Joseph Dickson was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and by age 10 had moved with his parents to Rowan County, NC. After schooling, he had become an attorney. In time he was admitted to the North Carolina bar and began practicing law in Salisbury. He was engaged in cotton and tobacco planting and married Margaret McEwen, daughter of James McEwen and Isabella Miller. They had nine children together - Robert Dickson, Elizabeth Dickson, John Dickson, Joseph Dickson Jr., William Dickson, Margaret Dickson, Ezekiel Dickson, Isabella Dickson, James L. Dickson.
Before the Revolutionary War, he was a member of Rowan County Committee of Safety. He has an extensive military service record which includes
- Captain in the Rowan County Regiment of the North Carolina militia (1775)
- Captain in the 1st Rowan County Regiment of militia (1775-1776)
- Captain in the 1st Battalion of Volunteers (1776)
- Major in the Lincoln County Regiment of the North Carolina militia (1779-1780)
- Major in the North Carolina State Cavalry-Western District of the North Carolina state troops (1780)
- Colonel over the Lincoln County Regiment of the North Carolina militia (1781-1783)
He was commissioned Colonel over the Lincoln County Regiment of the North Carolina militia under Colonel Charles McDowell of the Morgan District Brigade in 1781. He was at the Battle of Kings Mountain as major of the Lincoln County Regiment. He led his regiment in the Battle of Haw River on February 25, 1781. After the war, he was promoted to Brigadier General.
Dickson was elected clerk of the Lincoln County Court in 1781 and was a member of the North Carolina Senate from 1788 to 1795. During this time, he was appointed to the commission to establish the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was elected as a Federalist to the Sixth Congress in 1798, representing North Carolina's 1st district.
Dickson moved to Tennessee in 1803 and settled in that portion of Davidson County which subsequently became Rutherford County. He was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1807 to 1811, serving as speaker the last two years.
He died in Rutherford County, Tennessee and is interred on his plantation northeast of Murfreesboro, Tennessee at the Boyd Cemetery, Compton, Rutherford County, Tennessee.