February 25 1799: William Dawes Dies
On This Day…
…in 1799, William Dawes died. The first man to be dispatched on the night of April 18, 1775, Dawes carried the same message as Paul Revere, but while Revere rowed across the harbor and mounted a horse in Charlestown, Dawes went overland, galloping through Roxbury and Watertown. Both men managed to deliver the warning to Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington. They set off together for Concord, but were stopped by a British army patrol. Revere was arrested. Dawes staged a ruse and escaped. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later immortalized Paul Revere and his midnight ride. William Dawes, the other hero of that night, died unheralded.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the Patriot leaders still in Boston, received intelligence that British soldiers were about to launch a surprise raid on Lexington and Concord. Munitions had been stockpiled in Concord, and Samuel Adams and John Hancock were in residence in Lexington.
Warren tapped two men to ride out and warn the countryside. Thanks to Longfellow’s famous poem, every school child knows that one rider was Paul Revere. But the other man, William Dawes, also accomplished his dangerous mission that night.
In April 1775, William Dawes had just turned 30. He lived in the North End with his wife and growing family. Historians aren’t sure how Dawes came to the attention of Dr. Warren, but he was a good choice.
Although he had no love for the British authorities, he had not been visibly active in the struggle against the Crown. This meant that, unlike Paul Revere, he was not a marked man. In fact, his frequent contact with Regular soldiers was an advantage. He was tanner, and his business often took him out of Boston. Redcoats on guard duty were unlikely to stop him leaving town. He was also something of a "ham" and could do an excellent imitation of a drunken farmer if he needed to.
Warren summoned Dawes at 9:00 pm on April 18th and gave him a written message for Adams and Hancock. Later, he would give an identical message to Revere, in the hope that one of the two riders would make it to their destination. The terse warning said simply, "A large body of the King’s troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12 or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston and gone to land at Lechmere’s point."
Dawes set out immediately "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."
There were only two possible routes out of Boston that night. One could cross the narrow strip of land called the Neck that connected Boston to Roxbury or row across the harbor to Charlestown. The Redcoats had both ways carefully guarded, but Dawes somehow managed to elude — or deceive — the guards. Luck was on his side; a few moments after he slipped past the sentries, they received an order that no one was to be allowed out of town.
Once Dawes was on his way, Warren directed Paul Revere to row across the Charles River under the shadow of the King’s ships anchored there. Both Dawes and Revere faced danger and long odds, but with the men taking different routes, there was a chance that at least one of them might succeed.
While Revere rowed towards the mount awaiting him in Charlestown, William Dawes was riding through Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown, and Waltham. He had to proceed cautiously. The British had stationed patrols along the major road out of the city. Dawes apparently moved silently through the towns on his way to Lexington. Whether by design or because the people living along his route were strangers to him, he spoke to no one between Boston and Lexington. He successfully evaded the British Regulars, which was a good thing. Had he been caught, his mission would have been considered treasonous; he could well have been hanged for it.
Amazingly, both men reached Lexington that night. Revere arrived first, around midnight. Dawes’s route was several miles longer than Revere’s and his horse slower, so he arrived a half-hour later. Each man delivered Dr. Warren’s message to Hancock and Adams, who were staying with the town’s minister.
After a brief rest and some refreshment, Revere and Dawes set out together to rouse Concord. They were joined by a local Patriot, Dr. Samuel Prescott. The three stopped at houses along the way, spreading the word. About halfway to Concord, with Revere riding somewhat ahead, they ran into a British army patrol. Revere was taken prisoner. Prescott escaped and rode off to warn Concord.
With two Redcoats in pursuit, the quick-witted Dawes decided to try a ruse. He galloped up to a vacant farmhouse, stopping his horse so quickly that he was thrown to the ground. He jumped up and yelled as if to sympathizers in the house, "Halloo, boys, I’ve got two of ’em!" Fearing that they were about to confront a large number of angry colonials, the soldiers galloped away. The trick worked. Dawes, whose horse had run off, limped back to Lexington. According to family lore, he retraced his steps several days later to recover the watch he had lost in the spill.
Although William Dawes never acquired the fame of Paul Revere, his achievement was not entirely forgotten. Another family tradition has it that when General Washington visited Boston in 1789, he danced a minuet with one of Dawes’s daughters. Washington, it is said, expressed admiration for her father’s courageous deed.
Dictionary of American Biography
Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, by Esther Forbes (Houghton Mifflin, 1942).
Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1994).
The Siege of Boston, by Donald Barr Chidsey (Crown Publishers, 1966).
William Dawes and his Ride with Paul Revere, by H.W. Holland (Privately printed, 1878).
National Society Sons of the American Revolution
"Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing."
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791