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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Thursday, April 17, 2014

William Dawes Tells a Good Story

On 17 June 1875, Harriet Newcomb Holland wrote down the stories she’d heard about her grandfather, William Dawes (shown here in a portrait by John Johnson).

Holland had heard those tales from her mother, Dawes having died ten years before she was born. Her recounting was published by her son Henry Ware Holland in a book printed in limited numbers for members of the family—in other words, not a critical audience.

Holland’s description of William Dawes’s ride on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775 was brief though, she said, “specific”:
I do not remember ever hearing that he was made a prisoner; but I know he thought himself pursued by two horsemen who were following him, and rode rapidly up to a farm-house, slapping his leather breeches, and stopping so suddenly that his watch was thrown from his pocket, and shouting “Halloo, my boys! I’ve got two of ’em.”

His pursuers turned their horses and rode off; but he did not stop to pick up his watch, though he found it there some days afterwards in safe keeping.
It’s a great story, and it fits right into a beloved American narrative of fooling the British through clever tricks. For that reason, I wondered whether Dawes might have constructed that story for his relatives’ entertainment. I wanted it to be true, but I had to wonder.

I was therefore pleased to find that on 3 May 1775 Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy (P.D.F. available through Teach US History) published a report of the Battle of Lexington and Concord that included this story about the riders from Boston:
When the expresses got about a mile beyond Lexington, they were stopped by about fourteen officers on horseback, who came out of Boston in the afternoon of that day, and were seen lurking in bye-places in the country till after dark.

One of the expresses immediately fled, and was pursued two miles by an officer, who when he had got up with him presented a pistol, and told him he was a dead man if he did not stop, but he rode on until he came up to a house, when stopping of a sudden his horse threw him off; having the presence of mind to hollow to the people in the house, “Turn out! Turn out! I have got one of them!” the officer immediately retreated as far as he had pursued:

The other express after passing through a strict examination, by some means got clear.
The “other express” was, of course, Paul Revere.

Thomas had just relocated his newspaper to Worcester. Dawes must have been there as well. He settled his family in that town during the siege and was still there as a shopkeeper when British P.O.W.s passed through after Saratoga. (They complained he overcharged them.) Obviously Dawes was describing how he’d scared off his pursuers within two weeks of the ride, providing a solid basis for the family tradition.


Derek Beck said...

I'm glad you found this confirmation. I wanted to believe it too!

Mary Jean Adams said...

I love all the additional detail that is coming out about this pivotal point in history as more people are getting interested in the Revolution. While Revere got the poem, Dawes definitely deserves his share of the credit. And maybe a bit should be thrown to Dr. Prescott, too. As I understand it, Dawes never made it to Concord. Prescott did though - even though they had just picked him up along the way. And Revere made it too, but late - after being let go by the British.

J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Prescott, who knew the back roads, was the only rider of the three who made it to Concord. Revere got back to Lexington and did more there. We don't know what more Dawes did that night.

John Johnson said...

Great story. I love it when great stories like this turn out to be true, because so many of them end up being embellished or completely fabricated.

Also it was a bit disconcerting seeing my name in print on your blog.

J. L. Bell said...

"John" is a common name, and "Johnson" a common surname, but the combination is indeed rare. The Boston painter's name sometimes appears as "John Johnston," but usually it's in the form you know well. Apprentice to decorative painter John Gore, whose youngest son built Gore Place in Waltham, Johnson became a Continental Artillery officer. I think this Dawes portrait and his sketch of the Green Dragon Tavern are his best known works.