Chasing Ghosts: Capt. James Davis Dickson

*If you’ve never read any of the “Chasing Ghosts” series, you ought to read the first post in the series and “Chasing Ghosts: Southern Pride” first.


I hadn’t been much aware of Capt. JD Dickson until a relative wrote to me about him last summer. The message came out of the blue – I hadn’t known the man before – and in it, Jim Powers, Jr. explained that he had been doing extensive family history research and had found our mutual connection to David Madison Dickson, Sr. and Mary Ann Goss. Thus, he and I are distant cousins.

Capt. James Davis Dickson, who stands squarely in Jim’s patrilineal heritage, is only one step removed from mine. Capt. Dickson was one of the younger children of this couple who Jim and I have in common, and one of his older brothers, David Madison Dickson, Jr., was my great-great-grandfather. And he should not be confused with my great-grandfather, also named James Davis Dickson. I can only assume that the JD Dickson in my direct family line was named for his father’s younger brother, the man in Jim’s direct family line.

jd-dickson-courtesy-jim-power-jrAttached to his email, Jim sent his very solid telling of Capt. JD Dickson’s life and accomplishments. Capt. Dickson was born in the midst of the Civil War, in 1862, as the eighth of eleven children. He went to the Baptist-affiliated Howard College in western Alabama – the school that later became Samford University – then moved back across the state to found both the newspaper and the “first graded public school” in then-fledgling Alexander City.

Though Jim’s information has JD Dickson co-founding the Alexander City Outlook, the newspaper’s About Us page explains it a little differently. According to its telling, the newspaper was founded in 1884 by a man named Adolphus Longshore, before Capt. JD Dickson bought it in 1892, after a succession of short-term owners. It was Dickson who renamed the paper The Outlook, and that name obviously stuck. It has been 125 years.

But JD Dickson’s accomplishments didn’t end there. The designation of Captain came from his service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s. His life and work later carried him to Texas, and his successes even led to a write-up in Time magazine in 1926. James Davis Dickson died in 1933 and is buried in San Jose Burial Park in San Antonio, Texas.

Though I can’t count Capt. JD Dickson among the men whose lives, father-to-son, led to mine, his presence in the family tree is compelling to me for other reasons. First, Jim’s message gave me a fuller understanding of how the Dicksons came to be in Texas. In the mass of information on our family, there appears a whole separate Texas branch that I’ve spent little time exploring, mainly since my branch stayed in Alabama. Second, since we spend a fair amount of time at Lake Martin in the summers, I sometimes read the Alexander City Outlook and would never have had any clue that my great-great-grandfather’s little brother had a hand in starting it over a century ago.

This is why family history is so important to explore— for all people. When I went to Dallas last fall, to the Arts Schools Network conference, thought leaders and school leaders kept saying over and over: you have to know where you’re going, and you can’t know that until you know who you are and where you’ve been. They may have been talking about arts schools, but that guidance has a larger importance. Our connections to places, to events, and to cultures come through the people who experienced them before us, and then brought those experiences to us by building what we would later experience for ourselves. That foundational element of our lives, of history being personal, is the truest – and most under-appreciated – element of modern American culture, which tends value newness over everything else. While a forward-looking attitude is integral — Capt. JD Dickson had one, after all — looking backward sometimes is equally so.

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