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William Dawes, Jr. (April 6, 1745 – February 25, 1799) was one of several men and a woman who alerted colonial minutemen of the approach of British army troops prior to the Battles of Lexington and Concord at the outset of the American Revolution.
Dawes was born in Boston, Massachusetts on April 6, 1745, to William and Lydia Dawes (née Boone), and baptized at Boston's Old South Church. He became a tanner and was active in Boston's militia. On May 3, 1768, Dawes married Mehitable May, the daughter of Samuel and Catherine May (née Mears). The Boston Gazette noted that for his wedding he wore a suit entirely made in North America; at the time, Whigs were trying to organize a boycott of British products to pressure Parliament into repealing the Townshend Acts.
Role in Boston's militia
On April 8, 1768 Dawes was elected as a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. He was appointed as the Company's second sergeant in 1770. When the Company was revived in 1786, after becoming dormant during the American Revolution, he was appointed as the Company clerk. His father, William Dawes, Sr., was also a member of the Company.
It is likely that in September 1774, Dawes was instrumental in helping Boston's militia artillery company secure its four small cannons from British army control. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress certainly sent word to him in February 1775 that it was time to move two of those weapons out of Boston.
Dawes was assigned by Doctor Joseph Warren to ride from Boston, Massachusetts to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775, when it became clear that a British column was going to march into the countryside. Dawes's mission was to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that they were in danger of arrest. Dawes took the land route out of Boston through the Boston Neck, leaving just before the military sealed off the town.
Also acting under Dr. Warren, Paul Revere arranged for another rider waiting across the Charles River in Charlestown to be told of the army's route with lanterns hung in Old North Church. To be certain the message would get through, Revere rowed across the river and started riding westwards himself. Later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's historically inaccurate poem "Paul Revere's Ride" would focus entirely on Revere, making him a composite of many alarm riders that night.
Dawes and Revere arrived at the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington about the same time, shortly after midnight. In fact, Revere arrived slightly earlier, despite having stopped to speak to militia officers in towns along the way, as his route was shorter and his horse faster. After warning Adams and Hancock to leave, Revere and Dawes chose to proceed to Concord in case that was the British column's goal. Revere no doubt knew that the Provincial Congress had stored munitions there, including the cannon Dawes had helped to secure. Along the way, the two men met Samuel Prescott, a local young physician, who joined them.
A squad of mounted British officers awaited on the road between Lexington and Concord. They had already arrested some riders heading west with news of the troops, and they called for Dawes, Revere, and Prescott to halt. The three men rode in different directions, hoping one would escape. Dawes, according to the story he told his children, rode into the yard of a house shouting that he had lured two officers there. Fearing an ambush, the officers stopped chasing him. Dawes's horse bucked him off, however, and he had to walk back to Lexington. He later said that in the morning he returned to the same yard and found the watch that had fallen from his pocket. Otherwise, Dawes's activity during the Battle of Lexington and Concord remains unknown.
Dawes and his companions' warnings allowed the town militias to muster a sufficient force for the first open battle of the American Revolutionary War and the first colonial victory. The British troops did not find most of the weapons they had marched to destroy, and sustained serious losses during their retreat to Boston while under attack by the colonists.
Service in the American Revolution
On September 9, 1776 Dawes was commissioned second major of the Boston militia regiment.
Also during the war, Dawes worked as a quartermaster in central Massachusetts. British POWs from the Battle of Saratoga complained to Parliament that he gave them short supplies; his family countered that Dawes believed that they were stealing from farmers while being marched to Boston – as most armies on the march were prone to do.
Dawes refused to join a punitive expedition against Indians ordered by Governor Phillip in December 1790.
His wife died in 1793. Dawes died in Marlborough, Massachusetts on February 25, 1799. He is believed to have been buried in the King's Chapel Burying Ground, though his remains may have been moved to his wife's family plot in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
The poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Paul Revere's Ride", has been criticized by modern historians for overstating the role of Revere in the night's events. Revere's may have been a better story, but Dawes and Prescott were more successful in achieving their missions. In 1896 Helen F. Moore, dismayed that William Dawes had been forgotten, penned a parody of Longfellow's poem.
The difference in Revere's and Dawes's achievement and legacy is examined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, where he concludes that Revere would be classified as a connector whereas Dawes was an "ordinary man."
Dawes's ride is commemorated on a traffic island in Cambridge, Massachusetts heavily travelled by pedestrians, at the intersection of Garden Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square, and known as Dawes Island. Dawes's passage through the area is represented by bronze horseshoes embedded in the sidewalk, as hoofprints, accompanied by an inscription giving his name and the date (inaccurately stated as April 19, 1775), and by historical displays.
William Dawes' great-grandson, Rufus Dawes, was a Civil War military officer and congressman. Rufus Dawes' children included Charles G. Dawes, who served as Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Rufus C. Dawes, a businessman, Beman Gates Dawes, a businessman and congressman, and Henry M. Dawes, a businessman and banker. Television personality Bill Schulz is another descendant of Dawes, as the grandson of Henry M. Dawes' daughter Mary.
- Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer
- "The Ride". The Descendants of William Dawes Who Rode Association. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
- Fletcher, Ron (2005-02-25). "Who's buried in Dawes's tomb?". Boston Globe.
- "The Midnight Ride of William Dawes".
- "Dawes Island". The Descendants of William Dawes Who Rode Association. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
- "The American Revolution Comes to Cambridge, Part II (Note 3) Retrieved 1 December 2012
- Cass, Judith (September 24, 1933). "Mary Dawes is Wed in Ceremony at Parents' Home". Chicago Sunday Tribune.
- David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride, Oxford University Press, 1995.
- William Dawes' grave at findagrave.com.