The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

New Acquisition: William Dawes Account Book

The Massachusetts Historical Society has recently acquired a rare account book of William Dawes, Jr. (Ms. N-2321 Tall; catalog record), the man most famous for riding with Paul Revere on the night of 18 April 1775 to warn the inhabitants of Lexington and Concord that British regulars were on the march. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then at Lexington, were in imminent danger of arrest. Dr. Joseph Warren commissioned Revere and the 30-year-old Dawes - a Boston militiaman and member of the Sons of Liberty - to spread the warning. Though neither man reached Concord, Dawes' achievement that night was as great, and arguably even greater, than Revere's: his land route over the Boston Neck was longer, and he managed to escape the British ambush in which Revere was captured. But Dawes' role in the "midnight ride" has largely been overlooked, due in part to the popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which credited Revere with sole responsibility.

When he wasn't rousing the colonists to revolt, Dawes worked as a tanner and grocer in Boston. During the Siege of Boston, he moved his growing family to Worcester and served in the war effort as quartermaster for the colonial troops. After the Revolution, he returned to Boston. This account book documents in detail his tanning and grocery business from 1788 to his death in 1799. Dawes had extensive dealings with a wide range of Massachusetts merchants and tradespeople, including shoemakers, carpenters, printers, ship captains, hatmakers, and blacksmiths, to name just a few. Neatly itemized in this tall, narrow ledger book are cash transactions, sales, and purchases of textiles, skins, tools, rum, tea, tobacco, candles, indigo, and many other products.

Many of the names that appear in Dawes' account book are those of well-known New England families: Adams, Fessenden, Parsons, Sweetser. Also included are a handful of women, among them Susanna Wiley and Mrs. Elizabeth Belcher, as well as one man called simply "Cato, a black man." Dawes also lists transactions with his sons William and Charles.

One intriguing entry reads: "This day (Sept 25th 1797.) I formally demanded my horse, of Mr. Saml Adams, Truckman, occupier of Lovell's Island (so called) at present Sd Adams, who took charge of the Horse, to pasture on Sd Island (1797. Augt 2d) says the horse is killed.........By whom?"

What makes this acquisition exciting is that so few records exist of Dawes' life and work, and very little is known about him except for his famous ride. The MHS appears to hold most of the extant papers related to Dawes and his family, but these consist of only a few small collections. This volume shines new light on the life of a man whose legacy has remained in relative (and undeserved) obscurity.


permalink | Published: Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 8:18 AM


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