William Beanes

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William Beanes
By Dawn's Early Light 1912.png
"By Dawn's Early Light" 1912 painting by Edward Moran depicts the moment of the morning of September 14, 1814. Francis Scott Key with his compatriots Colonel John Skinner and Dr. William Beanes spy the American flag waving above Baltimore's Fort Mc Henry. This inspired Key to write the work to become the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Born(1749-01-24)January 24, 1749
Died(1828-10-12)October 12, 1828 (age 79)
Parent(s)William Beanes
Mary Bradley

William Beanes (January 24, 1749 – October 12, 1828) was an American physician during the U.S. colonial period.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Beanes was the third generation of the same name and the fourth generation American. He was born near Croome in Prince George's County, Maryland. Little is known of his childhood except that he is of Scottish descent. Throughout his life he spoke with a Scottish accent.[2]

His parents were wealthy and owned large parcels of land in Prince George's County. Because of this Beanes grew up in a rural environment that was comfortable. Beanes may have been tutored for his basic education or otherwise graduated from a public school. It is known that he obtained initial medical education from one of the experienced medical practitioners in his town where he lived since there was no medical college in America at this time.[2] Beanes began to practice medicine when he felt he was educated enough and qualified to do so.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Beanes married Sarah Hawkins Hanson on November 25, 1773. She was the niece of John Hanson, (1721-1783), later of Frederick, Maryland, who became the first president of the Confederation Congress of the United States (under the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union"), proposed 1777, negotiated throughout the American Revolutionary War, and finally adopted in 1781 after delays caused mainly by Maryland (held in effect until March 1789 when the new Congress of the United States began to assemble under the newly approved and ratified throughout 1788-1789, of the Constitution of September 17, 1787, and carried through with the inauguration of George Washington as first president on April 30, 1789) after acceding to the demand by Maryland that several of the original thirteen states give up and cede their western land claims beyond the Appalachian Mountains to the joint control of the Congress and the new Nation. In this annually elected office by the members of the Confederation Congress (with one house and one vote per state cast by delegates), he held the title of "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" (a title and reference used throughout that first "constitution" and loose system of government as "In Congress Assembled" as symbolizing desiring unity in most decisions made by the Confederation and weak central government) and some say technically then that he was the first "President of the United States".[2]


Beanes supported Boston's position in the resistance of the Coercive Acts and was one of the committee of Prince Georgians who put into effect the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress.[2]

Beanes offered his medical services at the first General Hospital in Philadelphia after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He also mended the wounded soldiers there from the Battle of Brandywine, Battle of Long Island and Valley Forge.[2]

Beanes bought land just outside Upper Marlboro, Maryland in 1779. Here he built a house and began practicing medicine. He was also a farmer there and owned a local grist mill.[3] In the later 18th century, Beanes was a respected medical doctor and distinguished scientist with an excellent reputation.[4] In 1799, he was one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland (MedChi) with John Archer and his son.[3]

War of 1812[edit]

Beanes was in the limelight during the War of 1812, (1812–1815), in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland. In the summer of 1814, the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay, sailed up the Patuxent River, with ships and barges, landing several regiments of soldiers near Benedict, Maryland[5] at the Battle of St. Jerome Creek. They marched to the county seat of Upper Marlboro which was about 16 miles east-southeast from Washington, D.C., the fourteen-year-old National Capital. The town was mostly deserted except for its most prominent citizen, Dr. Beanes.[5] He offered British General Robert Ross, (1766–1814), and Vice Admiral, Sir George Cockburn, (1772–1853), the use of his house as his headquarters from August 22 until the afternoon of August 23.[6] Because of this, General Ross believed Beanes was sympathetic to the British. There was no resistance to the British in town, which additionally confirmed the notion.[1]

The British continued their march onto Washington and entered Bladensburg which was about eight miles east of Washington. There they encountered American resistance in the Battle of Bladensburg, northeast of the Capital along the upper Eastern Branch stream of the Anacostia River on August 24, 1814. After a decisive victory by the British they continued to Washington and burned most of the city's public buildings, including the White House, The Capitol, the Navy Yard, and various other Federal buildings and structures in retaliation for the earlier American Burning of York, the capital of Upper Canada (later called Toronto, capital of the Province of Ontario) the year before. On their return trip back to their ships they again stopped briefly at Upper Marlboro. Some British deserters plundered some of the small farms in the area. Robert Bowie, (1750-1818), who was a farmer (11th Governor of Maryland, 1803-1806, 1811-1812) and owned some farmland in the area, decided he was going to take matters into his own hands and do something about it. He was able to get the help of Beanes, who in turn was able to get Dr. William Hill and Philip Weems to participate.[7] They then captured a few of the British Army deserters and took them to the Prince George's County Jail. One escaped and went straight away to General Ross further along down in southern Maryland on their trek back to their ships and told him about the captives.[1]

