On Dec. 12, 1951, 90-year-old Honoré Jaxon, looking forlorn if not lost, was deposited on the sidewalk outside his midtown Manhattan apartment in New York City. Behind him steadily grew a pile of books, magazines, and papers. By the time city officials had finished emptying his cellar apartment, the stack measured six feet high, 10 feet deep, and 35 feet long.
He was being evicted.
Jaxon’s photograph, with his library now taking up a good part of a city block, ran as a human interest story in the New York dailies. But little was said about how the dishevelled old man was once the voice of settler protest in the Saskatchewan country in the 1880s and worked closely with Métis leader Louis Riel to secure a better future for his people.
Jaxon was born William Henry Jackson in Toronto in 1861. Educated in Classics at the University of Toronto, he moved with his family to Prince Albert, then part of the North-West Territories, in 1882. His older brother Eastwood worked as a druggist for the frontier town.
Young Will soon became involved in a local movement, known as the “agitation,” that railed against federal land policies.
In 1883, he launched a second Prince Albert newspaper — appropriately titled “The Voice of the People.” He also played a prominent role in the formation of a Settlers’ Rights Association that included French and English Métis leaders, as well as disaffected whites. The failure to secure action — the Department of Interior should have been called the Department of Indifference — led to the return of Louis Riel in the summer of 1884 to head the protest movement.
Jackson admired Riel and came to serve as his personal secretary, helping to organize meetings and send petitions. His devotion to the Métis leader was underscored when he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith and given the name “Joseph.”
But when Riel opted for more forceful measures to shake the federal government of its lethargy and declared a Métis provisional government at Batoche on March 19, 1885, Jackson suffered a breakdown.
Because of his mental state, Jackson spent the better part of the North-West Rebellion as a prisoner of Riel. He was captured when Batoche fell and taken into custody. The Canadian government was determined to prosecute any whites who participated in the troubles, and Jaxon was charged with treason-felony because of his association with Riel.
Jackson was held in Prince Albert for more than a month before being taken by wagon to Regina for trial. The detention seemed to push him over the edge.
Jackson defied the military escort at every opportunity — including soiling himself, to the disgust of the other prisoners. When he was forced to take a bath in a slough because the stench had become unbearable, he disappeared under the surface, then bolted from the water and ran naked across the prairie. From that time forward, he remained shackled to another prisoner until he reached the territorial capital.
Jackson’s date with justice was short-lived. With the agreement of both the prosecution and defence, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to the Selkirk Lunatic Asylum in Manitoba, a stay that lasted only until Nov. 2, 1885, when he quietly walked away from the facility.
Jackson surfaced in the Chicago, Illinois area as labour organizer Honoré Jaxon. He also underwent a second conversion — this time to the Baha’i faith.
Jackson briefly returned to Canada before the Great War, visiting Saskatoon during a 1909 sewer workers’ strike. He then settled down in New York, where he travelled in socialist circles when not fighting various progressive causes.
His Saskatchewan days, though, haunted him and he started collecting material about western Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He also talked about writing a book.
By 1951, Jackson was destitute and in failing health. His documents and other historical materials — what he called his library — eventually made his basement apartment a fire trap and led to his eviction that December.
Jackson managed to save a small sampling of his papers, albeit temporarily, but the remaining two tons were sold as waste paper. He found refuge with a friend but was hospitalized and died in the new year.
His passing would have gone largely unnoticed if not for an archivist in western Canada who twigged to the name in a news story and made the connection to Will Jackson. By then, his library was gone.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Honore Jaxon and his library on a New York City street in December 1951.
Photo Source:New York Daily News N1421873
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.