Category Archives: Berry

William Dawson of Cumberland: Part 2


In the last post I talked about William Dawson’s life prior to his marriage and family. In this part I want to describe some of the details related to his rise to prominence in Cumberland County. He married Frances Rouse (1) in the late 1740’s or early 1750’s, but they are definitely documented as being husband and wife by 1754 (2). During the early 1750’s William and Frances were busy running their tavern and ferry while starting a family. Their first son, Joseph, was born around 1750 (3).


During this period William was establishing himself in his community as well. He had been appointed as a Justice of the Peace around 1754 (4) when Cumberland County was first formed out of Bladen. It is also on record that he became a Vestryman when St. David’s Parish was formed during that same year.


By all accounts he was certainly doing well by 1755. At the age of 25 he owned close to 1000 acres (5), was married, had one known child, and had become appointed as both a Vestryman and Justice of the Peace. His role in the community was firmly established and his future must have looked bright indeed.


In 1755 William was closely involved in the decision to determine the location for the newly formed Cumberland County’s first courthouse. Along with his long time friend and neighbor, Thomas Armstrong, (and another justice named Gilbert Clark) they decided to place the courthouse on property near the Cape Fear River in a location that was primarily accessible by the popular road called Green’s Path to the Pee Dee. Locating the courthouse along two major travel routes (Green’s Path and the Cape Fear River waterway) made a great deal of sense but it was also an excellent location for William’s business interests. Travelers along Green’s Path needed to use the Dawson’s Ferry to cross the Cape Fear so this location was certain to be a boon to him financially.


The late 1750’s also marked several accomplishments for William. Documents from 1757 show him bearing the title of Esquire along with a record showing the renewal of his tavern license. Another document from this same year shows that he had managed to get the North Carolina General Assembly to write legislature for providing upkeep for his ferry business.


1757 was not without its problems though. William Dawson and Thomas Armstrong were both named in a Petition by the Freeholders of Cumberland County who were not happy with their work as Justices of the Peace. To quote:


“To the Governor, Council & Assembly of the Province of North Carolina:  We, the persons listed have been much oppressed and injured by some of those in authority among us. In particular Thomas Armstrong and William Dawson whom we look upon as the cause of all the confusion among us; they have always opposed every good measure and endeavored to turn everything to their own private advantage as may be seen by the evidence delivered with this. They are a disgrace to the Bench and have rendered themselves unfit to sit upon it.”


The Governor seemed to agree with the petitioners and on the 28th of November Thomas Armstrong was struck from the Commission of the Peace and was also named by the North Carolina General Assembly as a “person of bad character.” In subsequent minutes of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas Thomas Armstrong was never listed among the Justices again. William Dawson seems to have escaped the scandal though as he remained a justice and was listed in the minutes regularly through 1761.


William’s family life during this period was active as well. In January of 1757 Anthony Berry (the three year old mulatto son of a woman named Margaret Berry) was bound to William Dawson. Unfortunately, a year later Margaret Berry was again in the Cumberland County Court with another child that was to be bound out. While there she confessed that Anthony was born while she was still a servant and the child was apparently taken away from the Dawson household (although the record is a bit vague on this fact). What is known is that the two year old child she brought to the court this time, named John Berry, was bound to William Dawson 18 January 1758. Amid all of this Frances had become pregnant again and she gave birth to their second son, William Jr., later that same year on the 14th of November.


This brings up an irregularity in the family that still puzzles me. The birth date of William Dawson Jr. as being 1758 is well documented (6) and Joseph Dawson was almost certainly born around 1749 but perhaps as late as 1754. In either case there is a substantial gap in the ages between these two children that has no explanation. My only guess is that other children had been born that did not survive into adulthood or that Frances and William had difficulty conceiving. The idea that at least one child had died young is supported by another odd absence. There is no evidence of a child named after his father, Geoffrey despite his having three sons.


The year 1760 was an interesting one for William Dawson. In January he sold the remaining 308 acres he still held of his father’s original land grant to John Smith. I believe this is the same John Smith who was to rename the ferry “Smith’s Ferry” which can be seen marked on maps made of the Cape Fear River during the American Revolution. By selling the old Geoffrey Dawson property and home it looks like William had wanted to get out of the ferry business.


He must have still enjoyed owning a tavern though because he was again given a license to run an ordinary at his home during this same year. This new home was probably located at a 440 acre parcel he bought in February 1760. This property was very close to the old Geoffrey Dawson land he had just sold but it was on the courthouse side of the Cape Fear and right next to the property of his associate William Robards. These 440 acres are also significant because William divided this property into two parcels and left them for his sons Joseph and William Jr.


By November of 1760 his friend and new neighbor, William Robards, had died. In the November Court William Dawson presented the Deeds of Gift from William Robards to the various members of his family and they demonstrated a great deal of warmth between William Robards and his family. However, I found this November court to be primarily interesting for another reason. The records of this court hold the first mention in Cumberland County of a man named Jefferson Williams. He was a witness for a deed involving William Robards Jr. and which was also witnessed by William’s long time associate, William Hodges (7). This places Jefferson Williams clearly in the social circle with the Dawson, Robards and Hodges families – all of which is very intriguing as Jefferson Williams married William Dawson’s widow, Frances, after he death just one year later in 1761.




Note (1): Frances Rouse may or may not have been married to Jonathan Dawson prior to her marriage to William Dawson.


Note (2): A deed record for Cumberland County on 22 April 1754 lists “William Dawson and Frances his wife” selling property they co-owned with William and Patience Hodges to a man named Robert Williams of South Carolina. This is the earliest record of the marriage between William Dawson and Frances Rouse.


Note (3): Joseph Dawson was probably born in 1749. This date is estimated from the record of him selling land he inherited from William Dawson, “my father” which suggests he was at least 21 in 1770.


Note (4): William Dawson is recorded as an established justice – not newly appointed – in the North Carolina Assembly Minutes from 1755.


Note (5): It looks like he William had about 1000 acres in 1755. It can be difficult to sort out all of the land transactions and I am sure there were some that didn’t survive but I feel fairly certain about this figure.


Note (6): The birth date of William Dawson Jr. is recorded in his testimony for his Revolutionary War service pension. It is also corroborated in the pension application of Joseph Hodges who listed him among his relatives and also provided his birth date.


Note (7): Based on the transcript of the pension application testimony given by William Hodges’ son, Joseph Hodges, it is likely that William Dawson and William Hodges were related by either blood or marriage.



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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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