Finding William Dawson of Cumberland was one of the greatest successes I have experienced while doing family history research. It started with William Dawson Jr., who in his pension application for service during the American Revolution mentioned that in early 1779 he returned to his “native place” of Cumberland County. I knew the Dawson family was from North Carolina but that one phrase made me think that Cumberland County may have been his place of birth. That turned out to be the case and it led me to discover an ancestor who had been forgotten in the family traditions. This was the existence of William Dawson Sr., tavern keeper, vestryman, and Justice of the Peace.
As I mentioned in my post about Geoffrey Dawson, the origin of the Dawson family prior to their arrival in Cumberland County is unknown. I estimate that Geoffrey’s oldest son (1), William Dawson, was about 8 years old when the family arrived on the Cape Fear in 1737. The name of his younger brother is never specified but I will explain later that I believe he was the Jonathan Dawson who married Frances Rouse and was later lost at sea.
Not much is known about William’s childhood but it is likely he worked on the family farm and in the tavern after it was established. As there is no mention of further siblings other than William and his brother I suspect that his mother may have had died early. Perhaps it was even prior to the family settling in Bladen County. At some point William did receive some degree of education and was certainly literate as an adult (see the earlier post about his books). The late 1730’s was also the time when Jonathan Llewellyn started to become associated with the family and he eventually settled on property adjacent to the Dawson land. This close family friend would soon play a major part in William’s life.
In 1740, when William was 11, neighbors settled on the parcel of property along the southern boundary of the land owned by the Dawson family. This was a Highlander named Thomas Armstrong, his wife Margaret and several children (2). They are on record as part of the group of “Argyll Colonists” who arrived in 1739 aboard the Thistle (3). Thomas Armstrong appears to have been a man of some distinction and he rose to prominence in Bladen County quite quickly. He became a Justice of the Peace for Bladen sometime in the 1740’s and was appointed Coroner for Cumberland County in 1755. It is just my opinion but I think William might have been apprenticed to Thomas Armstrong as perhaps a clerk and that may have been where he received his education.
As I mentioned earlier, I think that William’s younger, unnamed sibling was the Jonathan Dawson who is mentioned as the earliest Dawson ancestor in those family histories originating on the Cape Fear. I think that with William poised to inherit their father’s estate his younger sibling Jonathan joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Typically this would have been between the ages of 12 and 14 so this would mean he would have left the Cape Fear around 1743. Meanwhile William would have remained in Cumberland and learn how to manage the small estate that he would one day inherit.
However, in 1745, tragedy struck when Geoffrey Dawson died and William and Jonathan were left as orphans. It is in this year that Jonathan Llewellyn is entered into a bond to oversee the Dawson estate until William Dawson came of age (4). There is an odd land transaction that seems to support this where 100 acres of the Geoffrey Dawson estate is given to Jonathan Llewellyn who then gives it to William Dawson. It is then returned to Jonathan Llewellyn in 1750 when William turns 21.
Regarding William there isn’t much about him between 1745 and 1750 when he turns 21. It is most likely he continued to run the farm, tavern and ferry as he seems well established in the community by the time he becomes an adult in 1750. It is also during this time period, if the family stories are correct, that his brother, Jonathan seems to have risen steadily as a maritime officer if even a fraction of the accounts are true (see the post about Jonathan Dawson form more details). From the family folklore he appears to have achieved the rank of a naval officer of some standing and I suspect he may have been a ships Purser. It is unlikely he could have been a Captain so young but that doesn’t diminish whatever success he was experiencing at the time. In 1748 when Jonathan was just 17 he married Frances Rouse who was living in Wilmington, North Carolina, and who I am guessing was about the same age (5). As a promising officer it was probably seen as a good match but the marriage was not to last. He died at sea while she was pregnant with their first child just a year later in about 1749.
Frances, now a young widow with a new baby, then married Jonathan’s brother, William. It is likely they married in around 1750 at about the same time William turned 21 and inherited his father Geoffrey’s estate. They were certainly married no later than 1754 when they appear together as spouses in several different deeds. Although it seems likely that Joseph was the son of Jonathan Dawson I should mention that in 1770, Joseph Dawson is noted in a deed as calling William Dawson, “my father” and receives the bulk of William’s estate. Given the scarcity of records about Jonathan Dawson it’s hard to say either way. Regardless, he was raised by William Dawson.
Besides being newly married William Dawson also began buying and selling property throughout the 1750’s. Some of his earliest land transactions are joint properties he owns with William Hodges in 1751 and again in 1754. William Hodges is another neighbor closely associated with William Dawson along with Thomas Armstrong and Jonathan Llewellyn. William was eventually involved with multiple land transactions will all three of them.
Now an adult, William Dawson was enjoying the benefits of having both property and position. Throughout the 1750’s he continued to his expand his influence in the community and became one of Cumberland County’s more prominent citizens in his day. In part two I will go into more detail about his life during the 1750’s and conclude with his untimely death in 1761.
Note (1): I used the term “oldest son” as this is how William is described in a [date] deet, as the “oldest son of Geoffrey Dawson.” Whether this means he was actually the oldest son or just the oldest surviving son is unknown. I suspect the later though.
Note (2): The Armstrong children were probably Thomas Jr., William and Francis.
Note (3): There is also some evidence that suggests Thomas Armstrong was in North Carolina much earlier in or near Bertie or Onslow Counties and not part of the Argyll Colony at all.
Note (4): The record of this bond is just an abstract and it is fairly vague but this is my interpretation of its meaning.
Note (5): The ages of Frances Rouse and Jonathan Dawson are estimated based on William’s estimated birth date and then having a sibling born two years later.