Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Spy Who Eluded Me, Part 2: War and Captivity

Typical attire of a soldier in
the Royal Fencible American
The Spy Who Eluded Me, Part 1: Across the Sea

Civil unrest in the New England colonies had erupted into destruction and violence. The self-styled Patriots—rebels in the eyes of those loyal to the King—declared their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. Twenty-three days later—one day short of the third anniversary of his father’s death—David Dobson enlisted in the Royal Fencible Americans at Fort Cumberland, Nova Scotia. Under the command of Colonel Joseph Goreham, the Loyalist regiment braced itself for the anticipated incursion of rebel forces into Nova Scotia. They didn’t have long to wait.

The Eddy Rebellion, named for Cumberland settler Jonathan Eddy, presented a threat to the future of Nova Scotia. Eddy and his supporters believed that Nova Scotia should follow New England’s example. Loyalist settlers preferred their emotional bond to the monarchy.

November 1776 proved a pivotal month in the life of Private David Dobson. On November 5th, he was sent by Goreham to assess Eddy’s forces. His was a spying mission, albeit unsuccessful. When he did not report back by November 7th, he was presumed to have deserted or been captured. Goreham maintained faith in his operative, however, and David was officially listed among those captured by the rebels.

By November 12th, those prisoners were relocated to Boston, presumably to be kept in a military stockade. That Private Dobson avoided being executed as a spy spoke either to his luck or his personal charm. Since good fortune seemed in short supply, his personality must have dazzled.

David’s brother, George Jr., was the only adult male remaining on the Dobson homestead. Brother-in-law William Wells was near at hand, but he had his own growing brood with which to contend--not to mention the shadow of his apparent involvement with Eddy's rebels. When George was pressed into service aboard a Yankee privateer, management of the farm would have fallen to his mother.

Perhaps coincidentally, both David Dobson and George Dobson were listed among dozens of Loyalists held aboard the brig Rising Empire and scheduled for a prisoner exchange in 1778. Family tradition holds that George was released and allowed to return home due to ill health. But is it possible that the brothers were imprisoned and exchanged together?

Prisoner exchange list, page 1
Prisoner exchange list, page 2
Following the exchange, David's whereabouts become a mystery. Does he return to the family homestead with George? Or does he perhaps continue his military experience? Part 3 will focus on what might have happened.


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Spy Who Eluded Me, Part 1: Across the Sea

When I started researching my family tree in 1990, I quickly hit a brick wall in the form of my fifth great grandfather, David Dobson. Available records were limited to a one-line entry on an 1817 tax record, which revealed he was over 50 years old and of English origin (not very helpful).

But good fortune (mostly in the form of other researchers, including but not limited to members of the Dobson Family History Group) stepped in over the next eight years, bringing more documents into play and shedding a brilliant light on David's "lost" story.

David Dobson was christened 29 May 1753 at Ingleby Arncliffe, Yorkshire, England. The fifth child of George and Mary (Barker) Dobson, David spent the first 20 years of his life in Yorkshire. His remaining years were spent primarily in Atlantic Canada.

David never knew his paternal grandparents, Richard and Margaret (Watson) Dobson, or his maternal grandfather, George Barker. They all died before he was born. His maternal grandmother, Sarah (Carter) Barker, passed away when he was thirteen. From the age of three, David was well acquainted with death. He witnessed the burials of ten of his thirteen sisters by the time he turned seventeen.

His father was a devout follower of the teachings of John Wesley, often entertaining the controversial minister in his own home. While far below the £30 contributed by John Oastler, George’s investment of just over £2 in the “New Room,” a Methodist meeting house in Thirsk, was the second highest on record.

The lure of a distant shore and the will to spread Wesley’s teachings prompted George to remove to Nova Scotia with his wife and surviving children in 1773. David—with his siblings Margaret, George Jr., Elizabeth, Mary (a.k.a. Polly), Richard and John—was apparently supportive of his father’s decision. Given his later migrations, David may have done more than simply go along with his father’s decision.

Margaret made the journey with her husband, William Wells, another staunch supporter of Wesley. They had already started a family in Thirsk, and Margaret was expecting another child as they made ready to leave England.

Dobson family arrives in Boston (The Boston Post-Boy, 19 April 1773)
George Dobson and William Wells were released as “New Room” trustees on 4 February 1773, on grounds of “going into foreign parts.” They probably set sail with their families immediately thereafter. Family legend holds that Jane Wells was born during the Atlantic crossing. (Another source gives her birth date as 23 February 1772—which, allowing for resistance to the new calendar, should probably be 1773.) The families landed first at Boston, Massachusetts, where they remained for several weeks. Tragedy struck in April with the death of five-week-old Jane. She was buried in Boston, a permanent reminder of her family’s passage through the city.

Perhaps prompted by grief, as well as the growing unrest of the Boston colonists, the Dobson and Wells families pressed on with their journey. They landed at Nova Scotia on 18 June 1773, settling near Fort Cumberland at Point de Bute.

One might say that the new land welcomed George Dobson with open arms. He fell ill within a month of his arrival and passed away five days later, on 28 July 1773, at age 52. He had been in Nova Scotia exactly 30 days. George must have realised his time was near, for he drew up his will one day before his death. In it, he left everything to his beloved wife, Mary, with the stipulation that his two oldest sons—George Jr. and David—and son-in-law William Wells should each be entitled to a fifth of the land upon payment to Mary of £30 each.

George’s early death is too ironic to be ignored. The entire family must have been in turmoil. They’d packed up lock, stock and hollyhock, all because Papa wanted a new start, and they’d been left to deal with unfamiliar territory without him. Admittedly, many of his children were adults by then and fully capable of fending for themselves, but they still had to consider their mother and the younger children.

Mary Barker was far from being a shrinking violet, of course. She bore 18 children and still managed to outlive all but a few members of her family. Having lost many of her children in infancy, she was more than a little familiar with death. This was not a woman with a weak constitution. Doubtless her will was just as strong. I can imagine her taking charge after her husband’s death, guiding her grown sons through the task of establishing a viable farm in their new home of Point de Bute. George’s passing would have caused her tremendous grief, initially, but she probably recovered quickly, through both necessity and practice.

On 6 May 1774, David’s uncle Richard Dobson arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard the ship Albion. He had come from Yorkshire to settle the estate of his younger brother, George. Richard’s first wife and only child had died in the 1720s, and he had not seen fit to remarry until 1770. He remained in Cumberland the rest of his brief days, passing away 2 April 1775. He was buried next to George in the cemetery near Fort Cumberland. Since Richard had no sons, he left the majority of his assets—including a freehold estate in Yorkshire—to George Jr. and David. Like his brother, Richard attached stipulations to his bequests. His nephews were to pay all his debts and act as executors of his estate.

David Dobson's signature (from a 1776 document)
Events elsewhere in the colonies, however, were about to disrupt both their lives.