Sunday, June 30, 2013

Colonial Parenting: Keeping the Brats in Good Humor

During last month's research trip to North Carolina, I was hoping a search through letters written by Penelope Johnston Dawson of Eden House would result in proof of a connection between her and my 5th great-grandmother, Margaret Dawson Castellaw.

In multiple places online I have found comments that John Castellaw "married a Dawson from Eden House." If I can find proof, this would connect those of us with John Dawson Castellaw ancestry to Gabriel Johnston, a defining figure in early American history.

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There are more than 20 archival boxes at the Wilson Library in which her letters are included and I only got through two of them.

Although I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the letters themselves were fascinating to read. It was a strange feeling to look at the handwriting and read the words written by Penelope Dawson before the Revolutionary War, nearly 230 years ago.

Amazingly, the wax from her seal was still attached to several of the letters.

The ones I was most interested in were written by Penelope to her cousin, Samuel Johnston.

I've posted lots about this family in the past few months but as a quick refresher: Penelope's grandfather, Gabriel Johnston was born in Scotland around 1699, and arrived in North Carolina in 1734 after being appointed royal governor to the colony. He married Penelope Golland, step-daughter of Governor Charles Eden and widow of William Maule, John Lovick, and George Phenney. Gabriel and Penelope had a daughter, also named Penelope, who in 1758 married John Dawson, son of the president of William and Mary College. They all lived, died and were buried at their plantation, Eden House.

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Painting of Colonel John Dawson from
the archives of The College of William and Mary

Gabriel Johnston's brother, Samuel Johnston moved to North Carolina in 1735 after having been appointed surveyor-general of the colony. Samuel's son, Samuel Johnston, the cousin to whom Penelope Johnston Dawson was writing, was a lawyer, politician, and planter, who came with his parents to North Carolina when he was two years old. This side of the family pretty much ended up at their Edenton, N.C. plantation, Hayes.

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Governor Samuel Johnston


I haven't taken the time to transcribe these letters but am sharing five of them here in case they are of interest to anyone researching any of these family lines.

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Penelope Dawson wrote the letter above to her cousin Samuel Johnston on 22 Dec 1768 from Eden House. The writing style and tone of all her letters have a Scarlett O'Harah feeling to them, but this one in particular conveys the personality of a wealthy, colonial socialite.

At the time, Samuel was 35 and unmarried. Penelope wrote, "It gave me unfeigned pleasure to hear of your return to Hayes in health as I had from Hallifax heard of your indisposition at Newbern however I am glad to find it was not so bad as to prevent your enjoying the pleasure of an agreeable society as that mentioned in your letter."

Samuel seems to have been hanging out with a Mrs. Heron.

"I am too well acquainted with your prudence and
good sense to think you should give way to
any sentiments but those of esteem and friendship for that lady."

Penelope continues, "I have before heard a very amiable character of Mrs. Heron and only wish she had been the single sister for your sake. If she is really possesed of those amiable qualifications you ascribe to her, as the case (appears) at present, I am too well acquainted with your prudence and good sense to think you should give way to any sentiments but those of esteem and friendship for that lady..."

I am not certain what this means but a little later in the letter, she writes, "...therefore shall infuse all you have said entirely to your great partiality and that you did not sufficiently consider the weakness of the sex too easy and indeed too willing to be imposed upon to their own advantage. However in this respect I am too conscious from daily experience of my own imperfection in that respect in particular to be in much danger, but let me hear no more of it."

I wonder if she talked that?

Penelope had married Colonel John Dawson in 1758 and they had four children that I can confirm: Mary, Penelope, William and Lucy.

Penelope mentions a few of her children in her letter. I wonder if Brat had the same meaning then as it has now?

"Bad weather as this requires double
diligence to keep the bratts all in good humor..." 

" such a spell of bad weather as this it requires double diligence to keep the bratts all in good humor when there is so little variety to divert the imagination being entirely confined to the house. Except Billy, who knows no law or order, they have every one got violent colds."

She also mentions her daughter, Lucy.

Penelope also adds something of a P.S. to the end of her letter.

"Pray excuse this for the bratts have been all in full cry in the room with me even since I begun."

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This letter above was written on a Thursday night in 1771. Penelope was then a 27-year-old widow whose husband had died in March of the previous year. It's possible this letter was sent along with "beef" because she apologizes it wasn't sent earlier. The Johnston family had obviously been ill as she hopes they will continue to improve. She mentions Mrs. Johnston and "the dear little stranger."

She explains her problems with the man who oversees her plantation and mentions problems with liquor.

Toward the end of the letter she writes, "I scarcely know what I have written, my head is so extremely bad."

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This letter was written on a Saturday night at Eden House and was taken to Samuel by Sir Nathan who was headed to Newborn. She mentions someone named Hannah and writes she is "mended already."

She had just left Hannah after being on board a boat named The Dukinfield or something like that.

She wrote, "we spent the day together under full sail the whole time." She had planned to go with the group to someone's house but opted not to because she had "Mrs. Johnston" with her.

She ends the letter by letting him know, "the girls are to be here again on Sunday night and we expect to set out the next for Booth (?) where we shall soon have the pleasure of seeing you all."

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This one was was dated 16 Sept 1771. She thanks him for his two last "kind favors" and for sending sugar which they needed. It sounds like Samuel's whole family was sick including "dear little Pen." This was likely a reference to Samuel's daughter, Penelope.

She again mentions the boat named Dukinfield and notes that Mrs. Pearson (?) sent her canoe for her on Sunday.

A couple of people at her house are suffering from "the agree(?) and fever." Molly and Billy sound especially sick.

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It looks like she was at Hayes Plantation when Penelope wrote this letter in 1771. In this one she expresses a great deal of humility and gratitude for Samuel's friendship and mentions Anne, Hannah and Molly.

At the bottom of the letter is a sentence I can't figure out but it says something about a memorandum in which she had forgotten to mention a silk handkerchief from Barcelona which she wanted added.

Penelope's son "Billy" was William Johnston Dawson. He spent his early years at Eden House then was sent to England to school. When he returned to North Carolina, he became a politician, held several important positions, including Congressman. At the end of his term, he returned to Eden House where he died very young. He never married and was buried in the cemetery there on his mother's plantation. Source

Penelope's daughter Mary married Nathaniel Allen and her daughter Penelope married Tristram Lowther. Another daughter, Lucy, seems to have died young.

All this and still no "Margaret Dawson of Eden House." I'm beginning to get the feeling I am headed down a rabbit trail but it's a lot of fun exploring the early lives of these Bertie County, N.C. settlers so it's all worth it.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

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