By Betsy Cross Thorpe
“We were taught over and over again what steps to take in case of an approaching tornado. Listen for sirens, go to your basement or cellar, or a closet in the center of your house, duck and cover, wait it out.. We talked about it at home. The newscasters reminded us. We practiced. But we’d never— not once— discussed what to do after.”
― Jennifer Brown
I work Monday nights as a closing server at IHOP. The IHOP I work at closes at eleven on weeknights. I generally get home around midnight. This night was no different.
I had only been home about thirty minutes when I heard the siren sound.
The piece I planned to write would tell how my fourth great grandfather, William Dawson, and his family were forced out of their home by a band of lawless men during the Great Louisiana Hurricane, of August 19, 1812.
An outline of the story sat on my desk in front of me. My plan was to tell the story in two or three short paragraphs, post it on my blog and go to bed.
That didn’t happen.
Outside, the siren blew and the wind whistled and whirled while I huddled inside. I waited out the storm in a designated safe room with my worried daughter, two sleepy granddaughters, an inconvenienced Siamese cat, a frightened Pit Bull, and a Chihuahua eager to attack the storm.
Hunkered down in that room I started thinking about my long-gone relatives. I tried to imagine the fright that overcame them the night of the hurricane when a pack of wild dogs and a band of lawless men appeared at their door.
What were they doing when the outlaws rushed into their cabin?
Did William Dawson hear the dogs barking before the men appeared or did they take him by surprise?
Was his son, my third great grandfather, seventeen-year-old Thomas a good big brother to fourteen-year-old Samuel, twelve-year-old Mary Jane, and six-year-old Robert? Was he entertaining them, trying to distract them from the hurricane when terror came knocking?
Was William’s wife Dinah McCormick Dawson holding baby Fanny in her arms when the bad men started making threats and demands?
As a violent rotating column of air roared above our house I imagined the shock I would feel if our home was suddenly invaded by a group of criminals who threatened our lives and forced us to flee into the wind ravaged night.
I knew then that the story I planned to tell about William Dawson and his family was no longer the story I would tell. The story is bigger than the mere genealogical anecdote I had planned to write. It is a tale full of real life human suffering.
With sympathy for the trauma my ancestors suffered and out of gratitude that they survived. I am compelled to tell a deeper and more meaningful story so that everyone who reads this blog post can understand the reality and seriousness of the disaster that befell my relatives on that dark and stormy night so very long ago.
HOW I LEARNED OF THIS STORY
I learned that my fourth grandparents, William and Dinah Dawson were chased out of their home during a hurricane while I was reading a book titled Our Dawson Kin. The book traces the lineage of William and Dinah Dawson down to my mother’s generation. It was compiled by a distant cousin, Sally Morrrison Patin. I have never met this cousin but I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank her for compiling such a comprehensive and interesting genealogical record of our shared family history.
I conduct all my genealogical research for this side of my family with my aunt Gerry Roe. My aunt and I have a different approach to genealogy. But we work well together and make a great team.
She knows who begat who and can place just about any family name in its proper place on our extensive family tree.
Me? I work to discover what was happening in my ancestor’s world during their lifetime. That allows me to give them and their actions historical context.
LOUISIANA HURRICANE AUGUST 19, 1812
On 9 July 1812, news that three weeks earlier the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., had declared war on Great Britain arrived at New Orleans, the location of the US naval station the farthest from the nation’s capital. Captain John Shaw, USN, commandant of the station, had at his command some four hundred officers and men, distributed among two brigs of war and eleven gunboats. Just as Captain Shaw was attempting to set his small force on a war footing, a devastating hurricane struck the Mississippi delta. The 19 August hurricane was the worst experienced there in years. It set back military preparations many months.
An excerpt from a report from Captain John Shaw to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton is posted below.
New Orleans, August 23, 1812
I greatly deplore the necessity I am under of communicating to you, the calamitous condition of the small naval force attached to this station–of the City of New Orleans–and, as I presume, of the surrounding Country; produced on the afternoon and night, of the 19th instant, by a hurricane (from the N.E.) which, both in violence and duration, exceeded anything of the kind, within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant of the country:
The Brig Enterprize, which, by considerable exertion, I had got fully manned was driven ashore, high & dry…….
