Category Archives: Dawson

Donnell Dick Dawson 1876-1958

Don_Harlan_Nora about 1910I almost always post about the early Dawsons in my line. For this post I want to depart from this trend and post about my first brickwall ancestor – Don Dawson. I was fairly young to get started with the family history hobby (I was about 25 years old) but my Grandfather, Harlan Dawson had already died when he was quite young and I was only 8. My Grandmother, Dorothy, already was suffering from dementia so even at that time she had a hard time telling me apart from my father. My father, Roger Dawson, was an only child so I have needed to rely on him for his recollections about our recent Dawson past.

Early on my father could only tell me about my Great Grandfather was that his name was Don Dawson and that he was almost never spoken of by his Grandmother, Nora Nichols. All he could tell me is that when Don was mentioned he was not remembered fondly and considered a scoundrel. My father knew he had done something that estranged him from our family and that even my Grandfather never saw him and rarely spoke of Don himself. My Dad used to tell me that whatever he (Don) had done, it had been pretty bad.

In my very first post I talked about my first big break. I am lucky to have Nora’s old photo albums that my Grandfather had kept and that my father gave to me. In the back of one were the newspaper clippings of Don’s father, Reverend William Dawson, from Van Zandt County, Texas. Reverend William was well-loved and his obituary was quite long and detailed about his life. afterwards, with the help of Bill York who I met on the forums I was able to find William’s parents and that has taken me down through the research that has resulted in this blog.

But this post is about Don. As more material becomes available online I have been able to put together a clearer picture of his life and a bit about who he was. I even unearthed what I believe was the nature of the scandal and why he was seen in such an ill light.

Don was born Donnell Dick Dawson on 1 February 1876 in Wills Point Texas. He was the youngest child of three. His older brothers were Vinyard Grove Dawson (b. abt. 1869) and Archie “Arch” Bone Dawson (b. 1873). His parents were William Dawson (b. 1832 in Limestone County, Alabama) and Febe Tee Sawyers (b. 1836 in Fayetteville, Tennessee). William Dawson was a well-respected minister and founded the Dawson Presbyterian Church in Wills Point in 1889.

According to the 1900 census Don was married in 1894. His wife’s was Tommie Richards. Don was 18 years old and she was 15 at the time of their marriage. Their first son, Athol Dawson, was born in November of the same year they were married. In 1896 they had another son, Leonard Dawson, and then in about 1901 they had a daughter named Margaret.

Between 1901 and 1906 Don either left or divorced Tommie and left his Texas family behind. During this time he relocated to the area around Los Angeles, California. In about 1906 Don married his second wife (my Great Grandmother), Nora Nichols. She was 18 and the eldest daughter of the rather prominent John Nichols who at that time was the superintendent of schools for Orange County. According to my Dad she was always considered a “fiery redhead” and very headstrong. Then in 1907 Don and Nora had a son named Harlan Dustin Dawson (my Grandfather) who was born in San Bernardino.

Don was piano tuner and salesman for most of his life and in the 1908 city directory for San Bernardino CA he was listed as a manager for the Southern California Music Company, which still exists today and is the oldest music store in Los Angeles. Nora played the piano and did so for silent movie theatres on The Pike. My Grandfather told stories to my Dad about napping under the piano in the theatre while she played when he was about 4 years old. The picture at the top of this post was taken between 1910 and 1911. During this time they also travelled to Oregon and I have many pictures from the coastal town of Bandon where they seemed to have spent a considerable amount of time.

The happy times were not to last and by 1914 there is evidence they were living apart. A small clipped newspaper item mentions that Mrs. Nora Dawson and son Harlan of Portland, Oregon were visiting friends in Santa Anna. California. This is the same year that Don’s father, William Dawson, died and in that obituary it says that Don was living in Modesto, California. There is also a photograph of Don and Nora together from December 1915 and it just looks to me like they were reluctant to be standing beside each other. By about 1917 they were divorced.

By the 1920 census Don was married to a woman I only know as Beatrice. Her family had been from Texas and in 1920 she was 18 years old with a 16 month old baby, Don Dawson Jr. When I considered 9 months from the time of conception that put her as being about 15 or 16 years old when she got pregnant and Don was about 42. Don Jr. was born in Arizona, which is where Don and Beatrice were living in 1920. Don was always easy to spot because his profession was listed as Piano Tuner and he was working at a well-known music store there called Fisher’s.

