Monthly Archives: August 2011

Geoffrey Dawson: The Canny Welshman

In the cold of February, 1737, a Welshman named Geoffrey Dawson secured a grant for 640 acres (1 square mile) in Bladen County from the North Carolina Governor’s Council. He brought with him a small family to settle this property which was located along the eastern bank of the upper Cape Fear River. Geoffrey was about 31 years old at the time and his family probably consisted of his wife and at least one child. Although I don’t know it for certain I do have a strong suspicion that he was also a Quaker.

Where he lived prior to the Cape Fear is unknown. One possibility is that he was part of the large migration of Welsh settlers coming from the Welsh Tract in what is now Delaware. These settlers began heading south in about 1735 and most were bound for an area that was to become known as the “Welsh Neck” on the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. Interestingly, William Dawson, Geoffrey’s son, sold several hundred acres of property in the Welsh Neck settlement in 1754. Whether he inherited this property from Geoffrey or obtained it by grant or another source is unknown.

Regardless of whether Geoffrey was part of this migration or not, he appears to have had a plan in mind with his land on the Cape Fear.  The Dawson property was located opposite the mouth of the Lower Little River and along a trail called the “Green’s Path to the Pee Dee”. This path was a well travelled route between Virginia and South Carolina and it is even possible that Geoffrey first saw this spot on his way to the Welsh Neck settlement. Today the location of Geoffrey’s land grant is located in Harnett County and is not far from the Averasboro Battlefield site.

Although I don’t know it for certain I strongly suspect that it was Geoffrey who first established the Dawson’s Ferry and Tavern. Neither was documented until years later when they are owned by his son, William. However, when William secured support from the North Carolina Colony for the upkeep of the Dawson’s Ferry in 1757 it was recorded as, “hath been of long standing; and found very convenient for travelers and others.” I understand that “long standing” is a bit subjective in terms of when the Ferry and Tavern were started but I think the odds are good that both began prior to Geoffrey’s death in 1745.

Another factor that leads me to believe that Ferry and Tavern were started by Geoffrey is from the modification of his deed for the 640 acres. Although Geoffrey is listed as the sole recipient of the grant in 1737 I did find an abstract that indicates the deed was later amended. This change was the inclusion of someone named Thomas Dawson as a co-owner of the land. The change read that the property was owned by “Jeffrey Dawson and/or Thomas Dawson”.*

Who was this Thomas Dawson? My best guess is that he was a relative (probably a brother) who later invested in these enterprises and as a result was given some degree of controlling interest in the property. This seems like a plausible reason for why he wasn’t part of the original grant and why the deed was later amended with that “and/or” reference. I should mention that I have found a few intriguing leads on who this Thomas Dawson may have been but I will save that for another post. However, by the time of Geoffrey’s death in 1745, his son William inherits everything: land, tavern and ferry.

There is another very interesting person associated with Geoffrey Dawson that I want to include here. He was another Welshman named Jonathan Llewellyn**.  He was a young carpenter who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1735.  I only know of his early history from a fellow researcher named Billie Harris who kindly shared this information with me. Rather than paraphrase I will quote her below:

“In 1735 Jonathan Lewellen arrived as an indentured servant in a town near the French Church in Charleston.  He was a carpenter and his master a Mr. Reynolds.  That same year in the SC Gazette there was an ad about a runaway from John Reynolds, carpenter, near the French Church in Charlestown… the runaway was a young fellow about 19 named Jonathan Lewellen.  When he ran away, he had 3 coats, 2 shirts, a pair of Ozenbrigs and one pair of leather breeches, a pair of stockings, a pair of pumps and a pair of shoes, one of the coats in white Dowlas, the other a whitish colored cloth and the other a dark colored cotton.  There was a L5 reward offered by John Reynolds.”

Sometime between 1735 and 1741 this young carpenter arrived on the Cape Fear where he met and became closely associated with the Dawson family. By 1741 he appears with both Geoffrey and his son William in a bond, as a witness to deeds, and with the exchange of various properties to become their neighbor. Given that Geoffrey’s land grant was in 1737 and that Jonathan’s occupation was that of a carpenter I think it is likely that Jonathan Llewellyn built or oversaw the construction of the Ferry and Tavern. In two deeds from the 1750’s Jonathan is actually listed as a Joiner so it seems carpentry continued to be his primary occupation.

