Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Dawson Household: Part 2

As mentioned in my last post there were also one or more bonded individuals living in the Dawson household.  This information comes from surviving court records transcribed in the book Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina: from the colonial period to about 1820, Volume 1, by Paul Heinegg. In his book the transcript recounts the bonding of three children of a woman named Margaret Berry (b. about 1735) between 1757 and 1758.

In January of 1757 Timothy Cleven had a claim rejected in the Cumberland County Court to have Margaret Berry’s three year old “mulatto” son Anthony bound to him. Instead, Anthony was bound to William Dawson, Esquire. The reason for this rejection was not stated but it could have been due to Timothy Cleven’s health as he is deceased by October of the same year.

Margaret Berry was in the Cumberland County court again in the January session of 1758. This time it was in regard to her two year old “orphan” son John Berry (born about 1756). It is unclear if her husband had died prior to her 1757 court appearance or between that date and this appearance in 1758. In either case her ability to support them seems to have come into question.

John Berry was supposed to be bound to Michael Blocker but this was rejected by the court and John was instead bound to William Dawson. This apparently arose from a complication with the bond of Anthony Berry who was born while Margaret was still a servant. It is not clear from the record if Anthony Berry was taken from the Dawson’s but if Anthony’s father had been a slave he would probably become that unnamed master’s property.

Later that year in the July court Margaret was before the justices again with her infant son named Thomas (born in 1757). Thomas was bound to Michael Blocker without further commentary. I should also note here that 1758 was also the year William Dawson Jr. was born so the Dawson’s may have been too busy to take on another child. As a Justice, William Dawson seems to have moved the court grant his requests and I do wonder why he seemed to force the issue of taking custody of two of these children.

After this there is no other mention of Margaret Berry and it is unknown what became of her afterwards. I also don’t know if all three of her children were illegitimate or not – or if perhaps only Anthony was. The name of her husband is not mentioned though there must have been one for John to have had an “orphan” status.

In either case she was apparently unable to care for them after the death of her husband. I can only guess it seems that she was likely pregnant with the last child at the time of his death. I do find her plight eerily similar to that of Frances Dawson’s although their outcomes are quite the opposite. Both women had three sons and were pregnant when their husbands died. Without friends, family and assets it could have been Frances there before the justices to see her children taken from her and bound into service. Life on the North Carolina frontier was not an easy one.

However, a difficult time was ahead for everyone living in the Cape Fear region. According to Harnett County historian Malcolm Fowler, a “black death swept the Cape Fear country and wiped out the river families by the dozen” before the end of 1761. If there were other Dawson children that didn’t live to adulthood this may have been the time when they were lost. In 1761 Frances had just become a mother again with the birth of her third son Jonathan.

During 1761 there were also two notable deaths I need to mention. The first was Michael Blocker who died in January of 1761 and what happened to Thomas Berry after that is unknown. The second is the death of tavern keeper and Cumberland County Justice – William Dawson, Esquire. He was recorded as deceased by the summer of 1761. It seems likely that both men may have succumbed to the disease that swept though the region at that time. Based on an estimated age William Dawson was about 32 years old when he died.

Frances survived though. By 1762 she appears to have remarried again and between 1765 and 1768 she and her new husband, Jefferson Williams, had packed up their household and moved to the Old Ninety-Six district of South Carolina. I mention this because there is an interesting note about a John Berry from that area.

At the time of the American Revolution there was a John Berry who served as a Lieutenant and later as a Captain in the Lower Ninety-Six District regiment. He served in the militia from 1776 to 1782. Jefferson Williams, Joseph Dawson and Jonathan Dawson were all militia captains and it would be interesting if this John Berry turns out to be the one bound to William Dawson back in 1758. I haven’t found much on this John Berry so far but I look for him from time to time. The romantic in me hopes it’s him.