I am just speculating here but from what I know of Don from my family it lends itself that he was probably still married to Nora when he got the teenaged Beatrice pregnant. Nora’s father, John Nichols, was by this time a practicing attorney and it wouldn’t surprise me if he oversaw the divorce and Don’s relocation to Arizona. The Nichols family had a lot of pull in old Los Angeles and this fits with what I know. My Dad agrees that something like this would have caused all the animosity towards Don. Also, to the best of my father’s knowledge Harlan never visited Don even though both men lived in the southern part of California for most of their lives.

His exile (again, my assumption) to Arizona didn’t last. By 1922 Don is in a Fresno California city directory working as a piano tuner. The last mention of Beatrice I found was also from Fresno. In a voter registration list from 1926 she is listed as living there with the occupation of clerk.

His marriage to Beatrice didn’t last either. He married a woman named Sarah “Sally” (unknown maiden name) in 1927. In the 1930 census he was working again as a piano tuner but living in Tillamook, Oregon with his wife Sally. In that census she was on record as being born in Mexico and that Spanish was her native language although she also spoke English. She was born in 1901 (the same year as Don’s daughter Margaret), emigrated to the U.S. in 1919, and was 26 when she married Don who was then 50. They had two children by 1930: Bill V. Dawson (age 2) and Charles M. Dawson (age 0).

This marriage endured and by 1940 he is still married to Sally and they had four children: Billy Dawson (age 12), Charles Dawson (age 10), Howard Dawson (age 6), and Louis Dawson (age 3). By this time they were living in San Diego in Encinitas. This coincides with my what my grandfather told my Dad. Harlan told my father that the last he heard ” that sob [Don] was living in San Diego with a Mexican wife”. This was not the friendliest statement but it stuck in my father’s memory and matches the records.

Don appeared to stay with Sally and remained in Southern California. According to a death index for 1958 he died north of San Diego in town called Leucadia at the age of 82. By  the end of his life Don had four wives and nine children that I know of. What is a bit disturbing is Don’s tendency to become involved with younger women. Tommie at about 15, Nora at 18, Beatrice at about 15 and then Sally who was 26 and he 50. Since it looks like he had an eye for younger women the circumstances of the divorce between he and Nora was probably devastating to her. From everything my Dad has told me Harlan he was fiercely loyal to his mother and did what he could to help and look after her even when he was very young.

In the last year of his life Harlan had reconnected with his half-brother Athol and they corresponded for several months and talked about family history. Athol was in the S.A.R. and was helping Harlan get his application together. However, Harlan died suddenly of a stroke and everything stopped there. As far as I know this is the only one of his half-brothers he ever had any contact with.

If any cousins of mine via Don’s many children read this and have a different account (or just their own take on it) please post in the comments section. I only have my own viewpoint from my Grandfather who clearly disliked his father. I would sincerely love to hear from other members of our scattered family.



Filed under Dawson

William Dawson, Militia Captain

militia_trainingThere is a transcribed roster of North Carolina Militia units I ran across recently that has an interesting bearing on the Dawson family of Cumberland County. There are four rosters on the sheet and two of them are undated. The dates for the other two are 1755-1760 for Carteret County and 1754-1759 for Currituck County. The two from Cumberland County are the undated ones but I believe one of them has the same date range – approximately 1754 -1760.  This list appears to be from a book but where I found the scanned page it didn’t list the original source.

This roster I am discussing in this post lists the following:

Cumberland County, no date given

Robert Rowan, Colonel (for Robert Palmer, removed)

Thomas Armstrong, Lieut. Colonel.

Thomas Gibson, Major (for James Rutherford, resigned)


Hector McNeil, Captain

[Blank] Collins, Captain

William Dawson, Captain


This roster jumped out at me because I was already familiar with most of the names from earlier research and especially that of William Dawson. For this post I will go over each name in order, discuss any relevance these people had to the Dawson family, and demonstrate why I believe this roster should also be dated around 1754-1760.