Ross was furious to think that he had been misled by Beanes' earlier hospitality and that it was perhaps just a ruse on Beanes' part. It could have been that the marauders lied, accusing Beanes of undue vehemence,[8] but in either case, General Ross immediately put out an arrest for Beanes, Bowie, and four others. British Cavalry soldiers seized Beanes, Bowie, Dr. Hill and Mr. Weems shortly after midnight, a day later. Upon receiving these men from their soldiers, Ross and Cockburn soon released Bowie and the others but took Beanes back to their ship, H.M.S. Tonnant.[1][9]

Brigadier General William H. Winder, (1775–1824), commander of the Ninth Military District in the area, appointed by fourth President James Madison in a letter dated August 31 protested to no avail.[9]

I am informed that a party from your army a few nights ago, took Dr. Beanes, a respectable, aged man out of his bed, treated him with great rudeness and indignantly took him to your camp; and that he is now on shipboard. The bearer of this goes to your camp conveying some necessaries for the doctor for his accommodation; and to ascertain what has occasioned this procedure so unusual in warfare among civilized nations. I am persuaded it will be necessary to enquire into the case to cause the doctor to be released. I am informed he is an honorable man and would not have been guilty of any act intentionally or knowingly contrary to the usages of war or derogatory to the character of a man of honor. I hope on inquiry, justice and humanity will induce you to permit the doctor to return to his family as speedily as possible.

(signed) General Winder[10]

Friends of Beanes went to Francis Scott Key, (1779-1843), a lawyer in Georgetown, (and later in Frederick) for help on the release of the elderly doctor.[11] Key got the permission of President James Madison who also sent John Stuart Skinner,[11] the U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent for the region.[9] Skinner and Key took one of Skinner's flag of truce vessels, a Chesapeake Bay cartel (the "Minden"),[12][13][14] and set out to locate the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay.[1] Skinner and Key came across the British flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. They then had a meeting with Ross who refused to release Beanes. Skinner knew Beanes and the high reputation he had. He had the foresight to collect from wounded British soldiers left behind after the Battle of Bladensburg letters of how well they had been treated by the Americans. Skinner then pulled his trump card and gave Ross the letters.[15] The soldiers wrote about what excellent medical treatment they were receiving by the Americans.[16] Ross then had a change of heart and released Beanes.[15] Skinner and Key with Beanes were allowed to go back to their ship. However, they were not allowed to go back to Baltimore. They were held eight miles off shore from Fort McHenry until the outcome of the Battle of Baltimore. Skinner, Key and Beanes had learned too much about British forces and plans of the attack on Baltimore to allow them free at that time. They were tied up to a British ship in the Chesapeake Bay and guarded by British soldiers until after the battle that started the morning of September 13, 1814. The three men watched the battle from their ship as it went into the night. There was a large flag put up at Fort McHenry that they could see. However, eventually the smoke of British gunfire, cannons, Congreve rockets and nightfall obscured the flag. They could only look and hope for the best.[1]

Tomb of Dr William Beanes sign.png

When morning came on September 14, they saw the flag was still there. Fort McHenry had not been taken by the British. The British had broken off the attack in the night and were retreating. Skinner, Key, and Beanes were released to go back home on their ship. They arrived at Baltimore on September 16. Key was inspired to write a poem of the event on the back of a letter, which ultimately became the Star Spangled Banner.[15] Beanes was the incidental cause for the reason why Key wrote the poem that led to the American national anthem.[17]

Alternative viewpoints[edit]

Some historians think it was the morning of September 13, instead of September 14, when Key saw the flag was still there and wrote his famous poem, later called "The Star-Spangled Banner".[18] Some historians think the name of the sloop / cartel that Key, Skinner, and Beanes were on when they viewed the Battle of Baltimore was instead The President.[19] A letter dated "Washington, 1856" from Chief Justice R. B. Taney, brother-in-law of Francis Scott Key, to Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson states that Key, Skinner, and Beanes were transferred back off the British vessel Surprise to their own "flag of truce" vessel usually employed as a cartel, but of an unknown name. From their own vessel they then viewed the battle and where Key was inspired to write his famous poem when he immediately jotted down the lines before being released by the British to go back to land.[20] Still another report about a Mrs. George H. Pendleton (daughter of Key) says Key wrote the poem on September 14, however also from an unnamed vessel that was of American nature, but not the British vessel Surprise.[21] Still other reports say the ship HMS Minden was not involved in the Battle of Baltimore and as far away as Java.[22][23][24]

The Boston Daily Globe reports in 1886:[21]

... Cockburn moved up the Patapaco, transferred his flag to the Surprise ...

Meanwhile Key, Skinner, and Beanes had been transferred to their own vessel under guard of British sailors to prevent their escape during the conflict. The American vessel occupied a position from which the flag at Fort MeHenry was distinctly seen.

A letter of brother-in-law of Key, a Judge Taney, says in part as reported by the Pennsylvania Magazine 1898 p. 22-3:[20]

Mr. Key and Mr. Skinner continued on board the 'Surprise', where they were kindly treated until the fleet reached the Patapsco. Admiral Cochrane then shifted his flag to this frigate, in order that he might be able to move farther up the river and superintend in person the attack ...

