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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Monday, December 21, 2009

Robert Gates and the Customs Service

I’m getting back to Gen. Horatio Gates’s foggy family history, starting with his father’s relationship to the British Customs service.

In The Generals of Saratoga, Max M. Mintz reports that in 1724 Robert Gates was caught rowing “nine hogsheads of French wine” to shore. He blamed the importer, but the court came down hard on him anyway, with a fine of £104.5s.

That was a huge amount for a Thames waterman, and Gates still hadn’t paid the fine five years later. On 20 Feb 1729 the Commissioners of the Customs reported on a petition he had submitted, and on 29 April the Treasury communicated

To the Attorney General for the entry of a non-prosecution to an information against Robert Gates, husbandman, for being concerned in running goods.
In other words, the authorities forgave him.

Not only that, but on 10 July the Customs office appointed Gates as a tidesman, a low-level official responsible for searching and guarding ships.

I found those last two items on British History Online, one of the resources I list on the left here. But, I have to admit that I didn’t think to search that database until I’d stumbled into a reference through Google.

At one point Mintz’s Generals of Saratoga refers to Robert Gates’s wife with the surname of her first husband: “Dorothy Reeves.” I’d already read that she had an older son named Peregrine, so I did a Google search for “Peregrine Reeves.”

And what I found through British History Online was that on 9 Dec 1729 the Customs service appointed Peregrine Reeves a waterman in the London port—an even lower but still steady government position, coming within months of his stepfather’s hiring.

Earlier I wrote, based on a statement in Paul David Nelson’s biography of Gates, that Peregrine Reeves received an army commission in the 1740s. I haven’t found any record of that, and such commissions were widely reported in Britain. So I now wonder if Nelson read a reference to Reeves’s Customs commission in a family letter and misinterpreted it.

Jobs with the Customs service brought steady salaries, insulated from the ups and downs of the market, for as long as one was physically able to do the work. There was a lot of unemployment in Georgian London, so those positions were desirable. That one family secured two jobs within a year suggest that someone with influence had started pulling strings for them.

The Treasury records offer a few more glimpses of Robert Gates through the years. In November 1740 he asked to be “removed from being a boatmen in London port to be a waterman in the searcher's boat at Windsor.” In June 1738, the department granted him a leave of absence as “one of the watermen in London port.”

Finally, on 21 Aug 1741, as I reported before, the Treasury decided:
Robert Gates, a waterman to the coastwaiters, London port, at the recommendation of the Duke of Bolton, is to succeed Mr. Horrex (preferred to be an inspector of the river) as surveyor of Greenwich. William Brooker to succeed Gates.
The Surveyor’s job paid £60 per year, plus a percentage of the value of seized contraband. Robert Gates was thus in a position to help his son Horatio become an officer and a gentleman.

Before moving on to how the Duke of Bolton appears to factor in all this, I’ll note a curious entry in the Treasury records for 2 Feb 1734:
Thos. Gates, waterman, London, to be surveyor of Greenwich, loco [i.e., in place of] Thos. Dorrell, deceased.
Was “Thos. Gates” an error for “Robert Gates,” being pushed for a higher position seven years before he actually got it? Other sources show that William Smith was the Surveyor at Greenwich from 1725 through his death in 1736, so who was the late “Thos. Dorrell”? I can’t find those names anywhere else in the records, so basically I can’t explain that entry at all.

TOMORROW: Dukes and Gateses.

(Photo of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich above by RachelH_, via Flickr. Greenwich is probably my favorite neighborhood—or favourite neighbourhood—of London.)


Anonymous said...

Horatio Gates had an uncle, Thomas Gates, brother to Robert Gates. HG's second wife, Mary V. Gates, refers to this uncle in her 1810 NYC will. That limb of the family line continued down through Elizabeth Gates Cousins (Cuzzons, Cousens).

HG's mother's earlier marriage was to a (Thomas) REEVE, no "s" at the end. Sometimes it appears as Reeves, but you have to check for both in whatever records.

Run REEVE through the Treasury records you mentioned here. We find that the Lords of Treasury on 12 April 1729 took up the petition of DEBORAH REEVE(S), "To be restored to His Majesty's bounty of 15L. at Christmas in consideration of the murder of her son in the service of the Customs" (Register of Papers VI. 133). As of the mid-1730s, she was annually receiving a L10 bounty.

Coincidences: [1] On that same day came a Warrant from the Lords of the Treasury to the Attorney General for a non-prosecution of Robert Gates, husbandman, for being concerned in running goods. The appended report from Customs 20 Feb 1728 OS/1729 NS, notes Gates's petition for leave to compound (Customs Book XII. pp. 362-3). RG's move up through Customs began a few months later, 10 July 1729.

[2] On 8 April 1729, the Lords of the Treasury directed a payment of L375 to Peregrine Duke of Leeds as the King's bounty (King's Warrant Book XXIX, p. 305).

Peregrine Reeve(s) was christened 23 March 1712/12 in Greenwich London, son of Thomas (shipwright) and Dorothy Reeve(s). He was buried at St. Dunston and All Saints Parish, Middlesex, 20 Feb 1776. This information fits with Walpole et al. in a timeline for Dorothy Gates as an "older woman" when she had Horatio, as Peregrine was born more than 15 years before Horatio.

I would say, let's check out the details of that murdered son of Mrs. Deborah Reeve(s). If that was Horatio's biological father--and Robert Gates married her after the fact of conception, perhaps to help Dorothy and to squash rumors about paternity--this would help explain the curious kindness many socially elevated types showed Horatio Gates in his childhood and early adult years, as well as the help evidently given Robert Gates by already well-situated REEVE people in Customs.

(Eileen Scully, Bennington College, VT)

J. L. Bell said...

Very interesting, thanks. If Thomas Reeve was killed while working for the Customs service, leaving a pregnant widow, then I can see her remarrying but I don’t see a need to conceal the paternity of that baby.

On the other hand, if Thomas Reeve was killed earlier, and his widow remarried and had a child by her new husband, then her relations, the Customs service, and wealthy patrons may still have been motivated to do favors for the family.

Anonymous said...

Eileen from Bennington....I tend to agree with your closing thought that Horatio Gates himself was likely the source of these rumors during his own lifetime. Having read the Gates Papers through and through, I don't share Mintz's sense that these rumors were painful to Gates. Quite the contrary.

By the way, what a really terrific space you've created, Boston 1775.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Eileen! If you have a brief essay on Gates’s parentage that you want to share, I’d be happy to run it as a “guest blogger” post. Sounds like you’ve found some christening records that previous researchers were still searching for.