Robert Rowan, Colonel

Robert Rowan was a son of the prominent political figure, Matthew Rowan who was appointed to the Governor’s Council in 1730. From what I could find Robert Rowan was born around 1738 and died in 1798. He arrived in Cross Creek (1) some time before 1756 where his name is found listed first on a Cumberland County petition to the North Carolina General Assembly. Thomas Armstrong was also a signer of the same petition. It is worth noting that Robert Rowan is on record as serving in the French and Indian War so this may be a militia roster from that period of his service (2). If he was indeed born in 1738 he would have been very young for a public official and senior militia officer but given the prominent standing of his family in the Colony it is certainly reasonable that this could be the case.

Thomas Armstrong, Lieutenant Colonel

The Armstrong family is very familiar to me since a Thomas Armstrong and his wife Margaret settled on property adjacent to Geoffrey Dawson’s in 1740. The two families were neighbors and a young William Dawson served as Justice in Cumberland County along with Thomas Armstrong. In 1755 Thomas Armstrong, listed as living on the Cape Fear, was referred to as a Colonel in a statement to the North Carolina General assembly. In the 1755 census of Cumberland County there is a Thomas Armstrong living at the same residence as William Armstrong who I believe was his son. As I mentioned in previous posts Thomas Armstrong was also implicated along with William Dawson in a petition to the Governor for abusing his position as a Justice. Later in 1757 Thomas Armstrong was subsequently dropped as a Justice along with Thomas Gibson (mentioned below) and James Nichols.

Thomas Gibson, Major

Although the 1755 Cumberland County Census only has a Gibson listed by his last name along with another just listed as O’Brien, there is a 1757 deed that names Thomas Gibson and Geraldus O’Bryan as co-owning 100 acres in Cumberland County on the Cape Fear River. These two notes, along with Thomas Gibson losing his seat as a Justice in 1757 suggest this may be the Major Thomas Gibson on the militia roster. Later, in 1769 Thomas Gibson of Cumberland County is found acquiring a series of properties in Anson County. In 1771 one of these purchases joins the property of “Jona. Luellen” who was probably the same Jonathan Llewellyn who lived adjacent to the Dawson’s on the Cape Fear and who was closely tied to the family. Another note about the Gibsons is that William Dawson’s eldest son, Joseph Dawson, married Elizabeth Gibson who was probably the granddaughter or niece of Thomas Gibson (3).

Hector McNeil, Captain

He is listed as one of the Scottish Argyll Colonists who came to North Carolina on the ship Thistle in 1739 and settled along the Cape Fear River. Hector McNeil acquired property on the Cape Fear just a few miles north of Geoffrey Dawson in 1740. Hector McNeil, or “Bluff Hector” as he was known, was the first Sherriff of Cumberland County. His will was probated in 1761 and one of the witnesses to this will was a Thomas Armstrong (4).

[unrecorded] Collins, Captain

This is almost certainly Thomas Collins who is listed on the 1755 census of Cumberland County. Thomas Collins served as a Justice and Clerk of the Court in Cumberland County alongside Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Gibson and William Dawson. He died in Cumberland County in 1778.

William Dawson, Captain

I feel confident this is the same William Dawson I have written about so often in the past. When looked at overall the interconnected nature of these officers in Cumberland County is striking. It is also interesting to note that several of these men died at about the same time. I’ve estimated that Thomas Armstrong died somewhere around 1758 or so and both William Dawson and Hector McNeil are both on record as having died prior to the spring/summer of 1761. Since it appears this roster was for a unit that served in the French and Indian war I wonder if these three officers may have died in during the war sometime around 1760 – 61.

Because it looks like William Dawson of Cumberland was also a militia captain there is another interesting implication from an earlier record that had had previously puzzled me. In the document, Record of the Dawson Family from 1743 to 1900 (5) where the elder William Dawson is omitted, a curious recollection is credited to William Dawson Jr. who served in the American Revolution.

“William Dawson was a Colonel in the Revolutionary War and was frequently engaged in contests with the Indians. On one occasion he had a hand to hand encounter with an Indian whom he killed by cutting his throat. He was a man noted for his courage and powers, there being but few men who could cope with him in feats of strength.”

Now, from William Dawson’s own pension records we know he had held the rank of private during the Revolution and never served as an officer. However, since his father William was a militia captain that may have served in the French and Indian war I wonder if this recollection was actually of the elder William Dawson. It would make sense for the two to be combined since the elder William was forgotten to the family by the time these family stories were written down. There is no way to ever know if this was the case but like so many things, it is certainly possible.