Geoffrey did not remain the proprietor of the tavern and ferry for long though. He died in late 1744 or1745 at the approximate age of 39. There is a very brief abstract of a bond between Jonathan Llewellyn and William Dawson regarding Geoffrey Dawson dated 1745. The abstract lacks much detail but based on William Dawson’s approximate age (about 16 in 1745) it looks like he may have been bound out to Jonathan Llewellyn until he was old enough to inherit Geoffrey’s estate.

From different deed records written in the 1750’s William Dawson is listed as the both the “eldest son” and “sole heir” of Geoffrey’s estate. From this and the lack of other Dawson records it looks like Geoffrey’s wife and other children preceded him to the grave. Until I learn more it appears that after 1745 William was an orphan even in the modern sense of the term.

The full story about Geoffrey Dawson leaves many questions unanswered. At the very least he was a perceptive individual with the ambition to settle and develop a successful business that went on to help his son gain a position of local prominence in county.

[Notes]

*Geoffrey is the first name used in the earliest records about him. Most of those written later spell it Jeffrey. For consistency sake in the text I use only the Geoffrey spelling.

** Jonathan Llewellyn’s last name is spelled in various documents Lewellyn, Lewellen, Lewelling and Sewelling. I use only the Llewellyn spelling for consistency in the text.

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A Colonial Bookshelf of 1761

 When thinking about William Dawson, his wife Frances, and their children (Joseph and William Jr., and Jonathan) this small personal library helps to reveal some of the thinking and discussions that probably occurred in their home. This list of books is from the estate inventory of William Dawson, Esquire, presented by his wife Frances Dawson to the Cumberland County Court during the August session of 1761. I am not an expert on personal libraries of the colonial period but these seven entries seem like a substantial collection for a family living on the frontier of North Carolina.

The first book was Sherlock’s Discourse on Death. The full title was A Practical Discourse Concerning Death by Dr. William Sherlock. The book was written in 1690 and according to a paper written by Walter B. Edgar on common books found in Southern Carolina libraries it was a fairly common volume found in a Colonial period library. The best way I found to describe the work is from a quote by Sherlock himself:

“I know no other Preparation for Death, but living well: And thus we must every Day prepare for Death, and then we shall be well prepared when Death comes; that is, we shall be able to give a good account of our lives, and of the Improvements of our Talents; and he who can do this, is well prepared to die.”

The next book listed was the Duty of Man. The full title of this book is The Whole Duty of Man, Laid Down in a Plain and Familiar Way by Richard Allestree. Again, according to Edgar’s work, this is one of the most popular books found in libraries in South Carolina. It was widely used in the education of children on the Colonial frontier and it rivaled even the Bible in popularity. I even found it mentioned by Benjamin Franklin in a letter he wrote to his wife:

“I hope she [Franklin’s daughter Sally] continues to love going to church, and would have her read over and over again the Whole Duty of Man…”

In an interesting note, when I was reading up on these books I happened upon a quote from the poet, historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (1800 – 1859). He was discussing Sherlock’s Treatise on Death when he wrote:

“During many years, [Treatise on Death] stood next to The Whole Duty of Man in the bookcases of serious Arminians.”

This certainly suggests William Dawson had Arminian leanings if he wasn’t actively of that religious school of thought. Arminianism was a type of Baptist that opposed the predestination concepts of Calvinists. From what I have read the Arminian doctrine holds the individual is responsible for their own salvation. Some notable Colonial Arminians were: William Smith (father of Abigail Adams), Jonathan Mayhew, and Charles Chauncy.   There was a strong Arminiain movement in the Colonies prior to the Revolution and it appears that William Dawson may have been part of it.

Webb’s Virginia Justice was the next book. Written by George Webb, it was first published in the 1730’s and was a detailed manual on being a Justice of the Peace. As William Dawson served as a Cumberland County Justice it is not surprising that this was in his collection.

The next book was only listed as a “Testament” and it was probably a New Testament printed in England as these weren’t printed in the Colonies until 1782. As he appears to have been actively interested in religious thinking it is not surprising he had this in his collection.

