Thursday, January 13, 2011

Further Information on the Mehetabel May Dawes Portrait

   I have received a further email from the Curator at the Evanston History Center. The Mehetabel May Dawes portrait is in their collection and the artist is listed as John Johnston, who also painted the William Dawes portrait. Johnston (Johnson) was an artillery officer in the Revolution who served in the artillery company that used the guns mentioned in the Dawes post before the war. That portrait of Dawes was most likely painted sometime after the war.
  The curator also advised that the Mehetabel May Dawes portrait has been altered to show her age later in life. The obvious question is did Johnston alter a portrait by another artist or did he alter one of his own? If I hear anymore from the curator I will post it in this blog.
   I guess I should point out that the reason the two Dawes portraits are in the Evanston, IL Historical Center is that they are located in the house which was owned by Charles Gates Dawes, who was the great-great-grandson of William Dawes Jr ,and the son BGen Rufus Dawes, commander of the famed Iron Brigade in the Civil War from 1863-1864. Charles Gates Dawes served as Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. After his wife's death, the family home was donated to be used as the center for the Evanston Historical Society.
Dawes Home/Center

Charles Gates Dawes

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Margaret Kemble Gage - Was She Warren's Agent?

 Before moving on from William Dawes Jr and Warren's use of couriers to warn of the British march into the countryside to seize the military stores at Concord, I think I should make a couple of comments on the role of Margaret Kemble Gage, General Gage's wife, and whether she was, in fact, the high placed informant upon whom Warren relied on to confirm the fact that the British were indeed moving out to Concord on the night of April 18-19, 1775. In the absence of any documentation or personal accounts, we can only speculate as to whether she was Warren's informant; any evidence is circumstantial and deductive. The historical consensus, it seems, is that she was.
Margaret Kemble Gage by John Singleton Copley.

   David Hackett Fisher's Paul Revere's Ride provides an excellent account of the events leading up to Dr Joseph Warren's dispatch of the couriers and provides an excellent summary and discussion of the evidence leading many to suspect Mrs Gage as Warren's highly placed informant.* Several things about the sequence of events that afternoon and the evidence have always troubled me.
    On the afternoon of April 18th, 1775, Boston was awash with indications that the British were about to undertake something major. British military expeditions into the countryside to seize military stores had been undertaken before and so it was anticipated that one would be undertaken again. General Gage's orders were to capture the stores at Concord. At no time did he give any orders to arrest any Patriot leaders especially Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The reasons for that are well detailed by Fisher. 
   When Dr Warren received reports of the British preparations to march, he allegedly contacted an informant with access to the highest levels of the British command. Only he knew who that source was and he carried that secret to his grave. Allegedly, that person informed Warren that Gage's plan was both to seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington and to seize the stores at Concord. If Mrs Gage was that informant, she surely got it wrong. If she was the General's confidant, she surely knew that General Gage believed that seizing any of the "rebel" leaders was a futile and, ultimately, self-defeating act. So, why would she include arresting Adams and Hancock in her report? She was intelligent enough to see the difficulties both objectives presented.
  Further, it has always bothered me as to just how Warren communicated with Mrs Gage on such short notice; and the evidence seems to indicate that Warren initiated contact with the source, not vice versa. Would he risk sending a messenger with a note or verbal message either asking for information or requesting to meet with him? (I doubt he used a dead drop.) Wouldn't that then compromise his relationship with Mrs Gage to someone else, even if Warren trusted that person implicitly? Would Warren risk attempting to contact Mrs Gage at a British HQ that was manned with officers and soldiers who would have been on high alert for any suspicious characters, especially townsmen? It just doesn't make much sense to me. Warren was one of the best known men in Boston and his appearance on the streets, especially near Gage's headquarters certainly would have been noticed. Could it be that Warren had another source who he contacted but provided him with imperfect intelligence? 
   That General Gage came to suspect his wife and determined to send her off to London that very day is without doubt. But that decision was based on the information he received from Lord Percy that day that the operation had been compromised. Percy learned of this when he approached a gathering of eight or ten men on Boston Common and inquired as to what they were discussing. He was shocked to learn that they knew of the forthcoming march to Concord and reported the details of that conversation to Gage. Most importantly, no mention was made of the plan to seize Adams and Hancock. It was at that point that Gage apparently decided that his wife could not be trusted and was leaking information to the Patriots. His relationship with his wife was shattered, irretrievably.
  Was Margaret Kemble Gage a source for Dr Warren? Perhaps. But did she that fateful day inform him of the British movements planned for that night? I need a lot more evidence to convince me that she was. Unfortunately, until such time as Dan Brown uncovers some hidden code in the Copley portrait, we shall never know.
   One last comment. Is not that Copley portrait of Margaret Kemble Gage magnificent?

 * I should point out that one must read the footnotes simultaneously with the narrative when reading Fisher.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Major William Dawes, Jr.