Bringing this back to the elder William Dawson, several important inferences can be drawn from the information described above. First and foremost, William Dawson, Esquire can have militia captain added to his list positions held during his lifetime. The evidence for this is quite strong. Second, given that Robert Rowan is known to have served in the French and Indian War it is likely that William Dawson also served during that conflict. At the very least this merits more investigation on my part. In addition, the year of death of William Dawson, Hector McNeil and Thomas Armstrong makes it possible that one or all three may have died during the war. Lastly, I think the exploits attributed to William Dawson during the American Revolution may have in fact been about his father during the French and Indian War.

None of what I am suggesting above is of absolute certainty but all of it carries with it varying degrees of likelihood and it certainly adds a new dimension to the life of the Dawson family and their community along the Cape Fear during the 1750’s.



Note 1: Cross Creek was renamed Fayetteville in 1783.

Note 2: The French and Indian War went from 1754 to 1763 and given the dates of the other rosters these appear to have been units raised during that conflict.

Note 3: The father of Elizabeth Gibson was almost certainly Patrick Gibson (their second son was named Patrick Gibson Dawson). There is a Patrick Gibson serving in the Anson County militia in 1756 and later a Patrick Gibson was involved in an armed border dispute with the North Carolina authorities in 1762 in Anson County along the boundary with South Carolina. In 1766 Patrick Gibson is recorded as purchasing property in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina. This property was just a few miles from that purchased by Joseph Dawson in 1771 just after his marriage to Elizabeth Gibson. I have suspected for some time that Patrick Gibson was either the eldest son or brother of the Thomas Gibson of Cumberland County mentioned above.

Note 4: This was probably a son of the Thomas Armstrong mentioned above.

Note 5: This is one of the recorded family folklore documents that have some factual errors probably due to it relying on the memories of family stories handed down over several generations that may have been misremembered in certain details.


Filed under Dawson, Llewllyn

Captain Joseph Dawson

During the Independence Day holiday I decided I should write a post about my direct ancestor, Joseph Dawson, who fought in the Southern Campaign during the American Revolution. Along with his brothers, (William and Jonathan) and stepfather Jefferson Williams, they all served in the South Carolina Militia during the war.

Joseph was born around 1748 in North Carolina. His father, Jonathan Dawson, had been lost at sea before he was born which left his mother Frances to raise him on her own. In all likelihood they lived on or near the Dawson Plantation along the Cape Fear River near what today is known as Averasboro.  Frances later married Jonathan Dawson’s brother, William Dawson, and he was the only father Joseph had ever known.

In 1761 William Dawson died and Frances married for a third time to Jefferson Williams when Joseph was about 14 years old. It’s hard to know what kind of person Jefferson was but among other things he was appointed as a Patroller in Cumberland County in 1763. Slave patrollers could be very rough individuals and often acted more like vigilantes than officials. I suspect that Jefferson was in the Militia (as patrollers often were) and the household was likely a less relaxed place than it had been before. There is certainly no record of how this might have affected Joseph but I do find it interesting that none of the Dawson sons (Joseph, William Jr. or Jonathan) ever named a child after Jefferson.

The family only stayed in North Carolina for a few more years after that and by 1767 they had all departed for South Carolina and settled on land in the Old Ninety-six District. The backcountry of South Carolina was some of the furthest settled reaches of the southern frontier during this time. It was certainly not an easy place to live.

This lawless state of this region eventually led to the Regulator movement during the late 1760’s. Because there was little or no official law enforcement in the backcountry the Regulators became a loosely organized group of vigilantes that acted as judge, jury and executioner when apprehending those accused of criminal behavior. Given that Jefferson Williams had recently been a patroller in North Carolina it is quite possible he became a Regulator after the family settled there.

Joseph Dawson married Elizabeth Gibson in 1770 but it is unclear if they met in South Carolina or when they were both younger back on the Cape Fear. There was a Gibson family in Cumberland County and Thomas Gibson served as a Justice at the same time as William Dawson Sr. Even if this was part of the family the evidence points to a man named Patrick Gibson as Elizabeth’s father and I have been unable to find a record of him in Cumberland County and only in South Carolina.