A Psalter, or book of Psalms, was also listed. Edgar’s work mentioned that this was a common book in Colonial libraries in the south so like the Testament it is not surprising this was in his collection.

At this point in the inventory there is a fraying of the paper so that the quantities of items below the previous entry were lost. This is unfortunate as the next item listed was only recorded as “Spelling Books”. There were certainly more than one but there is no way to know how many of these the Dawson family actually owned. I would guess though that it may have meant he had several of these spelling books. This leads me to think that William Dawson may have acted as a schoolmaster of sorts in his community. This is just speculation on my part as he was never listed as such on any documents.

The last book is simply listed as an “Old Bible”.  Of William’s books this is the one I would certainly love to see as it may have contained notes about the early history of his family. It is impossible to know if this Bible was lucky enough to have survived the last few hundred years and even if it did, where it ultimately ended up. The fact that he had both this book and a new testament suggests this “Old Bible” was not for everyday use. In all likelihood it was something of significance to him and may have been passed down from his father Geoffrey.

Taken as a whole, William Dawson seems to have been a fairly progressive thinker. It also seems that he took his duties seriously as he kept books that corresponded to his roles as a Justice, Vestryman and perhaps that of a school teacher as well. I feel extremely fortunate that this document survived and that I had even this small window into what he may have thought and believed.

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Frances Rouse

When I first discovered this early ancestor she was the one person who fascinated me more than any of the others. I may be uncertain about whom exactly Jonathan Dawson had been but there is little doubt that Frances was the mother of the three Dawson boys and later several Williams children.

Let me quote a few passages from family lore about Frances. The first is from the Pherbia Atwater Allen’s 1926 letter:

His [Jonathan Dawson’s] wife was Frances Rouse – she was living at Wilmington at the time of her marriage… In those times men would go to sea when crops were layed by who had large farms. Jonathan Dawson was a sea captain and was lost at sea but owing to the delicate condition of his wife her friends would not tell her of his death till after her baby (Jonathan Dawson II) was born [in] 1750…After his death his wife, Frances married General Williams and had several children. They moved to Edgefield District (It was then 96 dist).

There is also this passage from the document written by Joseph Washington Dawson in 1875:

He [Jonathan Dawson] died on a boat and the fact of his death was kept a secret from his wife for six months as she was pregnant. She was a woman of delicate feelings, and it was feared that the shock would kill her… His wife was a Miss Frances Rouse. She was living in Wilmington at the time of their marriage… After the death of Jonathan, his widow married Gen. Williams of South Carolina and removed to that state.

The early life of Frances Rouse is still largely clouded in speculation. She was born sometime between the mid 1720’s and the early 1730’s. My estimate of her age based on the life events of her children is that she was born in about 1727. According to the family traditions quoted above she was living in New Hannover County, near or in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1748. This would make her about 21 at the time of her marriage but she certainly could have been younger. There is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding who her parents were and where she was actually born. She may very well have been Welsh as the Dawsons, Willams and other allied families generally were. Her most likely origin is with either the Alexander or John Rouse families that settled in the Dulpin and Dobbs counties of North Carolina.

It is confirmed that she was literate at least to the degree that she could sign her own name and probably well beyond that. The estate inventory of her husband William Dawson was recorded by the court clerk but presented by Frances by what was likely her own written list of his possessions.

In both accounts of her she is said to be of a delicate nature to the degree that the death of her husband was kept from her while she was pregnant. This may have been the case but she seems to have become quite resilient as she grew older. She lived most of her life on the southern frontier, survived three husbands, raised at least three confirmed Dawson children and probably two more by her third husband Jefferson Williams. Her children went on to become patriots and at least two (Joseph and Jonathan) served as Captains in the American Revolution.

She lived on the Cape Fear River for nearly 20 years before moving with her third husband, Jefferson Williams, to South Carolina in about 1768. Jefferson died before 1785 and according some unconfirmed sources she died in the Edgefield District in 1790 when she was approximately 63 years old.

Many children in the Dawson and Williams lines named descendents after her for several generations. Among her children their fathers lived and died but she remained constant throughout their lives and into their adulthoods.

I thought it would best to close this post with an image of her own signature:

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