Richard Henry Dickinson was the son of William W. Dickinson, a wealthy planter and slaveholder, and his first wife, Sally Ann Gatewood Dickinson. His age as recorded in U.S. census returns in 1850, 1860, and 1870 indicates that he was born late in 1811 or during the first half of 1812, likely on his parents’ Caroline County plantation. Little is known about Dickinson’s education. By 1839 he was residing in Richmond.
On March 25, 1841, in Middlesex County, Dickinson married Virginia Scott Blackburn. They had at least one daughter and three sons (the last of whom died in infancy) before she died on November 13, 1855. Dickinson never remarried and allowed relatives to care for his children. In 1860 he lived alone on Mayo Street between Franklin and Ross streets near the center of Richmond’s slave-trading district. To the census enumerator that year he reported owning $70,000 in real estate and $80,000 in personal property, including nineteen slaves. He worked as a clerk and in partnership with one or both of his brothers, James M. Gatewood Dickinson and Robert L. Dickinson, in the slave-trading business of Dickinson and Brother (also Dickinson and Brothers), which operated in Richmond from 1844 to 1854. They purchased slaves from smaller companies and dealers elsewhere in Virginia and in Maryland for resale to dealers in the markets of New Orleans and perhaps other southwestern cities. During the years 1846 to 1849, they may have sold as many as 2,000 slaves annually, mostly to other traders.
From the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s Dickinson was senior partner in his own trading house, Dickinson, Hill & Co. His most important partners were Charles B. Hill and Nathaniel Boush Hill, the former a founding director of the Traders Bank and the latter a member of the city council. It was reported that in 1856 their company sold slaves worth $2 million, although extant account books indicate a total closer to $200,000. It is possible that the larger sum represented the combined transactions of all of the city’s several large slave-trading firms. Richmond’s slave traders were engaged in the largest and one of the most important commercial enterprises in the state.
Dickinson acquired valuable real estate holdings in Richmond and conducted business at several locations in the vicinity of the State Capitol and the city’s principal hotels, including at the Bell Tavern. During the Civil War, his offices stood at Franklin and Wall streets in the heart of the slave-trading district. In 1861 Dickinson was one of the owners of the Saint Charles Hotel, successor to the Bell Tavern as a prime site for slave auctions and traders’ offices. Later in the war it became a. He served as a private in Company D, 1st Virginia State Reserves, for several years during the war.
. In February and March 1865, the company, along with several other traders, announced that “in consequence of the increased taxes of one hundred per cent. upon the taxes of the year 1864 by the Confederate Government, we hereby give notice that, from this date, our charges for commission and taxes on all sales of Negroes will be ten per cent.” A few days later his company advertised a sale of forty slaves from a single estate, and on March 13, Hill and Dickinson advertised for two reliable men, above the age for conscription, to work as watchmen, presumably at their premises. They also sought two experienced men to serve as plantation overseers in one of the counties of lower Virginia.
In May 1865 the U.S. government’s internal revenue service identified Dickinson as a peddler fourth class, apparently catering to the soldiers. The burning of much of Richmond’s business district in April 1865, the, and the abolition of slavery destroyed the value of much of Dickinson’s Richmond property and terminated his business career. By 1867 he had moved to Middlesex County, where in 1870 he was living with a brother-in-law. Most likely he died in that county, but the date of his death and the place of his burial are not known. Dickinson may have been thought in imminent danger of dying when at 9:30 on Saturday morning, August 2, 1873, a creditor of the estate of one of his brothers (for whom Dickinson was the executor) asked the clerk of the Richmond City Court of Chancery to make an exact note of the time and date and enter a memorandum in the court’s records that he had filed a suit against the executor. On February 4, 1874, the Henrico County Court assigned administration of that estate to the county sheriff, the executor, Dickinson, “having departed this life more than three months ago.” The Middlesex County Court appointed an administrator for his estate on November 26, 1873. His relatives did not have his death recorded in the official death register, and Richmond newspapers printed no notice of the death of a once-prominent local businessman.