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The Dawson Household: Part 1

William Dawson and Frances (Rouse) had more members in their household than just their family. As I suggested in my previous post I think there was quite possibly an older daughter named Mary in addition to their three sons: Joseph (b. about 1750), William (b. 1758) and then Jonathan (b. about 1761). In addition to any guests who frequented their tavern they also had one or more bonded children and at least four slaves.

I have little information on their slaves but I do have the names of the four listed in the inventory taken of William’s estate in 1761. The image here is a clipping from a copy of his estate record presented to the Cumberland County Court by Frances (Rouse) Dawson during the August session of 1761. The record lists their names as follows:

A negro man named Jeffrey

A negro woman named Lottey (perhaps Charlotte?)

A mulatto boy named Duncan

A mulatto girl named Poll (perhaps Polly?)

There are no ages listed and I can only assume they remained with the family after Frances remarried to Jefferson Williams. In all likelihood they may have traveled with the Dawson-Williams family to South Carolina in the late 1760’s. Unfortunately this is all I know about them and if anyone knows more please post a reply below.

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Three Accounts of Jonathan Dawson

Jonathan Dawson is considered the earliest known ancestor in America for this line of Dawsons. There are several accounts of who he was and yet he is still a mysterious figure of uncertain origins. Below I will include the recorded evidence from three different accounts of him and then the results of my own research about Jonathan.

The problem with Jonathan Dawson is that despite the detailed recollections of who he was there is no concrete evidence of his actual existence. There are no deeds, court records, or other documents that verify any of the information on him detailed below. However, this lack of documentation does not mean he did not exist. The counties where he probably lived in North Carolina have had a series of fires and many documents from this period were lost. Also, he was only in North Carolina for at best 7 years before his death so there were probably few records about him to begin with. Even in his death he was less than helpful as he died at sea and not in North Carolina at all.

When I first got as far back as Jonathan Dawson I found the description below commonly floating around the internet. I think that the source of this information was the book called The Jonathan Dawson Family from England. Like most of these rare and out of print sources I have never seen the original but where this information was referenced that had been the cited source. Below is the list of statements about Jonathan and his family:

  • Jonathan Dawson was from England as was born in about 1719.
  • He arrived in NC in 1743 and married Frances Rouse who was born about 1723 in Wilmington, NC.
  • They settled on the Cape Fear River in NC and had three children: Joseph (b.1745), William (b. abt 1748), and Jonathan (b. 1750) all in Wilmington NC.
  • Jonathan died on a boat and his death was kept secret from his pregnant wife, Frances, for 6 months.
  • After Jonathan’s death she married a General Williams and moved with her family to the Old Edgefield District of SC.
  • Frances Rouse died in the Old Edgefield District in 1790.

This was all I had to go on for years until a few months ago I met a person named MaryAnn though one of the online genealogy forums. She kindly shared two sources of information on the early Dawson ancestry she had in her possession and it was fascinating to read. The first was a typewritten account called the Record of the Dawson Family from 1743 to 1900. From this document there are the following details:

  • Jonathan Dawson was an Englishman who came to America in 1743.
  • He settled on the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, NC.
  • He died “here” but the year is unknown.
  • He died on a boat and this was kept from his pregnant wife, Frances, for six months.
  • She was a woman of “delicate feelings” and it was “feared that the shock would kill her”.
  • Jonathan was an active, intelligent, and enterprising man.
  • He was “engaged in Merchandising, trading and shipping”.
  • His wife was Frances Rouse and she was living in Wilmington at the time of their marriage.
  • Jonathan and Frances had three sons: Joseph, William and Jonathan.
  • After Jonathan’s death Frances remarried to General Williams from South Carolina and they removed to that state.

In addition to this information MaryAnn shared a bit of personal correspondence written in 1926 by her great grandmother Pherbia Atwater Allen with her cousin about family history. I will quote her post here:

“My great grandmother’s mother was Falba Dawson Atwater (1837-1879) and when Falba died, Pheriba and her siblings went to live with the Dawson family which included their grandmother, Pheriba Alexander Dawson (1807-1898) The letter I have is dated Nov. 13th, 1926… My great grandmother and her siblings lived with her grandmother, Pheriba Alexander Dawson and the Dawson family for a number of years and would have had the benefit of hearing Dawson stories about their ancestors.”

