Journal of Historical Biography Review- Honore Jaxon
Journal of Historical Biography
Reviewed by: Barbara J. Messamore
William Henry Jackson was born in Toronto in 1861 into an English Methodist family, the son of an unsuccessful shopkeeper who moved the family to various struggling southern Ontario hamlets before settling in Prince Albert in Canada's North-West Territories, in what is today Saskatchewan. The bright young William received a classical education at the University of Toronto before joining the family in the west. The fascinating story of his transformation into Major Honoré Joseph Jaxon, Métis revolutionary and champion of aboriginal rights, offers a window into a number of aspects of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century North American history.
Donald B. Smith's Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary is a lively page turner, an engaging narrative of the life of an intriguing chameleon. The biography is the final segment of a trilogy by Smith examining the controversial lives of three spurious North American Indians, including Grey Owl, exposed after his 1938 death as the Englishman Archibald Belaney, and Buffalo Child Long Lance, whose 1928 autobiography of his life as a Plains Indian was at odds with his real origins as Sylvester Long of North Carolina. W. J. Jackson was best known for his advocacy of the cause of the Métis rebels in Canada's 1885 North West Rebellion. Jackson fell under the persuasive powers of Louis Riel, and acted as the rebel leader's secretary, petitioning the federal government on behalf of the Métis, and also drawing attention to the grievances of status Indians and more recent settlers on the prairies.
Jackson's identification with the Métis even convinced him to convert to Roman Catholicism, although he just as quickly shifted to embrace the heretical version of the faith Riel espoused under the inspiration of prophetic visions. (Jackson would later undergo a further conversion to embrace the Baha'i faith.) With the collapse of the armed rebellion, Jackson was taken prisoner and carried away to trial in Regina. Despite his hope hat the trial would afford the opportunity to bring the grievances of the North West to a wider audience, and to indict a neglectful Dominion government, both the prosecution and defense concurred in a plea of insanity. The twenty-five-year-old Jackson was denied the chance to share Riel's fate at the end of a hangman's noose.
For Jaxon, the adoption of an aboriginal identity was only the first of a series of personal reinventions. He became caught up in radical Chicago labour activism, moved in anarchist circles, planned utopian communities that never came to fruition, studied homeopathic medicine, was involved in the organization of the Chicago World's Fair, which he attended as the dignitary representing the 'Métis Indian nation of Canada,'(92) and lent support, at a distance, to the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Smith seamlessly weaves in contextual details in his treatment of Jaxon's frenzied activity, artfully sketching a historical framework to make the work accessible to general readers. The research base is truly impressive, all the more so given the range of activities Jaxon pursued and his peripatetic ways. In writing a true life stranger than fiction, Smith never resorts to the invention of detail, but rigorously documents every assertion. The increasing audacity of Jaxon's claims, the ever-more-rarefied circles in which he moved-the architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a close friend-and his growing profile as a public figure create the setting that provides the book's narrative tension, as readers anticipate, but half dread, the inevitable fall.
Jaxon had a flair for attracting media attention, and was the subject of countless admiring newspapers stories, with journalists describing him as an Indian, a lawyer, 'the Honorable', a faculty member at the University of Toronto, and a major who had served in the Spanish-American War and First World War, these descriptions presumably based on facts supplied by Jaxon himself. In an era before the Google search, Jaxon's shifting and contradictory resumé usually passed unchallenged. A Chicago reporter in 1907 marvelled that he had 'touched the edges of law, architecture and medicine, has lectured, organized trade unions, solicited insurance, sold stocks and bonds and hunted buffalo for a living.'
In addition to providing a means to share Jaxon's front-row seat to compelling events in North American history, the book offers the opportunity to reflect more broadly on the boundary between truth and imaginative reinvention. As plausible a figure as Jaxon presented, friends and acquaintances inevitably fell away as his mendacity became impossible to ignore. From Grey Owl in an earlier age, to the more recent case of dismissed University of Colorado professor and native activist Ward Churchill, we cannot forgive what we think to be deception. Perhaps the saddest episode in the book concerns Jaxon's unconventional marriage. His intelligent and accomplished wife, Aimée, a former teacher in Chicago, believed in him implicitly, admiring his demonstrable abilities and colourful associations. But at last she had to face the truth. 'Do you know,' she wrote to her sister, 'that for 30 years I have lived on that same idea of another six months would find us on easy street? Do you wonder that it has ceased to mean anything beyond a sort of nightmare?',(166)
Jaxon was undoubtedly an appealing character, and although Smith is candid about his myriad deceptions, the biographer's affection for his subject is evident. He seems to attribute Jaxon's first mental breakdown to external circumstances surrounding the 1885 resistance, referring to 'the intense mental strain under which Will suffered as a result of his treatment at Batches, his imprisonment by the Canadians, his trial, the lunatic asylum, his escape, his wanderings and arrival in the huge city of Chicago.' Posthumous diagnosis is never a straightforward exercise, and it becomes difficult to pinpoint whether, or where, Jaxon's prodigious energy, six-hour speeches, and passionate projects taken up and abandoned unfinished, shade into clinical mania. By the time he was living in a crudely constructed fort amid a mouldering hoard of documents, wearing a rat proof helmet, he had evidently crossed a line into debilitating mental illness.
Smith's inclination to cast Jaxon's life in the most favourable light possible is also evident in his treatment of Jaxon's wholly false claim to aboriginal ancestry. Smith does not precisely seek to explain it away, but contextualizes it by referring to the choice some Métis made to adhere to the white side of their mixed race heritage in order to escape racial prejudice, and draws a kind of parallel to Jaxon's reinvention: 'Exactly at the moment that many fair-skinned Metis crossed over into the dominant society, Will Jackson, now Honoré Jaxon, travelled in the opposite direction, from white to self-identified Métis.',(84) Of course, these fair-skinned Metis were choosing to emphasise one side of their heritage, not inventing an entirely fictitious identity.
Jaxon's intimacy with Louis Riel and the rebels of 1885 holds the key to his historical significance. Indeed, Jaxon collected an enormous personal archive on the subject, largely lost, and planned a history of the resistance that was never completed. With italics for emphasis, Smith contends that 'occasionally those on the fringe may see things more clearly than those in the mainstream.'(v) In the case of Jaxon, this is very much open to dispute, although it must certainly be conceded that a study of those on the fringe may offer a means of understanding historical events more clearly. Jaxon's ideas about the cause of the Métis and the grievances of aboriginal people were far from coherent. He proclaimed the necessity to 'sink all distinction of race and religion,'(46) and believed that God had ordained that the vast wilderness of North America should be shared with those forty million Englishmen crowded onto a tiny island, a view that Riel vehemently disputed. His later general advocacy of native rights ignored the inconvenient fact that the Métis were not technically native to North America, but rather a group who had themselves come into conflict with Indian nations in their widening hunt for dwindling buffalo, only to later face displacement by newer arrivals. Smith's willingness to ascribe a kind of prescient wisdom to Jaxon is understandable. While he does not shrink from presenting even the least savoury aspects of the life story of this appealing imposter, he is not the first to be drawn into the orbit of Jaxon's magnetic charisma.