Thursday, July 9, 2015

William Dickson (Part II)

This is the second post in a series about my fourth great-grandfather, William Dickson.

Capt. William Dickson in his later years

In my last post about my immigrant ancestor, William Dickson, I wrote about his birth in Northern Ireland and his journey to North America, where he married Mary Ann Browning.  The biography of William Dickson, written by his grandson, William Dickson Young, in 1933, provides insight into the life of William and Mary Ann after their marriage in 1831, and William's career as a ship captain on the Great Lakes.

He [William] was evidently an able seaman, for a letter I have, written in 1835, says he was given command of the best boat his employers had, one he thought as good as he wanted.

He worked hard, saved his money, and soon had a vessel of his own, probably a schooner or small brig, for the lakes were then full of sailing vessels.

In 1835 they came to Buffalo to live, and at first had a house on the north side of Eagle Street, opposite the County Hall, where the back end of the Athletic Club is now. Sarah, their second child, was born there.

About 1838 they moved to the large house on Barker Street, southwest corner of Linwood, which he had built, although Linwood Ave. had not then been cut through. That site is now occupied by a large apartment home.

There they continued to live until after his death on Jan. 20th 1865, all of the later children being born there. His land included what is now Linwood Ave. and extended south to Summer Street. All of that region was then quite open. The rear end of the house was at first frame, but later he rebuilt it of brick.

A modern view of the southwest corner of Barker and Linwood, where the Dickson home once stood.

In the period of 1835 to 1865, the thirty year span during which William Dickson lived in Buffalo, the city was growing by leaps and bounds.  Much of this expansion was due to the young city's role as a shipping center on Lake Erie.

Upon the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo became the western end of the 524-mile waterway starting at New York City. At the time, Buffalo had a population of about 2,400 people. With the increased commerce of the canal, the population boomed and Buffalo was incorporated as a city in 1832.

In 1853, Buffalo annexed Black Rock, which had been Buffalo's fierce rival for the canal terminus. During the 19th century, thousands of pioneers going to the western United States debarked from canal boats to continue their journey out of Buffalo by lake or rail transport.  (Wikipedia)

The city of Buffalo in the mid-1800s.

Several American presidents were also associated with Buffalo during these years.  Abraham Lincoln gave a widely attended campaign speech in Buffalo in February 1861.  A crowd of nearly 10,000 people gathered to hear him speak at the American Hotel.  Former president Millard Fillmore later took Mr. Lincoln to a local church service.  Perhaps the speech was an inspiration to future president Grover Cleveland, who was living in Buffalo at the time and might well have heard Mr. Lincoln's oration.

 In these heady years in Buffalo, William Dickson's career was on an upward trajectory.  William Dickson Young provides many details about his grandfather's occupation.

In time he bought a share in vessels he commanded.  These included the Hunter, the Milwaukee, and the Globe, all sailing vessels, schooners or brigs.  Later he owned along a propeller (steamer), the Illinois.  The last one was again named the Hunter, a propeller, and although this would now be looked upon as a small boat, at that time she was rated A-1, with a fine cabin and up-to-date in every respect.  Like all of the earlier boats, she was both a freight or cargo carrier and had accommodations for 50-60 passengers, who were often carried, friends of family of the Captain, or pay passengers.  He both owned and captained her for several years.  An interesting little account of a trip from Chicago to Collingwood in 1860 is on page 16 in an old scrap book we have from Barker Street, pasted in a trip book of this same boat.

He was a fearless, aggressive and capable seaman.  He was always ambitious to be the first one out in the spring and last one in in the fall, and in those days, when there were few light houses, buoys and charts, it was dangerous work.  In fact he was often caught in the ice in the spring because he ventured out so early.

He was a fighter and would face all dangers.

In my next post about William Dickson, I'll share more details about his career and character.


  1. Very interesting ancestor. The kind we wish we could go back in time and meet. What a great find that biography is!

    1. Thanks, Anna! He really is fascinating. I'm very grateful to my newly-discovered cousin for sharing his wonderful biography.