In November of 1803, one month after the US Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, William Dawson, along with his older brother Thomas Dawson and fifty eight other male US citizens signed an oath to remain loyal to the United States of America before taking possession of tracts of land they each had obtained from the Spanish government some time before.
The tracts they obtained were located outside the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase about one hundred miles from the city of New Orleans, in an area known as Feliciana Parish.
The terrain of Feliciana Parish was marked by tree covered hills. Ancient cypress, majestic oak, and evergreen pine trees dominated the landscape. Bears and wolves roamed the hills.
The land was uninhabited by humans when the settlers arrived. Spain had allowed wood choppers from Virginia to settle the area to fulfill a pressing need. Shipwrights had set up dockyards along the nearby waterways and timber for building and repairing ships was in great demand.
The land obtained by William Dawson contained one thousand acres. It was bordered on one side by the Comite River, a navigable body of water that flowed through the low-lying bottom lands that lay to the south. He took possession of the wild undeveloped land with his wife Dinah, eight-year-old son Thomas, three-year-old son Samuel and baby daughter Mary Jane.
With little outside help he cleared and improved the land. He built a cabin, outbuildings and fencing. He cultivated the earth and raised crops.
His little family grew. A son named Robert was born in 1806 and a daughter named Fanny was born about five years later.
The Dawson family lived in harmony with their neighbors for close to nine years.
Then disaster struck.
I can’t say for sure what time of day the hurricane made landfall in Feliciana Parish. There is no record of what time it struck the Dawson property. But at some time on August 19, 1812 the family’s amiable way of life on their tract of land came to an end.
On that terrible day William Dawson and his wife lost everything they had worked so hard to gain. Powerful winds blasted the landscape, lightning lit up the cloudy sky, The storm surged, heavy rains fell, the Comite River and nearby waterways rose, murky water spilled over as flood waters covered the ground.
But it wasn’t the wind or the flood waters that brought doom.
A pack wild dogs and a band of lawless men arrived at their door. The men forcibly drove the Dawson’s away from their home. They threatened to “strew their bones into the hurricane” if they refused to go. The father, mother and their five children fled to the state of Mississippi for protection, leaving their home and the fortunes of their descendants behind as they escaped into the night.
THINGS I WISH I KNEW ABOUT THIS STORY
How did they escape? On foot? By wagon? Horseback? Boat? Pinckneyville Mississippi is about twenty miles north of the spot where their cabin once stood. How long did it take them to get there? What possessions were they allowed to take?
These are things I wish I knew.
William Dawson used the courts to try to get his land back. But all his efforts failed. I can’t help but wonder if politics played a role in his unsuccessful efforts.
In 1810 American settlers, dissatisfied with Spanish rule, successfully revolted against Spain. They established a new country that they named the West Florida Republic. William Dawson’s land—along with the rest of Feliciana Parish—was part of the new country. He lived under the rule of the West Florida Republic until he was chased out of his home in 1812.
One year later the United States of America claimed the lands of the West Florida Republic. In 1813 Feliciana Parish joined the US. It became part of the newly formed state of Louisiana.
William Dawson was using the courts to try to regain his land as late as 1826.
In the twenty-three years that passed from the time he obtained his land till his last recorded court date his tract of land existed under the jurisdiction of three different countries. He obtained the land under Spanish rule. He lost the land to outlaws during the West Florida Republic’s rule. The outlaws had possession of his land when the US took control of Feliciana Parish.
Which government had jurisdiction over land rights in Feliciana Parish?
Spain granted him the land but he belonged to the group of people who had revolted against their rule. What were his chances of convincing a Spanish land agent to testify in his behalf?
The crime that was committed against him and his family was committed in a country that no longer existed. Where could he go for justice?
His land was occupied by the outlaws who stole it from him when Feliciana Parish became part of the United States. Did the US courts recognize those men as the rightful landowners? Is that why he was ultimately denied his land rights?
There are so many questions surrounding this story.
I just wish I knew the answers.