The same letter goes on to say:[20]

... Mr. Key and Mr. Skinner with Dr. Beanes with a guard of sailors and marines to prevent them from landing, were sent on board their own vessel; and they thought themselves fortunate in being anchored in a position which enabled them to see distinctly the flag at Fort McHenry from the deck of their vessel.

According to the Maryland Historical Society upon release of Beanes from the British, he, along with Skinner and Key, were put on the sloop Minden on or about September 8 to sail up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. They were guarded by British soldiers along with a fleet of some forty vessels going to attack Fort McHenry. The Minden had its sails removed and was towed by the British frigate Surprize. The British fleet arrived at Baltimore between September 11 and 13. The battle on Fort McHenry then began during the early morning hours of September 13. When Key saw the next morning that the flag was still flying after a fierce battle he was inspired then and there on the Minden to write on the back of a letter the poem "To Anacreon in Heaven", which ultimately became the Star-Spangled Banner.[25][26]

Later life and death[edit]

Beanes spent the remainder of his life on Academy Hill in Upper Marlboro. He died there in 1828 with his wife preceding him in 1822.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Heidler, pp 43-44
  2. ^ a b c d e Magruder, p. 209
  3. ^ a b Magruder, p. 210
  4. ^ Weybright, p. 93
  5. ^ a b Magruder, p. 211
  6. ^ Magruder, p. 212
  7. ^ Weybright, p. 110
  8. ^ Weybright, p. 111
  9. ^ a b c Magruder, p. 217
  10. ^ Weybright, p. 112
  11. ^ a b Lord, p. 240
  12. ^ Lossing, pp. 247-249
  13. ^ Type "Noyes Lincoln 1863" in the Search box of The Library of Congress America Memory images at this address to get this 1863 letter to President Abraham Lincoln, (1809-1865): "New York, Jany 3. 1863. Sir, The frigate "Minden" of the British Navy was engaged in the Bombardmnt of Baltimore during the last war with England, and the late F. S. Key, the author of the celebrated National Ode, "The Star Spangled Banner", was kept under her guns and compelled to witness the attempted destruction of that City, having gone to her with a flag of truce to release a friend. While in this condition he wrote the most, if not the whole of that great & stiring song. The "Minden" was recently broken up at Canton, and a friend now in that country Mr. Henry Dwight Williams, Esq has sent to me for your acceptance a Case made from one of her timbers. In presenting it, I congratulate you on the completion of your great act of emancipation, and believe it will bring to the aid of the Government and the cause of freedom & constitutional liberty, more "hearts of oak" than are necessary to crushing out this unholy slaveholders rebellion-- I have the Honor to be with great respect, Your friend & Servant, William Curtis Noyes."
  14. ^ See Talk for several additional references
  15. ^ a b c Magruder, p. 218
  16. ^ Lord, p. 243
  17. ^ Magruder, p. 219 Baltimore, the birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner" thus owes Prince George's County the occasion of its authorship, and the centennial anniversary which Maryland's metropolis so fittingly celebrated some weeks since should serve to inseparably link the name Beanes with that of Key, the author, with the occasion of his inspiration.
  18. ^ The Baltimore Sun, Nov 11, 1933 page 6; B.A. of C. disputes historic points
  19. ^ The Baltimore Sun, Sep 12, 1971 pM6; Some Facts About A Legend by P. W. Filby and Edward G. Howard
  20. ^ a b c The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1898 22,3 pg. 321
  21. ^ a b Boston Daily Globe, May 26, 1886 pg. 8; Amid the Battle Smoke
  22. ^ The Baltimore Sun April 6, 1955 pg. 18; People Who Make History Careless
  23. ^ The Washington Post Nov 12, 1935 pg. 20; Key not aboard Minden at time he says
  24. ^ A series of seven letters written by Commander Herbert Clifford as lieutenant on HMS Minden
  25. ^ Maryland Historical Magazine, Annual Report 1977-78. Volume 73, No. 4. December 1978. pp. 389-393 The Convivial Dr. Beanes, ISSN 0025-4258.
  26. ^ Victor, Weybright, Spangled Banner, (New York:Farrer & Rinehart, Inc 1935), pp. 117-125, says that the three Americans were "evidently" aboard the British frigate Surpize during the trip up the Chesapeake Bay, but were put back on their own small vessel Minden when they had reached Fort McHenry.


  • Heidler, David Stephen et al., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, Naval Institute Press (2004), ISBN 1-59114-362-4
  • Lord, Walter, The Dawn's Early Light, JHU Press (1994), ISBN 0-8018-4864-4
  • Lossing, Benson John, Harper's encyclopedia of United States history from 458 A. D. to 1905, Vol. 5, 1905 Woodrow Wilson.
  • Magruder Jr., Caleb Clarke, Dr. William Beanes, the incidental cause of the authorship of the Star Spangled Banner, Columbia Historical Society (Washington, D.C.), Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., The Society (1919); 207-225
  • Molotsky, Irvin, The Flag, the Poet & the Song, Penguin Putnam, Inc. 2002, ISBN 0-7838-9681-6
  • Weybright, Victor, Spangled Banner - The Story of Francis Scott Key, Read Books (2007), ISBN 1-4067-7100-7

External links[edit]