The first record of property purchased by Joseph was in 1771 for 100 acres on Stephenson’s Creek in what today is known as Abbeville. The location of this property is significant because only about a mile away from the land owned by Patrick Gibson and a smaller parcel owned by his brother (or son) Elias Gibson. It seems reasonable that Joseph and Elizabeth settled close to her relatives although I have never had much luck finding out much about her branch of the Gibson family.

In 1772 Joseph and Elizabeth had their first child and named him William after Joseph’s father. In 1774 their second child was born and they named him Patrick Gibson Dawson. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that this was after her father. Their son James Dawson was born next in 1775. During this time Joseph also sold what land he still owned in North Carolina.

Not long after independence from England was declared, Joseph enlisted in the South Carolina Militia at the age of 29. This was in 1777, the same year his son Ezekiel Dawson (my GGG Grandfather) was born. During this first year he served as a Captain under Lt. Colonel Andrew Pickens in the Lower District Regiment. He is described as a “gallant soldier” in one account (1).

When Joseph became a Captain it is interesting to note that officers in the Colonial Militia were actually elected by their men and that at this time older officers in the Back Country were often former Regulators. Joseph himself may have been a Regulator and was an officer of light Cavalry, also called Rangers. They weren’t true cavalry because they didn’t fight from horseback. Instead the unit would ride to the site of battle but dismount to fight on foot. They were very mobile light infantry.

In 1778 Joseph and his men were part of the forces sent on the Third Florida Expedition. Among those on expedition were also his stepfather Jefferson Williams, who had been a militia captain himself since 1776, and his brother William who Joseph recruited to serve as one of his Privates. They marched south through Georgia and into Eastern Florida during the summer of 1778 but after several skirmishes the colonial forces were defeated and they returned to South Carolina.

Joseph continued to serve in the militia and he was wounded during the Battle of Cowpens in 1781. However, he appears to have fully recovered because he was again leading his men a few months later during the Siege of Ninety-six. He remained an officer in the militia until his forces  were disbanded at the end of the war.

After the Revolution he stayed in the Abbeville area until 1797 when he departed the region. He first headed for Williamson County, Tennessee and then later to Butts County, Georgia. I read somewhere that his wife Elizabeth died around 1797 and that was the impetus for his departure from South Carolina. I have also seen Joseph’s death listed as being in 1815 but this is almost certainly inaccurate. In 1832 there was a Joseph Dawson living in Butts County, Georgia who won land in the Cherokee Land Lottery. The Joseph Dawson recorded in those documents is listed as a veteran of the American Revolution. He would have been 84 years old at the time.

As a last note I wanted to mention that the movie The Patriot takes place in South Carolina and many of the events in the film are based on the fighting that took place there during the American Revolution. Mel Gibson’s character Benjamin Martin is based primarily on General Francis Marion but also on a few others southern leaders including Colonel Andrew Pickens – the first commander Joseph served under in 1777. It’s not historically accurate but it does give a sense of the conflict and region where Joseph and his family lived during the American Revolution.


(1)  This is from the manuscript apparently written by Joseph W. Dawson in 1875. He was the son of Patrick Gibson Dawson.


Filed under Dawson, Historical Notes, Williams

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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Filed under Dawson

William Dawson Part 3: 1761

This last post about William Dawson covers the final year of his life and draws some conclusions about his family, his death, and his place in this Dawson lineage. I have spent a lot of research time on William after learning about him a few years ago, and I feel fortunate that he left a significant paper trail to follow.

His tavern license was renewed again in February 1761, but when the Cumberland County Court assembled again in May he was not present and was only listed as having “an account due”. It would appear that he was either ill or perhaps out of the area. In either case he never returned to his duties as a Justice. Only his widow, Frances Dawson, returned to the court to present William’s estate inventory during its August session.

There is a will for William Dawson mentioned in a 1770 deed but the actual document does not appear to have survived. However, in this deed dated 17 May 1770 his son, Joseph Dawson, sells 220 acres that he received from William’s “last will and testament”. This was half of the 440 acres that William purchased from Edward Connor in 1760 and which had apparently become his primary residence. The other 220 acres was left to Joseph’s brother, William Jr. What is interesting about this property is that it is divided equally between his two sons – Joseph and William – but no mention is made about his third known child, Jonathan. Jonathan was born around 1761 so it is possible that William died before making any provisions for him (1). In fact, Frances may very well have been pregnant with Jonathan at the time of William’s death.