Of the three accounts this one has the most solid information behind it. I think some details had been blurred by time but that is not surprising, especially with accounts of early ancestors. The portion relating to Jonathan Dawson provided the following details:

  • Jonathan Dawson was originally from Virginia (or perhaps an immigrant).
  • He came from Virginia to settle on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington NC in 1748.
  • He married Frances Rouse, who was living in Wilmington when they married.
  • They had three sons: Joseph, William, and Jonathan
  • Jonathan Dawson was a sea captain who was lost at sea prior to the birth of his son Jonathan in 1750.
  • Frances, due to her delicate condition, was not told of his death until after her baby (Jonathan) was born in 1750.
  • After Jonathan Dawson died Frances married General Williams and had several children by him.
  • Frances and General Williams moved to the Old Ninety Six district of SC (Edgefield Dist.)

Of the three I think this letter from Pherbia Atwater Allen has the most useful and accurate information about Jonathan. For one thing, it notes that Jonathan settled on the Cape Fear in 1748 and was deceased by 1750. This is too brief of a period to leave more than a few records and those appear to have either not survived or remain undiscovered (at least by me).

Another thing is that although he was supposed to be the father of three sons he was only married for about three years. Unless he and Frances had a child and then twins it is unlikely that he could have fathered all three in such a short space of time. I have suspected this for some time for reasons beyond just this account. I actually think Jonathan Dawson may not have been the father of the three boys.

Notice that the only approximate birth date of any of the three children is for Jonathan who is described as being born in about 1750. In most repeated versions of the story the births of the children are squeezed into the timeframe of 1743 to 1750. This fits nicely except that these dates of births are much too early for the children. Let’s take what is known about the three Dawson boys in order.

The first record of property purchased by the eldest son, Joseph Dawson, that I have found was in 1770. As he would need to be 21 to be considered an adult and buy property this makes his approximate birth date 1749 or 1750. He is also married Elizabeth Gibson in about 1770 and their first child was born about 1772.  A birth date of 1743 is possible but seems too early. It think 1750 is much more likely.

William Dawson, the second child, is generally considered to have been born around 1748. The most significant problem with this date comes from the pension application for his service in the South Carolina Militia during the American Revolution. Going through this substantial document makes it fairly clear that this is the correct William Dawson. The problem is that in the beginning he gives testimony that he was born in 1758. This is much too late for him to have been the child of Jonathan Dawson. His life events also fall in better with a birth date of 1758.

The younger Jonathan Dawson’s birth date is also an anomaly. Although the only child with a listed birth date I have to say that 1750 seems way too early for him. The primary reason for this would be his marriage and family. His wife, Repsama Nicholson was born in 1770. Although not unreasonable that is a bit of an age gap. Secondly, although there is no evidence of a first marriage Jonathan and Repsama start having children in 1798 when he is 48 years old. Their last child on record was born in 1814 when he would have been 64! Although this is possible it does seem a bit improbable. I think it is more likely that Jonathan was born closer to 1760 or 1761.

So, with this in mind you might wonder how Jonathan Dawson and Frances Rouse had these children at all. I am suggesting here that I think all three were probably born after the time of Jonathan Dawson’s death at sea. Now, if this was the case wouldn’t they all go by the name of Frances’s second  husband, General Williams? Wouldn’t we all be researching the Williams family instead?

Well, although I have never found records of Jonathan Dawson the sea captain and his wife Frances I have found records for a Frances with the married name of Dawson on the Cape Fear River. She was married to a man named William Dawson who was a Justice in Cumberland County, NC. This William Dawson was the son of a Welshman named Geoffrey Dawson who settled on the Cape Fear in 1737. William Dawson was also the owner of the Dawson’s Ferry and the proprietor of a Tavern there. This is all documented. What is more, Joseph and William Dawson both inherited land from him and in one land transactions Joseph Dawson even refers to the elder William Dawson as “my father”. William Dawson died in the summer of 1761 and his wife Frances presented the inventory of his estate in the Cumberland County Court.

