Chasing Ghosts: The pre-Civil War Dicksons

[This is the 14th post in the Chasing Ghosts series. I suggest you go back and read at least the first post to get a sense of what it’s all about.]

Though I wrote the supposed “Last Word” in this Chasing Ghosts series back in April 2014, I’ve been thinking more about my family history in recent months, since the fifth anniversary of my father’s death just passed. It’s hard to believe that he has been gone for five years, and if you’ve read the first post, you’ll know that his passing was the main catalyst that sparked my interest in exploring this past.

Typically, when I’m tinkering with my family history, I tend to think of David Madison Dickson, Sr. (1811 – 1877) as a stopping point when I look back. He was my great-great-great-grandfather, and the first of our family to move into Alabama. (In a recent TBT post, I put up his and his wife’s gravestones, which are in Pine Level, not far from where I live.) But of course, David M. Dickson, Sr. didn’t just spring up out of the soil. He was one in a line of pre-Civil War Southerners whose eventual lineage has come to me and my generation. I’ve been fascinated to learn how this slave-holding landowner came to Alabama, and how the Civil War changed my family’s fortunes. After growing up on the Pine Level homestead, his son David Madison Dickson, Jr., made his way as a fertilizer salesman, as an insurance salesman, and as a boardinghouse operator. Then subsequent generations of Dickson men, my forebears, worked in banking, in commercial equipment sales for the gas company, and as a service technician for the phone company; now here I am, a writer and public school teacher. I see all that and I wonder what these hardscrabble pre-Civil War men would have thought of all of us.

Since I have largely digested the facts of six generations of my line of Dicksons in Alabama, from my father back to my great-great-great grandfather, I’m interested in working even further back now . . . and the most logical place to start is with David Madison Dickson, Sr.’s father.

Michael Dickson was born in 1788 in Troup County, Georgia to Gen. David “Long Pat” Dickson and his second wife, Martha Cureton Dickson. “Long Pat” Dickson was a South Carolinian who fought in the Revolutionary War, then commanded a Georgia militia. According to records I’ve found, his mother Martha was also from South Carolina, born there in 1764; she had also been married before, and had four children already. The couple married in 1788, the same year that their only child, Michael, was born. Martha died  in 1796, when her son Michael was about eight years old.

This great-great-great-great-grandfather of mine, Michael Dickson, married Rebecca Aubrey in Georgia in 1810, and their son, David Madison Dickson, Sr. was born in 1811. One undated Georgia tax record, presumably from the 1840s, shows father and son side by side in Troup County, each with five slaves, and with land that is regarded as “2d rate” and “3rd rate.” (Nothing appears in the “1st rate” column.) My best guess is that the low-quality land is what prompted the move to central Alabama. Michael Dickson died in 1853 in Alabama, having probably followed his son there.

Moving backward in time, David “Long Pat” Dickson (1750 – 1830) must’ve been quite a character. Though he was from South Carolina, he also fought in Georgia and around St. Augustine, Florida during the Revolutionary War. According to one book, The History of Early by Ruth Hairston Early, he “was a terror to the Tories” during the Revolution. Later, he owned land throughout Georgia, having been given hundreds of acres for his service.

Prior to that David Dickson – there are lots of David Dicksons – we’re looking at Scotch and Irish immigrants. “Long Pat” Dickson’s father, William, was born in 1710 in County Down, Ireland, and came to America. He lived first in North Carolina, then moved west into South Carolina.  William’s father, also named Michael Dickson, was also born in Ireland in 1682, though both father and son died in America. Moving back in time, the elder Michael’s father, Joseph Dickson, was born in 1657 in Ireland. If you keep following that line, the furthest back anyone seems to be able to go is a man named Simon Dickson, a Scotch Presbyterian born in 1607, who “followed Cromwell in the conquest of Ireland in 1649,” and thus received land as a reward. (Of course, that Oliver Cromwell thing didn’t work out so well, which may be why my folks came to America.)

Agree with their causes or don’t, this line of strong, adventurous and brave men – Dicksons – carried their heritage out of Scotland and Ireland to America, eventually taking part in the American Revolution. Where Simon Dickson was giving the British throne a kick in the seat of the pants in the mid-1600s, and a century later, David “Long Pat” Dickson gave them another one.

A century later, the American Civil War was fought over the habits and practices of men like Michael Dickson and his son, David. Slavery, that “peculiar institution,” had been revealed as the crime against humanity that it is, and their way of life would be stopped, by force, in the mid-1860s. Unlike previous generations, this generation of Dicksons didn’t fight in the war. Neither David Madison Dickson, Sr. nor Jr. fought to defend “states’ rights.” It’s impossible for me to say why they didn’t go and fight, though when the war began, Sr. was fifty years old and had a passel of children, and Jr. was only eleven.

Looking back into one’s family history will inevitably bring up subjects that are both proud and shameful. Since I have the benefit of historical hindsight, I am able to see  Simon Dickson siding with Oliver Cromwell as an ill-fated move and Michael Dickson’s owning slaves as an inhumane act. However, these men couldn’t have known then what I know now My attitude is: this is who they were. Regardless of their flaws or their errs in judgment, they can’t be changed now. These Dicksons did what they did and were who they were. What matters to me is: these are the people who made the Deep South our family’s home.

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