m. 12 Jun 1705
m. 23 Sept 1744
Facts and Events
About William Dobbs
Captain William Henry Dobbs lived a colorful life as a mariner in colonial New York City. He was a privateer and possibly a smuggler, sailing from New York to the West Indies. He was also a New York harbor pilot, and served George Washington as a pilot and spy during the American Revolution.
Marriage to Catharina van Syssen
On, 23 Sept 1744, William Dobbs married Catharina van Syssen (also "van Size", "van Seyse", "van Seysen"). They had three daughters through the rest of the 1740s, and two or three sons in the 1750s prior to the war. It is supposed that Catharina died before January 1757, when William remarried.
Residence in Montgomery Ward
On 26 Apr 1750, William Dobbs rented half a lot near the water in Montgomery Ward, New York City. His rent was eight pounds per year paid to the Common Council, and on 4 May 1753 the Council approved a ten-year lease for the same property. Three weeks later, Dobbs was given permission to repair the wharf opposite his lot, under the direction of the alderman and ward assistant. (The property was later described as "fronting Peck Slip".) Dobbs did not renew the lease when it was up in 1763, as records indicate he had assigned it to a John Earle. [LANE1981]
Privateer in the French and Indian War
It seems probable that he was engaged as a merchant mariner during the 1740s and 1750s. New York was a thriving port then, and Dobbs may have been among the many who participated in illegal trade with the French West Indies (see Sugar and Molasses Act)
At the start of the French and Indian War in 1756, Captain Dobbs had been brought up on charges of piracy and privateering in Boston, and was sentenced to be hung. However, given the coming War, the British crown found it useful to offer him a pardon and a letter of marque if he would harrass French ships. The arrangement proved beneficial to both Captain Dobbs and the British, as authorized privateers were permitted to keep their prizes while disrupting French shipping trade. [LANE1981]
One of the first New York privateers in 1756 was the sloop Goldfinch, with 12-28 guns and 100 men, under Captain Thomas Randall, owned by John Aspinwall and Lawrence Kortright. When the Goldfinch returned with French prizes, it started a rush of privateering. Captain Randall made several forays on the Goldfinch, and Dobbs may have served under him, but when the Goldfinch was reauthorized on 20 June 1757, William Dobbs was its captain. On 23 August 1757, Captain Dobbs captured the French brigantine Le Mentor north of Haiti.
On a permit of 7 Sept 1757, Dobbs served as 2nd lieutenant under Captain John Alexander on the brig Hawk, with 12-36 guns and 100 men. William Dobbs was the captain of at least two other privateer vessels: the 6-gun snow Hester (permit 4 August 1760, owners Gerard Beekman, John Bogart, and Jacobus Van Zandt), and the 6-gun sloop Susanna & Anne (permit 18 August 1761, owners William Kennedy and John Kating). [FISH1945]
Captain Dobbs may have been "playing both sides" during the war, which was not uncommon for colonial New Yorkers. In 1762, Dobbs, along with another mariner William Paulding, were suspected of trading with the French at Hispaniola, though they were ultimately pardoned on 26 April 1763.[ADERMAN2003] When the Attorney General was prosecuting ship owners for trading with the enemy, several ship captains including Dobbs and Paulding were subpoenaed. Dobbs simply refused to answer questions, and was committed for contempt.
Marriage to Dorcas Harding
On 9 January 1757, early in the war, William Dobbs married Dorcas Harding at Trinity Church in New York. They are not known to have had any children in the first ten years of their marriage (which is understandable, given that he would have been off at sea most of the time). Their son Henry Munro Dobbs was born in 1767, and their daughter Mary a few years later in 1771. While Henry is presumed to have been born in New York, Mary's birth, surprisingly, is recorded in Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies. It is not known why he may have taken his wife with him to Curaçao, nor how long they were there.
After the close of the war, "Captain Dobbs then became a Branch Pilot for the City of New York, and was residing back of the English Church with his second wife."
Keeper of Bridewell
From late 1767 to mid 1773, William Dobbs was the first keeper of Bridewell, an institution operated by the colonial government, for which Dobbs drew a quarterly salary. Margaret Lane describes Bridewell as an institution "for vagrants and needy persons, located in New York at Belleview," which would connect it with the City alms house, an institution with a continuous history starting in 1736 and evolving into the present-day Bellevue Hospital. [LANE1981] However, this may have been a related but separate institution more like a workhouse or debtor's prison.
Service in the American Revolution
Captain Dobbs served in the American Revolution, both in a regular role in Capt. Richard Varick's company under Col. Alexander McDougall's regiment, and also as a pilot and on clandestine intelligence missions under direct orders from George Washington.