  David Hackett Fisher's marvelous book, Paul Revere's Ride, certainly deserves the accolades and awards it has won. My main criticism of it is that it reads too much like a polemic; an argument to make Paul Revere more important than he really was. Was Paul Revere really a Patriot leader or was he a dedicated, if at times less than competent, connector, as one historian characterizes him? A man who, because of his skills and profession, was able to move freely between social classes and serve as a conduit?  But that is a discussion for another day.
   I would like today to focus on the night of 18-19 April, 1775, and the actions of Dr Joseph Warren in sending couriers out into the countryside to warn that "the regulars were out." We have to overcome the fact that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has indelibly etched in our brains that it was "Revere's Ride" as opposed to "Warren's warnings" or "the night of the couriers" 
  There are a number of inconsistencies, inaccuracies, contradictions and mis-identifications in the various written sources for the account of Dr Joseph Warren's use of couriers to alert John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington that the regulars were out and marching in their direction.  We will never know all the precise details with dead certainty or, indeed, the actual number of couriers. Revere alone wrote three separate accounts of his famous ride and the original manuscripts have serious revisions and cross outs. In his book, Fisher resolves all of these in Revere's favor.
   The other, somewhat prominent, courier Warren employed was William Dawes Jr and it's indicative of Fisher's purpose in his book in recalling just how Fisher introduces Dawes to his readers:
   "One message had been entrusted to William Dawes, a Boston tanner. Dawes was not a leader as prominent as Revere, but he was a loyal Whig, whose business often took him through the British checkpoint on Boston neck. As a consequence the guard knew him. He was already on his way when Revere reached Doctor Warren's surgery. Another copy of the same dispatch may have been carried by a third man."
   But just who was William Dawes, why did Doctor Warren make this 30 year old Bostonian his first choice to get through the British lines, especially using the very dangerous and longer route through Boston neck, and was he just some one whom Warren found handy?

William Dawes Jr - Evanston History Center
   The Dawes family was well known and well established in Boston. The first William Dawes, a mason by trade, migrated to the colony in 1635, first settling in Braintree and then moving shortly thereafter to Boston, where he acquired a home on Sudbury Street that remained in his family for five generations until it was torn down by the British during the siege of Boston in 1775. William Dawes, Jr (Always titled Jr since his father outlived him) was born in Boston on 6 April, 1745, a little over a year later than Revere. He spent his childhood in his father's home on Ann Street in the North End. Nothing is known of the junior Dawes youth except that he learned the trade of a tanner and upon adulthood operated a "tan yard" in the North End. At the age of twenty-three, he married the seventeen year old Mehetabel May of Boston. They lived in a house opposite from the senior William Dawes and had six children. Prior to the Revolution, Dawes was elected to a number of minor Boston town offices such as warden and informer of deer. ( Boston had a number of these minor and obscure offices to be filled and many Bostonians, Samuel Adams amongst them, were selected to serve.)

