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, October 05, 2006

Did William Dawes Do More than Paul Revere?

On 18-19 April 1775, Paul Revere was one of two messengers from Boston who brought news of the approaching British army to the Clarke parsonage in Lexington. The other, he wrote, was "a Mr. Wm. Daws"—tanner William Dawes, Jr. He had left Boston earlier in the evening, taking the longer land route to Lexington, and arrived about half an hour after Revere. Then the two men rode on together toward Concord.

After Henry W. Longfellow published his poem "Paul Revere's Ride" in 1860, some in the Dawes family began to feel that history was slighting their man. In 1878 great-grandson Henry W. Holland privately published William Dawes and His Ride with Paul Revere, culling quotes from available sources and preserving family lore. (Reprint copy available from Quintin's Family History Centre.)

That fall Longfellow complained that Holland “convicts me of high historic crimes and misdemeanors. How they rode together, when one went over the Brighton bridge…and the other through Malden, does not very distinctly appear.” (I'm quoting from Jayne Triber's biography of Revere, A True Republican.) And of course Dawes and Revere didn't ride together until after they left Lexington for Concord. But Longfellow's poem didn't mention Dawes at all.

In 1896 Helen F. Moore composed a poetic complaint in Dawes's voice using Longfellow's metre, published in the Century Magazine. It concludes:

History rings with his silvery name;
Closed to me are the portals of fame.
Had he been Dawes and I Revere,
No one had heard of him, I fear.
No one has heard of me because
He was Revere and I was Dawes.
Adequate poetic kvetching, but there are a couple of flaws in the argument:
  • In the late 1700s and 1800s, the Dawes name was prominent in American politics and letters, better known than that of Revere. Important men of the clan included Judge Thomas Dawes of Boston, his son Rufus Dawes the legal poet, and Sen. Henry Dawes of the "Dawes Act."
  • The names "William Dawes" and "Paul Revere" have exactly the same rhythm (BOM-dee-BOMP), which is why Moore could write her verse in the same metre as Longfellow. And it's as easy to find a rhyme for "Dawes" as for "Revere."
The names had nothing to do with Longfellow's choice.

So why did Longfellow write about Revere rather than Dawes? Because Revere left a vivid, detailed, first-person account of the start of the Revolution that historians have used since 1798. The Massachusetts Historical Society's founder, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, had asked Revere to write down his memories of the ride to Lexington (and of the Dr. Benjamin Church affair), later publishing that document through the society.

Now we might ask why Belknap had contacted Revere and apparently not Dawes, who didn't die until 1799. Part of the reason was no doubt that Revere was more visible in Boston business and politics while Dawes had moved out to Marlborough. But another part was that Belknap knew from personal connections that Revere had more to say.

The silversmith was one of the relatively few mechanics in the top echelons of the Boston Whigs. He had attended strategy meetings, engraved political cartoons, hosted the first commemoration of the Boston Massacre, served on town committees, and joined in the Boston Tea Party. In fact, as David H. Fischer showed in his most excellent history Paul Revere's Ride, Revere was second only to Dr. Joseph Warren in participating in different Patriot groups.

Dawes was also active in pre-Revolutionary politics, to be sure. He got married in a symbolic homespun suit. He was adjutant (or clerk) of the Boston militia regiment. He helped the Boston artillery train secretly remove their weapons from the army-occupied town in the winter of 1774-75. And obviously Dr. Warren trusted him with the important task of warning John Hancock and Samuel Adams about the British march. But Dawes was not as active as Revere. I like the guy, I drafted a lot of the Wikipedia article about him, but he just wasn't as big a player.

Furthermore, Revere did more for the provincial forces on 18-19 April. He alerted militia leaders along his route to Lexington; Dawes didn't, and consequently the companies north of the British march turned out hours ahead of the companies to the south. Dawes escaped being captured by British officers, but he doesn't seem to have taken advantage of his freedom to do anything more. In contrast, Revere kept working after he was captured and released. He got Hancock and Adams away from Lexington at last, then went back to hide Hancock's papers, and finally sat in on the Patriot leaders' next strategy meeting a couple of days later.

Longfellow didn't write accurate history in "Paul Revere's Ride," but he was accurate about the relative importance of Paul Revere.


Anonymous said...

I was recently told by my grandfather that I might be related to Mr. William Dawes. My grandmother's maiden name was Dawes. I'd love to learn more!

Anonymous said...

I was told that I was related to William Dawes through my grandmother too. Do you have anymore information?

J. L. Bell said...

The reprinted book I mentioned in this article offers a Dawes family genealogy (including collateral branches) up through its publication in the late 1800s, as well as anecdotes about some well known Daweses. Past that point, one might have to do one’s own family research to verify a connection.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression there were 3 riders, Prescott, Rever, and Dawes.

J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Samuel Prescott joined Revere and Dawes as they rode west from Lexington toward Concord. He therefore wasn’t one of the riders from Boston. But he was the only one of that trio who made past the British officers to Concord.

In addition to those three men, there were many others on the roads that night, most of them not remembered by name. The colonial alarm system worked like a nuclear chain reaction: each town, once alerted, was supposed to send out more messengers.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, thank you for clearing it up. =)

Anonymous said...

I am a descendant of Dawes and you can trace your history from http://www.wmdawes.org/. Hope to meet you soon cousins!

Roger W Hancock said...

For a more accurate account of the Ride of William Dawes and Paul Revere, check out the poem 'Liberty Ride of Dawes, Revere'
- http://www.poetpatriot.com/poemspatriotic5&6.htm#Liberty_Ride

Other Links you might enjoy:

Rhymes of the Founding Fathers
- http://www.poetpatriot.com/poems-rhy.libertyfathers.htm

Black Patriot Rhymes
- http://www.Black.PoetPatriot.com

Women Patriot Rhymes
- http://www.Women.PoetPatriot.com

Rhymes of Liberty
- http://www.Liberty.PoetPatriot.com

Patriotic Poetry
- http://www.Patriotic.PoetPatriot.com