Monthly Archives: May 2012

A New Perspective on Jonathan Dawson “the Mariner”

According to Pheriba Atwater Allen’s letter (1) Jonathan Dawson married Frances Rouse and they settled on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina around 1748. In other posts I have expressed some uncertainty about Jonathan Dawson and even his existence at all but today I think there is enough evidence to actually demonstrate that he did indeed exist, although he almost certainly died very young. My mind really does skip around about him.

As we know, Frances’ first son was Joseph Dawson. From going over his deed and land transactions, especially those in Cumberland County, I am fairly certain he was born between 1748 and 1751. The evidence for this reasoning is from a 1773 deed (2) where he is described as having become the “proper heir” of a William Dawson property in 1769. My guess is that he became a “proper heir” when he turned 21 although I understand this isn’t always the case. It also coincides with his birth being within the first year of his parent’s marriage according to the Atwater Allen letter. All is good so far. It’s not heavily documented but I think it seems reasonable that Joseph Dawson was born about 1748 and no later than 1751.

However, one thing that has bothered me is the long gap in age between Joseph and his next known sibling. His brother William is well documented with a birth date of 18 November 1758 (3). His next brother, Jonathan was born around 1760 or 1761 which fits the normal pattern. Missing siblings could explain some gaps but ten years? That seems like a long time between a first and second known child.

I have been troubled by this gap and concocted many scenarios to explain it. Then a few weeks ago it dawned on me that this gap isn’t as hard to explain as I had first thought. Jonathan Dawson is remembered in family narratives as having been a sea captain that died while on a ship. As the story goes Frances wasn’t told for six months since she was pregnant with her first child, Joseph (4) who was born after his father’s death.

Now, if Jonathan simply died on the voyage then why didn’t she remarry within in a year or so of hearing about his death? The first record of her remarriage I have found isn’t until 1754 when she is on record as the wife of Jonathan’s older brother (5) William Dawson and there is still that long gap in ages between Joseph and William Jr. Why no other children until 1758?

Here is the thing. What if Jonathan Dawson didn’t just die at sea – what if he was “lost” at sea? In particular, what if his ship simply never arrived in port and he was only “presumed lost”? The time for this news to get back to Frances could better explain why she wouldn’t have heard about him being missing and presumed dead for six months. What’s more to the point is that if he and his ship were lost it would take about seven years before she could have him declared as deceased in court. In the meantime she could not remarry and would need special dispensation from the court to even carry on with the family’s financial affairs in his absence (6).

If Frances and Jonathan were married in early 1748 he could have set sail later that year after she was already pregnant. In fact, the family narratives suggest this was in fact exactly what happened. What we find is that she is married again about 6 years later and there are no other children recorded prior to William Jr. in 1758. I am not trying to romanticize her life but I think it’s possible she and her son Joseph lived on the Dawson plantation on the Cape Fear during this time. She and Jonathan may have even owned half of the property from Geoffrey Dawson’s 1737 patent since he appears to have died around 1745.

The four year gap between 1754 and William Jr’s birth in 1758 is possibly due to the birth of another child that either died young or a daughter who married and was forgotten over time – not unlike William Dawson of Cumberland. My guess is that this may have been a son named Geoffrey or Jeffrey after William and Jonathan’s father. This is just speculation on my part but I think it’s possible and it would explain why the Geoffrey/Jeffrey name died out in the family.

I have written previously that I thought the Dawson’s may have originally been Quakers and if Jonathan and Frances had been of this faith then typically the first son is named after the mother’s father. This would suggest that the father of Frances may very well have been Joseph. What is more important is that the next son would then be named after the Father’s Father and that is why I am guessing that there was a son named Jeffrey born around 1755-56. The next son would then be named after the Father and we do have a son born in 1758 named William. For the sake of argument let’s consider that they continued with this pattern. The next son is traditionally named after the oldest brother of the father. The next child, born around 1761 is named Jonathan – the name of who I feel confident was William of Cumberland’s brother. I am not saying that the family strictly adhered to this naming pattern but it does seem to fit.

In a previous post I have given the argument that I think William Dawson and Jonathan Dawson were both the Sons of Geoffrey Dawson. I won’t go over all of that again but I do think this supports that idea and gives a bit of confirmation that despite a lack of any deeds or other official records that Jonathan Dawson did in fact exist and was lost at sea shortly after he and his wife Frances were married.

I can’t help but think about what life must have been like for Frances. Here she was as a young mother pregnant with her first baby and her husband out at sea. Then, after about six months went by she received a letter telling her that her husband’s ship had never arrived in port. She would have had to deal with his loss, a growing infant, and no ability to remarry until he could be declared deceased nearly seven years later. In the meantime she would have had to convince the court to give her permission to run his estate. A situation like that would have been difficult indeed.


(1) Pheriba Atwater Allen (1860-1946) wrote to her cousin in 1926 about their family history. This letter survives today and is a primary source for what is remembered about this branch of the Dawson family.

(2) Cumberland County Deed – Book 5, Page 165: Joseph Dawson to Josiah Williams in 1773 200 acres on Cranes Creek.

(3) The birth date of William Dawson Jr. can be found in his own pension application for service in the American Revolution as well as in the pension application of Joseph Hodges who also records the date.

(4) The Atwater Allen letter gives a marriage date of 1748 for Jonathan Dawson and Frances Rouse would place their first child, Joseph, as being born after this date. However, the traditional view is that her third son, Jonathan was the one born at this time.

(5) This reference of Frances being married to William Dawson is from an 22 April 1754 deed. The abstract (which is all I have seen) is from S.C. Deed Book Q-Q, p. 107. S.C. Deed Book Q-Q, p. 110. 3 Langley, SC Deed Abstracts 1719-1772, 3-4.

(6) The waiting period of about seven years during the colonial period is described in the book: Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival and Freedom in a New World.


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