John Dickie and his Rebellion Boxes

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

In early 2011, the Oshawa Historical Society welcomed Darryl Withrow as the speaker for their monthly Speaker Series, who conveyed the fascinating story of the 1837 Rebellion Boxes.  He brought along examples of his replicas, and Melissa Cole, OCM Curator, brought to the meeting the two boxes which are a part of our collection.  Both boxes feature inscriptions pertaining to a John Dickie.  During the summer of 2011, I was asked to research John Dickie, learn more about who he was and what he meant, if anything, to Oshawa’s history.

I spent time poking around on various internet sites, on and in our very own archives, and the small discoveries I made about the Dickie Family and Oshawa’s past were exciting!

First, a short history of the Rebellion of 1837.  The 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada was, simply put, a result of the discontent between the farmers, labourers and tradesmen against the elitist system of aristocratic Toryism.  This feeling of discontentment came to a head when on December 4, 1837 a premature call to rebel was given.  Between December 5 and 8, a group of about 1,000 rebels gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto, and although this Loyalist militia quickly won initial small skirmishes in the city, the British forces were ultimately successful.  As a result, hundreds of men were arrested, some were sent to Australia as punishment, and two men, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were executed as a result of their involvement in the Rebellion.

While imprisoned in the Toronto Jail, facing charges of high treason, many men crafted small, wooden boxes and inscribed messages to loved ones.  The messages carried many tones, be it political, religious or sentimental, many lamenting the deaths of Lount and Matthews.  The boxes range in size, were made by skilled craftsmen, and the majority are made of a hard wood and are dated.

John Dickie, 1787-1872
John Dickie, 1787-1872

Now, how does this relate to John Dickie?  Who was he?  He was born in Scotland on March 15, 1787, and in 1807, he was married to Jean Dick.  If that name rings a bell, especially to anyone familiar with the Henry House parlour, it should; the parlour features a needlepoint created by Jean in 1801 when she was 14.  In 1821, they immigrated to Upper Canada with four children, and another four children were later born in Port Hope and Oshawa.

John Dickie was a farmer and, according to Samuel Pedlar, a silk weaver.  Pedlar claimed that Dickie had land “in the bush on lot 8, third concession of Whitby” in 1821 and later “cleared a portion of lot 8 on the second concession” in 1824.   Jean died September 12, 1846 and John died January 23, 1872.  They are buried in Union Cemetery, Section F, grave 143.

John Dickie's headstone, Union Cemetery, Section F
John Dickie’s headstone, Union Cemetery, Section F

When I delved into Dickie’s family tree, a connection between John Dickie, box maker, and John Dickie, Oshawa pioneer became evident.  John and Jean had a sizable family of eight children.  As described by Pedlar:

“This couple left quite a large family consisting of the late Mrs. Amsberry (Margaret), Mrs. Samuel Dearborn (Mary)…, the late Mrs. J.D. Hoitt (Elizabeth), the late John Dickie Jr., … Mrs. Mark Currie (Agnes)… the Late Mrs. Stephen Hoitt (Helen), Robert Dickie, and William Dickie.”

71-D-327.15ab - Rebellion Box from John Dickie to JD Houtt
71-D-327.15ab – Rebellion Box from John Dickie to JD Houtt

Mrs. J.D. Hoitt was Jean and John’s third daughter, Elizabeth (1816-1867), whose husband was a man named James D. Hoitt.  One of the Rebellion Boxes in the museum’s collection was inscribed “James D. Houtt From John Dickie, August 1, 1838.” Despite the discrepancy with the name spelling (in my research, I’ve seen Hoitt spelled a number of ways) this connection seemed too strong to ignore.  Marriage records show that Elizabeth and James were married on November 26, 1840, but it is very likely that the families knew each other for a time prior to their marriage.

971.7.16ab - Rebellion Box from George Lamb to Mrs. John Dickie
971.7.16ab – Rebellion Box from George Lamb to Mrs. John Dickie

The second box in our collection is engraved: “Presented to Mrs. John Dickie, From George Lamb.”  This box was intended for Jean Dickie (Mrs. John Dickie Sr.), and not the wife of John Dickie Jr.  My research strongly indicates that John Dickie Jr. (1818-1892) was married three times: to Lucinda Wheeler in 1843, Rebecca Fowke after 1851, and Catherine Ryder in 1863.  As there would have been no other Mrs. John Dickie in the late 1830s, this box was indeed intended for Jean Dickie.

I also relied on Chris Raible, John C. Carter and Darryl Withrow’s book, From Hands Now Striving to Be Free: Boxes Crafted By 1837 Rebellion Prisoners, as a source of information on the boxes.  Their inventory included three other boxes attributed to John Dickie, one crafted by Alvaro Ladd to John Dickie, and two made by John Dickie for his children.  The Alvaro Ladd box provided little additional knowledge on Dickie, but the other two were enlightening.

The two other boxes were engraved as follows:

“To Ln Dickie From her father Jn Dickie, June 30th, 1838.  Beauty is a flower that fades, soon it falls in times cold shade.  Virtue is a flower more gay, that never dries nor fades away.  May freedom smile & bring us peace, and all oppression & trouble cease.”

“A present to William Dickie from his father in Toronto Augt. 11, 1838.  May vengeance draw his sword in rath, and justice smile to see it done.  And smite the traitors for the death of Matthews, Lount & Anderson.  Beauty is a flower that fades, soon it falls in times cold shade, virtue is a flower more gay, that never faded nor dies away.”

While I was unable to ascertain who exactly ‘Ln’ (possibly a short form for Elizabeth or Helen?) was referring to, the provenance associated with the William Dickie box helped connect the box to Oshawa’s John Dickie.  Raible et al notes that William Dickie’s box belongs to the Britton’s, descendants of William Dickie’s sister, and that last name is found in Mary Dickie’s (Mrs. Samuel Dearborn) family tree.

What has fascinated me the most about this research project is the fact that these artefacts contain key information about a man’s life, information not seemingly found elsewhere.  Little information was known about Dickie to Raible, Carter and Withrow, and a trip to the Archives of Ontario to review Rebellion of 1837 papers and jail registers was a fruitless effort, finding no information recorded about John Dickie.  His death notice in the Ontario Reformer was short, and his tombstone in Union Cemetery contains only dates.  On the one hand, being in arrested in jail on charges of high treason could be a chapter of someone’s history that they may want downplayed. However, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount, who executed as punishment for their involvement in the rebellion, were looked at as martyrs, and the contemporary view of the rebels, taking actions to achieve responsible government, has led to their being seen as heroes.  Indeed, Dickie’s boxes to his children speak of justice, virtue, freedom and overcoming oppression, implying he possibly felt his involvement in the Rebellion would have been just.  If he did not create three little boxes and dedicate them to James Houtt, ‘Ln’ Dickie and William Dickie, the fact that John Dickie participated in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion would have been lost in history.

To view a Podcast about our Rebellion Boxes, click here:

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