One thing I would like to note here is the odd similarity to the stories about Frances’ first husband, Jonathan Dawson “the mariner” (who is said to have died in about 1751) and her second husband, William Dawson (who died in 1761). According to family folklore (2) Frances was supposed to have been pregnant with her third child, Jonathan Jr., when her first husband, Jonathan, died at sea. Although the dates for this version of the story don’t match the records (3), it is extremely likely that Frances was indeed pregnant with her son Jonathan when her husband died, but that this should be property attributed to William Dawson’s death in 1761. This is further supported by a complete lack of evidence that Jonathan received any inherited property although this evidence does exist for both of his older brothers.

If you add to this the record of William Dawson having “an account due” to the court, I think it is likely William was simply out of the area during its May session. Depending on where he was he may have actually been the one who was lost at sea or even in a boating accident along the Cape Fear itself.

Given the age gaps between his known children (4) I think that William and Frances had other children that have been forgotten in the family folklore. I think that after Joseph there were perhaps two other children born in around 1752 and 1755. These were possibly a daughter and then a son named Jeffrey who died while still quite young. I want to make sure I emphasize that this is pure speculation on my part and no evidence exists for them. However, In addition to these other possible siblings I think it is even more likely that there had been an older sister of Joseph’s named Mary who later married William Llewellyn (5).

You may notice that in this post I am attributing Joseph Dawson to being a son of William Dawson. As time goes on it has become harder for me to reconcile the existence of a first husband of Frances Rouse named Jonathan Dawson. I go back and forth on this frequently but there are no deeds or other records to support that Jonathan was ever married to Frances Rouse at all. Even in deeds Joseph refers to William Dawson as “my father” so these days I am inclined to think that the names Jonathan and William were simply confused in the family folklore. However, that being said, there is at least one deed where William Dawson refers to himself as the “eldest son” and “sole surviving heir” so he did have a brother. Perhaps in time this will turn out to be Jonathan Dawson. I will certainly keep an open mind about it.

After William’s death his wife Frances did marry again and with her new husband, Captain Jefferson Williams, it was not long before the entire family left the Cape Fear region and headed for South Carolina. By the outbreak of the American Revolution they were all firmly established in South Carolina’s Back County near the OId-Ninety Six district.

William Dawson may have died young but his family certainly thrived. His son’s Joseph, William and Jonathan all enlisted in the South Carolina Militia during the Revolution, served with distinction, and then went on to have large families of their own.



Note (1): I have never found any deed that suggests Jonathan Dawson (born about 1761) received any inherited property from William at all.

Note (2): the traditional account of Jonathan Dawson and Frances Rouse is that their son Joseph Dawson was born in 1745; William in 1748 and Jonathan in 1751 after his father had already died at sea in about 1750-51. I have been able to verify that the birthdates were all incorrect. If any of the children could have been born to Jonathan Dawson and Frances Rouse it would have been Joseph but that is unlikely.

Note (3): Jonathan Dawson is supposed to have been born in 1750 according to family folklore but this date is about 10 years to late from what the records suggest. In addition to the evidence pointing to a 1761 birth date mentioned above are the records about his family and his service in the American Revolution. He was the last of the three bothers to enlist with his first mention in 1781 which would make him about 20 at the time. What’s more significant is that he didn’t start a family until after the war. If the 1761 date of birth accurate then his first child would have been born when he was 37 years old and the last when he was 53. Although it still seems a bit late by the standards of his day he would have been 48 when his first child was born for the 1750 birth date to be accurate.

Note (4): Joseph Dawson was born about 1749 based on the dates of his earliest land transactions and his marriage to Elizabeth Gibson. The age of the next sibling, William Jr., is confirmed in two documents (both Revolutionary War pension applications) to have been in 1758.

Note (5): There is a Mary Dawson of unknown parentage that marries a man named William Llewellyn in about 1760’s. This William Llewellyn may have been related to Jonathan Llewellyn, the long time friend of the Dawson family.

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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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William Dawson of Cumberland: Part 1

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.

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