Insanity verdict saves Riel?s secretary and leads to second life south of the border

William Henry Jackson headed west in the early 1880s to join his family in the Northwest Territories. Later that decade he would end up in a new country with a new name and a new state of mind.

Fleeing from Canada to the United States, William Henry Jackson became Honoré Jaxon. Besides his name, his mental health also underwent a change a few years earlier when he was declared insane.

That verdict would prove to be a lifesaver.

Jackson, who dropped his family name in favour of a more French-sounding moniker in support of the Métis cause, was found not guilty by reason of insanity for his role in the Northwest Rebellion, thus avoiding the same fate that befell his friend Louis Riel. Rather than the gallows, he was shipped to an asylum in Manitoba.

From there he escaped to the United States in November 1885 ? weeks before Riel was executed.

For Jackson ? and Jaxon ? life started out much differently.

Born in Toronto on May 3, 1861, his childhood was not what one would have expected of a future rebel.

While Jackson was still attending the University of Toronto, his parents headed west, ending up in Prince Albert. He joined his family there in 1882.

Carrying an interest in politics, Jackson began to sympathize with the plight of farmers and settlers in the area. Believing the federal government was responsible for many of the hardships faced on the Prairies, Jackson became actively involved in groups pushing for change.

In turn, it led to his relationship with Riel and his involvement with the Métis cause. Jackson, who would eventually take on the role of Riel?s secretary, believed there were common interests between the settlers, Métis and First Nations communities, and they needed to work together to protect their interests.

Although he was not Métis, Jackson was a staunch supporter in the struggle with the Canadian government. He would earn the trust and respect of Riel, but in time that would change.

Doubting his loyalty, Jackson was jailed by the Métis following the Battle of Duck Lake. Weeks later he was taken prisoner by Canadian troops at the end of the Northwest Rebellion.

Jackson viewed himself as a peacemaker between settlers and Aboriginal groups. He planned on using his trial as an opportunity to expose the corruption of the federal government.

That plan came to an end when he was judged to be insane.

Besides his name, another part of his identity underwent a change when he escaped to the United States and made his way to Chicago. Now known as Jaxon, he started to present himself as a Métis person.

He also found a new cause to support, becoming involved with the labour movement.

Jaxon diversified into other areas, including teaching, sidewalk and road construction, and medical studies. He also befriended famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Jaxon briefly returned to the Prairies in 1907, which included a failed run for federal office in Prince Albert in 1908.

He eventually moved on to New York. Despite his background in organized labour, Jaxon became somewhat of a capitalist upon his move. He began purchasing land and got involved in real estate.

However, his life came crashing down in December 1951. Unable to pay his rent, Jaxon was evicted from his home, along with an estimated two tons of paper, books and other information on the First Nations and Métis.

Instead of the museum he hoped to establish, his collection was sent to the city dump.

With no money or home, Jaxon died within a month.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)