on alert and on July 8, Roberts finally received official confirmation of the war from Brock.

THE dispatch told his captain to “adopt the most prudent measures either of offence or defence which circumstances might point out”. They need no schooling in what those couched terms really mean. Dickson and Roberts led 400 natives by canoe to capture Mackinac Island from its American garrison and, in three days, the island was secure. They then led the Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois warriors south to unite with the British Army and Brock at Amhersburg. These combined forces besieged Fort Detroit and forced the American army to raise the white flag of surrender, without firing a shot.

At Fort Detroit, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was so impressed by Brock and Dickson that he said: “These are men I’m proud to know.” That autumn in Montreal, Robert was appointed to the Indian Department as agent and superintendent for the Western Indian tribes. The war continued on many scattered border fronts and in 1814 Dickson recruited fresh native warriors and led them in the September Engagement on Lake Huron. He and 200 braves, in a daring action, attacked and boarded two American schooners, Tigress and Scorpion, which had blockaded Mackinac Island for months. Prisoners and the British flag raised on both vessels.

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Dickson ended the war at the captured post of Prairie du Chien, where he had bitter exchanges with the post’s commandant, Andrew Bulger, exchanges that would return to haunt him. Bulger objected to Dickson’s giving food supplies to the Sioux warriors fighting for the crown. The British commandant saw that action as intolerable, usurping the authority of the British officers.

However, after a hearing at Quebec in which he was completely vindicated, Dickson was rewarded for his services with the title of lieutenant-colonel and he retired from the Indian Department, aged 50 with a pension of £60 a year.

After visiting his native Scotland in 1816, he sailed once more to Canada and returned to the frozen northwest. The burly trapper was again greeted with warmth in the native villages. Over the years in the wilds he retained his strong face, tall commanding bearing and shock of red hair, the reason his Sioux wife had named him Mescotopah so many years before.

Always looking for his next adventure, he became part of a plan to supply Lord Selkirk’s Red River colony with beef in 1818. 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 brushed off the failure and continued to travel throughout the north-west with fur trading excursions on the upper Mississippi — ever the frontiersman. Six years later in 1823, at the age of 58 the flame-haired Dumfries adventurer died unexpectedly on Drummond Island on June 20.

In Manitoba, historian Sandra Horyski, a Metis descended from native and Scottish marriage, best portrays his life: “The lively chant of the fur trader can be heard for miles around and through the depth of the lush green forests of a new Eden, a new frontier as the mighty river rapids are ridden to places unknown and to treasures yet unseen.”

In an age when Europe was full of empire-building despots, empires of another kind were being built by brave strong men starting from scratch — Robert Dickson was the hardiest of them all.

To the dismay of many scholars, Dickson’s role in cementing British bonds with western indigenous nations has been all but forgotten. It is said that no other white man commanded the respect and love of native people as Dickson did.

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.