J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Possible Fathers for Horatio Gates

As I reported yesterday, in the early 1800s the Stevens brothers of New York saw Horace (formally Horatio) Walpole’s signature in books one of them had inherited from Gen. Horatio Gates’s widow, and decided Gates was secretly Walpole’s son.

That strikes me as a logical leap.

The simplest explanation would be that Walpole had given some books to Gates back in England. The later publication of Walpole’s letters showed that he was Gates’s godfather, so it’s conceivable that he could have passed on some books to the younger boy. (It doesn’t look like the two men had much contact after childhood.)

We don’t know what books those were, but Paul David Nelson stated in his 1976 biography of Gates that when the officer moved to America in 1772 he packed only “13 volumes of different sorts, chiefly religious.”

The only logical reason that I can see for the Stevenses to take the signature in those books as evidence of paternity is if they’d already heard whispers that Gates was the son of a prominent British man.

Historians have kept those rumors alive because it was so unusual for someone with Gates’s humble social status as son of a housekeeper (albeit housekeeper to a duke) to become a British army officer. Furthermore, in the 1740s, the same decade when Gates received his first commission, his legal father Robert Gates got a lifetime appointment as Surveyor of the Customs at Greenwich, and his older half-brother Peregrine also got an army commission. So was some very influential gentleman looking after the family?

One possibility is that the Stevens family had seen the signature not of Horace Walpole the writer but of his uncle, Horatio Walpole, the first Baron Walpole (1678-1757), pictured above. He was a diplomat with influence in the Treasury; the government appointed him a Teller of the Exchequer in May 1741, a few months before Robert Gates got his lucrative Customs post.

However, that Horatio Walpole appears to have been living happily with his wife, Mary Magdalen Walpole; they had nine children together between 1720 and 1736. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had a mistress as well, but I’ve found no evidence for a connection to the Duke of Leeds’s housekeeper.

Some authors suggested that Horatio Gates and Horace Walpole shared a father: Sir Robert Walpole, prime minister of England for many years in the early 1700s, and younger brother of Horatio. This Walpole is known to have had many mistresses.

However, by 1727-29, the period of Gates’s birth, Sir Robert had left his wife Catherine for one particular woman, Maria Skerritt. He could still have been having other affairs, of course, but this appears to have been a real love match. After Catherine died in 1737, Sir Robert married Maria. Alas, she died in childbirth the next year.

Another fact that lessens the likelihood of Sir Robert Walpole being involved with Gates’s mother is how Horace Walpole wrote, “My mother’s woman [i.e., maid] was intimate with that housekeeper.” Robert and Catherine Walpole’s households probably moved in separate circles.

(There was yet another Horatio Walpole, one generation further back. He lived 1650-1700, and married a daughter of the first Duke of Leeds, thus linking the two families. He was an uncle of the baron and the prime minister, and a great-uncle of the writer, and he died childless.)

Finally, many authors have suggested that Horatio Gates’s father was Peregrine Osborne, the second Duke of Leeds himself. He was the mother’s employer, and therefore had influence over her. Her previous son shared his name.

The weak spots in that theory are that in 1727 the duke was sixty-seven years old and only two years from dying, at which point he could no longer pull strings for the Gates family. In addition, his wife Bridget was still alive, and I see no evidence for a rift in their marriage.

Finally, Treasury Department documents tell us which British peer was looking after Robert Gates. And it wasn’t any Walpole or the Duke of Leeds.

COMING UP: How the Gates family got ahead.

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