Mehetabel May by John Singleton Copley who painted a number of Ms May's family and who was, at one time, a neighbor of Dawes.
   In April 1768, Dawes joined, as had his father before him, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts (originally titled the Military Company of Massachusetts) which is the oldest chartered military organization in North America and third oldest in the world. It was formed as a means of defense in 1637 by citizens of Boston who had been members of the Honorable Artillery Company of London. It received a royal charter in 1638 and then compiled a distinguished record. By 1768, the Company had been long established and had its headquarters in Faneuil Hall. Its officers were elected for one year terms and William Dawes, Jr. served as its second sergeant in 1770.*
  In February 1768, two field pieces, brass three-pounders, arrived by ship in Boston. The guns had been recast from two old guns sent to London by the town for that very purpose. They had the province arms stamped on them and were to be used by the Artillery Company of Massachusetts. These two guns, along with two others, were stored in a "gun house "at the corner of West Street.
    In January 1775, General Gage was confiscating military stores and a member of the Artillery Company vowed to surrender these guns to Gage. A number of the "mechanics" who belonged to the Company, believed to be led by William Dawes, were determined to prevent the guns surrender. One day in January 1775, the plotters, led by Dawes, met in a school house separated by a yard from the gun house. When the British sentinel guarding the gun house was distracted by a roll call, the plotters crossed the yard, entered the gun house, removed the guns from their carriages, and carried them to the school house where they were concealed under a box of wood. The loss of the guns was soon discovered and a search of the area was conducted to include the school house. The school master placed his lame foot on top of the box in which the guns were concealed and the British soldiers never disturbed the box. The guns remained in the schoolhouse for about a fortnight and escaped detection during several subsequent searches. They were then taken,  under Dawes' supervision, in the nighttime in a wheelbarrow to a blacksmith's shop and hidden under some coal.
   On 5 January 1775, The Committee of Safety directed that " Mr William Dawes be ordered to deliver to said Cheever [Deacon Cheever] one pair of brass cannon, and that the said Cheever procure carriages for said cannon__." Under these orders the cannon were sent to Waltham and were in active service throughout the Revolutionary War being used in a number of engagements.
   In lifting a cannon from its carriage in the gun house, Dawes forced one of his sleeve buttons so deeply into one of his wrists that it became embedded. Dawes waited for a day or two not daring to show the wrist to anyone; but the wrist eventually became so painful that he had to seek medical help. The only one he could trust was Dr. Joseph Warren so he approached him. It's most likely that he and Warren were already well acquainted given their political views and the fact that they lived in the same neighborhood. When Dawes entered Warren's surgery, Warren asked him, according to Dawes' granddaughter, "Dawes, how and when was this done?" Dawes remained silent and Dr Warren finally said "You are right not to tell me. I had better not know." Warren was probably astute enough to put two and two together.
   That Dawes was no friend of the British troops occupying Boston and was an ardent Patriot, there is little doubt. He scoured the countryside in an attempt to recruit allies and to obtain gunpowder. We do not know precisely the nature of these activities but, according to his granddaughter, " During these rides, he sometimes borrowed a friendly miller's hat and clothes, and sometimes he borrowed a dress of a farmer, and had a bag of meal behind his back on the horse."
   And so on that fateful night of April 18th, 1775, Dr Joseph Warren had to find reliable couriers to get the word to Lexington. Who better than Dawes, a man of military training, if not experience ; a man Warren knew to be courageous, and who made forays into the countryside? Could Warren have used him for missions previously? We have no information about that but, then again, Warren didn't keep any records and was killed at Bunker Hill before he could tell all that he knew. But certainly, Warren would want  someone reliable and who could be trusted without hesitation. And, indeed, the efforts of Dawes that night, in passing through a narrow gate closely guarded by British sentries who were suspicious of any travelers outbound through Boston neck certainly resounds to Warren's wisdom in selecting him. Dawes was remembered to have passed through the neck  "mounted on a slow-jogging horse, with saddle bags behind him, and a large flapped hat upon his head to resemble a countryman on a journey." Obviously not the image of a romantic, dashing courier on a horse galloping through towns shouting at the windows of asleep villagers, but precisely the type of man a seasoned intelligence officer would send on this mission.
  Just how Dawes got through the British sentries is not clear. Some accounts have him attaching himself to another party; others that he knew the sergeant of the guard and managed to talk his way through. One account reports that a few moments after Dawes passed through the British sentries, the guards received orders to stop all movement out of the town. Regardless, Dawes got through.
  For the purposes of this post, we need not concern ourselves with the details of Dawes' journey after he passed through the neck. What we do need to note is that Dawes was a logical choice for Warren and he was not just some "tanner" picked to go on a vital and perhaps dangerous mission. I think that Revere's advocates somehow believe that praise for Dawes or any other courier somehow diminishes " Revere's Ride" and makes his ride through the countryside somehow less worthy or heroic. I don't. But I blame it all on that Longfellow fellow.
  After Lexington and Concord, Dawes joined the militia forces in Cambridge and is said to have fought at Bunker Hill. In September, 1776, he was appointed second major of the Boston Regiment of Militia. When Boston became unsafe, he moved his family to Worcester where he was appointed Commissary by the Provincial Congress. He then went into business as a grocer with his brother-in-law and continued to ply that trade in Boston after the war. Somewhere along the way, perhaps as early as the 1770's, William Dawes injured his knee and became lame in one leg. He died at his father's farm in Marlboro on February 25th, 1799 and was buried in the King's Chapel Burying Grounds in Boston. Local Boston historians have recently determined that Dawes' body was moved a couple of times until finally, in 1882, it was interred in the May family tomb in Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain area of southwest Boston. There is no individual marker for Dawes. But, it gets even more unbelievable. Dr Joseph Warren's body was also moved to Forest Hills Cemetery in 1855.
 Today, Dawes and Warren lie buried less than 200 feet from each other.

Forest Hills Cemetery
* Some historians have characterized Dawes as a "clerk" in this artillery company, perhaps in an attempt to denigrate him. In fact, Dawes was elected a clerk of the Artillery Company at its revival in 1786, after the war was over. Before the war he was an active soldier even holding, at one point, the elected rank of sergeant.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Listen my children, while I pause, to tell of the ride of William Dawes

I am a wandering, bitter shade,
Never of me was a hero made;
Poets have never sung my praise,
Nobody crowned my brow with bays;
And if you ask me the fatal cause,
I answer only, "My name was Dawes"

'Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear --
My name was Dawes and his Revere.

When the lights from the old North Church flashed out,
Paul Revere was waiting about,
But I was already on my way.
The shadows of night fell cold and gray
As I rode, with never a break or a pause;
But what was the use, when my name was Dawes!

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.
 by Helen F. Moore, published in the Century Magazine in 1896.