In regard to General Williams, who would really be the third husband of Frances, his name appears to have been Jefferson Williams. He lived in Cumberland County by at least 1760 and was associated with the Dawson family. By 1768 he and his wife Frances own property and are apparently living in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina. During the American Revolution Jefferson was not a general but a Captain of light cavalry. As an interesting note, in William Dawson’s pension application he mentions that the first officer he served under was Captain Jefferson Williams.

In Summary:

What does all this mean?

Well, I personally think the account written by Pherbia Atwater Allen is the most accurate source of the three. All are collections of family stories but Pherbia’s seems like it was much closer to the first hand recollections of these facts. I think both have very valid information in them though and each adds a bit to the story.

When combining these accounts there are surprisingly few actual conflicts between them. I think Jonathan arrived in Virginia from elsewhere (perhaps England) in 1743. He then relocated to the Cape Fear River near Wilmington in 1748 and married Frances Rouse. I think Jonathan died at sea while she was pregnant with their first child. Based on other information I have found I suspect that this may have actually been a daughter named Mary. After Jonathan’s death I think Frances remarried to a man who was in all likelihood his brother, William Dawson. I think that it was William and Frances that had the three sons: Joseph, William, and Jonathan – all born between about 1750 and 1761. There may have been other children as well that didn’t survive to adulthood or that were daughters misplaced through marriage. However, with two husband’s named Dawson only Jonathan’s dramatic end preserved his first name in the oral traditions of the family.

The good news is that I think that researches looking into the line of Dawsons from the three sons (Joseph, William and Jonathan) can be less concerned with the origin and life of Jonathan Dawson as William Dawson seems to have been their actual father. This doesn’t make things much easier as William’s father Geoffrey’s origin is almost as cloudy as Jonathan’s but at least he is on record from his land patent on the Cape Fear River in 1737.

In future posts I will dive into these individuals in much more detail. What I have written above is only a portion of the material I have on them but I think it serves as a good basis to work from. Much of it is based on my own speculation so if your conclusions differ by all means please share them in the comments below.


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A Look Back: My First Big Break

When I began doing family history research I started, as I am sure many do, with my surname to see what I could find. I only got as far as my Great Grandfather before meeting my first “brickwall” ancestor. For several years “Don” Dawson was as far as I could get with my Dawson line.

He and my Great Grandmother (Nora Nichols) ended their marriage around 1918. I asked my father about him but he could only tell me that Don wasn’t talked about much in the family. Nora apparently had hard feelings towards Don that persisted for the rest of her life.

Nora and Don’s only child was Harlan Dawson and he was my grandfather. He died unexpectedly when I was still quite young so I never had the chance to talk to him about his life and his family. However, over two decades after his death I did get the chance to get to know him a little better. In 1992 I received some of his old papers and photo albums that had belonged to his mother, Nora.

There was a wealth of information in that material and in many ways going though it started me on the path to my career as a professional archivist. That is a subject for a different post though. What is important here is that among the photo albums were pictures of many people including many of my grandfather as a boy and as a young man, many of Nora as a young mother and even a few of Don as well. It was amazing to see snippets of their life as a family.

This wasn’t the breakthrough though. In the back of one album there was an envelope glued to the inside that contained loose photographs that had never been added for one reason or another. When I sorted though them I found something I never expected. Among the pictures there were two yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings about the death of a man named Reverend William Dawson. Both clippings were from 1914  – one was his obituary and the second was in regard to a memorial fund set up to honor his memory.

From the obituary it was clear that Reverend William Dawson was Don’s father. It also had the full spelling Don’s first name which was Donnel and not Donald as I had originally thought. The fact that Nora had kept not only images of Don but these clippings about his father indicates that although she may have born a grudge about the end of their marriage there was a part of her that wanted to preserve those memories as well.


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