I almost always post about the early Dawsons in my line. For this post I want to depart from this trend and post about my first brickwall ancestor – Don Dawson. I was fairly young to get started with the family history hobby (I was about 25 years old) but my Grandfather, Harlan Dawson had already died when he was quite young and I was only 8. My Grandmother, Dorothy, already was suffering from dementia so even at that time she had a hard time telling me apart from my father. My father, Roger Dawson, was an only child so I have needed to rely on him for his recollections about our recent Dawson past.
Early on my father could only tell me about my Great Grandfather was that his name was Don Dawson and that he was almost never spoken of by his Grandmother, Nora Nichols. All he could tell me is that when Don was mentioned he was not remembered fondly and considered a scoundrel. My father knew he had done something that estranged him from our family and that even my Grandfather never saw him and rarely spoke of Don himself. My Dad used to tell me that whatever he (Don) had done, it had been pretty bad.
In my very first post I talked about my first big break. I am lucky to have Nora’s old photo albums that my Grandfather had kept and that my father gave to me. In the back of one were the newspaper clippings of Don’s father, Reverend William Dawson, from Van Zandt County, Texas. Reverend William was well-loved and his obituary was quite long and detailed about his life. afterwards, with the help of Bill York who I met on the Ancestry.com forums I was able to find William’s parents and that has taken me down through the research that has resulted in this blog.
But this post is about Don. As more material becomes available online I have been able to put together a clearer picture of his life and a bit about who he was. I even unearthed what I believe was the nature of the scandal and why he was seen in such an ill light.
Don was born Donnell Dick Dawson on 1 February 1876 in Wills Point Texas. He was the youngest child of three. His older brothers were Vinyard Grove Dawson (b. abt. 1869) and Archie “Arch” Bone Dawson (b. 1873). His parents were William Dawson (b. 1832 in Limestone County, Alabama) and Febe Tee Sawyers (b. 1836 in Fayetteville, Tennessee). William Dawson was a well-respected minister and founded the Dawson Presbyterian Church in Wills Point in 1889.
According to the 1900 census Don was married in 1894. His wife’s was Tommie Richards. Don was 18 years old and she was 15 at the time of their marriage. Their first son, Athol Dawson, was born in November of the same year they were married. In 1896 they had another son, Leonard Dawson, and then in about 1901 they had a daughter named Margaret.
Between 1901 and 1906 Don either left or divorced Tommie and left his Texas family behind. During this time he relocated to the area around Los Angeles, California. In about 1906 Don married his second wife (my Great Grandmother), Nora Nichols. She was 18 and the eldest daughter of the rather prominent John Nichols who at that time was the superintendent of schools for Orange County. According to my Dad she was always considered a “fiery redhead” and very headstrong. Then in 1907 Don and Nora had a son named Harlan Dustin Dawson (my Grandfather) who was born in San Bernardino.
Don was piano tuner and salesman for most of his life and in the 1908 city directory for San Bernardino CA he was listed as a manager for the Southern California Music Company, which still exists today and is the oldest music store in Los Angeles. Nora played the piano and did so for silent movie theatres on The Pike. My Grandfather told stories to my Dad about napping under the piano in the theatre while she played when he was about 4 years old. The picture at the top of this post was taken between 1910 and 1911. During this time they also travelled to Oregon and I have many pictures from the coastal town of Bandon where they seemed to have spent a considerable amount of time.
The happy times were not to last and by 1914 there is evidence they were living apart. A small clipped newspaper item mentions that Mrs. Nora Dawson and son Harlan of Portland, Oregon were visiting friends in Santa Anna. California. This is the same year that Don’s father, William Dawson, died and in that obituary it says that Don was living in Modesto, California. There is also a photograph of Don and Nora together from December 1915 and it just looks to me like they were reluctant to be standing beside each other. By about 1917 they were divorced.
By the 1920 census Don was married to a woman I only know as Beatrice. Her family had been from Texas and in 1920 she was 18 years old with a 16 month old baby, Don Dawson Jr. When I considered 9 months from the time of conception that put her as being about 15 or 16 years old when she got pregnant and Don was about 42. Don Jr. was born in Arizona, which is where Don and Beatrice were living in 1920. Don was always easy to spot because his profession was listed as Piano Tuner and he was working at a well-known music store there called Fisher’s.
I am just speculating here but from what I know of Don from my family it lends itself that he was probably still married to Nora when he got the teenaged Beatrice pregnant. Nora’s father, John Nichols, was by this time a practicing attorney and it wouldn’t surprise me if he oversaw the divorce and Don’s relocation to Arizona. The Nichols family had a lot of pull in old Los Angeles and this fits with what I know. My Dad agrees that something like this would have caused all the animosity towards Don. Also, to the best of my father’s knowledge Harlan never visited Don even though both men lived in the southern part of California for most of their lives.
His exile (again, my assumption) to Arizona didn’t last. By 1922 Don is in a Fresno California city directory working as a piano tuner. The last mention of Beatrice I found was also from Fresno. In a voter registration list from 1926 she is listed as living there with the occupation of clerk.
His marriage to Beatrice didn’t last either. He married a woman named Sarah “Sally” (unknown maiden name) in 1927. In the 1930 census he was working again as a piano tuner but living in Tillamook, Oregon with his wife Sally. In that census she was on record as being born in Mexico and that Spanish was her native language although she also spoke English. She was born in 1901 (the same year as Don’s daughter Margaret), emigrated to the U.S. in 1919, and was 26 when she married Don who was then 50. They had two children by 1930: Bill V. Dawson (age 2) and Charles M. Dawson (age 0).
This marriage endured and by 1940 he is still married to Sally and they had four children: Billy Dawson (age 12), Charles Dawson (age 10), Howard Dawson (age 6), and Louis Dawson (age 3). By this time they were living in San Diego in Encinitas. This coincides with my what my grandfather told my Dad. Harlan told my father that the last he heard ” that sob [Don] was living in San Diego with a Mexican wife”. This was not the friendliest statement but it stuck in my father’s memory and matches the records.
Don appeared to stay with Sally and remained in Southern California. According to a death index for 1958 he died north of San Diego in town called Leucadia at the age of 82. By the end of his life Don had four wives and nine children that I know of. What is a bit disturbing is Don’s tendency to become involved with younger women. Tommie at about 15, Nora at 18, Beatrice at about 15 and then Sally who was 26 and he 50. Since it looks like he had an eye for younger women the circumstances of the divorce between he and Nora was probably devastating to her. From everything my Dad has told me Harlan he was fiercely loyal to his mother and did what he could to help and look after her even when he was very young.
In the last year of his life Harlan had reconnected with his half-brother Athol and they corresponded for several months and talked about family history. Athol was in the S.A.R. and was helping Harlan get his application together. However, Harlan died suddenly of a stroke and everything stopped there. As far as I know this is the only one of his half-brothers he ever had any contact with.
If any cousins of mine via Don’s many children read this and have a different account (or just their own take on it) please post in the comments section. I only have my own viewpoint from my Grandfather who clearly disliked his father. I would sincerely love to hear from other members of our scattered family.