Pilot and Lookout for Committee of Safety
Captain Dobbs continued his post as a harbor pilot for the colonial government as late as January 1776, which made him well-positioned to provide intelligence to the rebels as early as June 1775. On the day after the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had appointed George Washington Commander in Chief of the Contintental Army, Captain Dobbs was providing detailed intelligence of a British troop transport fleet seen off of New York and headed for Boston.
On 3 Jan 1776, the Minutes of the New York Committee of Safety record the purchase of a whale boat with oars, and the engagement of Capt. William Dobbs for 10s. per day, and four other men at 5s. per day each. Their purpose was to go down to Sandy Hook, and look out for a vessel attempting to smuggle gunpowder from Hispaniola in to the rebels. (Sandy Hook occupies a strategic position on the outer edge of New York harbor. Ships stopping off the Hook would be out of sight of New York. The aid of an experienced pilot would be required to help ships navigate into the inner harbor to New York City.) Col. Alexander McDougall made this arrangement with Capt. Dobbs, and it is likely that the two, who both had been privateers, were long acquainted.
Two weeks later, the Committee received word that a large British transport fleet were sailing from Boston for New York, and Captain Dobbs was dispatched to the Sandy Hook light and to keep watch for any arriving fleet, "and to give immediate notice thereof".
Captain Dobbs service as a lookout ended shortly thereafter in the wake of an incident in which Dobbs brought a man from a British ship to the shore and brought the man directly to the rebel guards. It is not clear why the guards were so alarmed by this action, but both Dobbs and the Brit were locked up, at least for a short time. The situation seems explained in the deposition of the Brit. Shortly thereafter Dobbs' job as a lookout for the Committee was reassigned to another pilot, though the explicit reason given was to share the Committee's employment among the several New York pilots so as not to arouse jealousy among them.
Continental Army Service
Sometime in February or March, William Dobbs joined the Continental Army, and was enrolled as a 3Sgt in Capt. Richard Varick's Company, in Col. Alexander McDougall's Regiment. During that winter and early spring, the Army was moved from Boston (where they had had their first engagements) to New York. Part of the Army marched over land through Hartford to New York, while the other part marched to New London, where a fleet of small boats took them the rest of the way to New York. George Washington went via Rhode Island to New London, and along the way, met with Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut in an attempt to enlist the Oneida tribe as an ally. Margaret Lane speculates about whether General Washington became acquainted with Captain Dobbs at this time.[LANE1981] It seems likely that Dobbs' experience would have been drawn upon in navigating a fleet of small boats, although the overall command of the operation was a Commodore Esek Hopkins of Connecticut. Later testimony of a Dobbs descendant claims that Captain Dobbs "conducted General Washington up the sound to New London on his visit to Jonathan Trumbull".[NSDAR]
In April 1776, Captain Dobbs is documented delivering a message to from the Committee of Safety to General Washington. Governor Tryon (who at that time was "governing" from the British fleet, having temporarily abandoned New York City to the rebels) sent a letter to the New York Committee of Safety to the effect that the British had felt compelled to burn the pilot house on Sandy Hook, and that the rebels should send a sloop over to retrieve the operator and his family, who had not been harmed. The Committee asked Captain Dobbs to deliver a copy of the letter to General Washington. It is not explicitly recorded, but presumably Captain Dobbs was the one dispatched to go retrieve the lighthouse operator, especially as it was Adam Dobbs, his own brother!
In the latter half of 1776, the battles of Long Island and White Plains were fought, as the British retook New York City. The role of Captain Dobbs in these battles is not known. There are no records of his sons William and Joseph serving in the army until the following year. There are records of Jarvis Dobbs serving at Kings Bridge and Battle of White Plains, and an account of William Crolius (Captain Dobbs' son-in-law) also serving in Long Island and the skirmish of Harlem Heights.
From 1777 until the end of his life in 1781, William Dobbs served in the Department Quartermaster General, in the Fishkill cantonment. Several records identify him as "superintendant of blacksmiths", although other records indicate he transported supplies and made good use of his knowledge of navigating the Hudson River. For instance, in October 1777, upon news of the enemy landing near Fishkill, Captain Dobbs was dispatched in haste with a wagon-load of the regiment's books and papers. Later in the war, when the French had joined the fight, Captain Dobbs was transporting supplies from Fishkill to the French Army in small river craft under cover of night.
As early as 1777, Dobbs was joined in the Army by his sons Joseph and William Jr., who both served in the same company. In June 1777, a letter to General Clinton promises that "Capt. Dobbs or his son" will make a delivery from Colonel Hughes. In 1778, Joseph Dobbs is identified as "superintendant of all the boats plying up and down the river", and later in 1781 as "superintendant of salting beef". In 1780, William Jr. is recorded delivering a load of "horse articles" to the Quartermaster at Fishkill.
Special Assignments for General Washington
In July 1778, a French fleet under Admiral Comte d'Estaing arrived off of Sandy Hook to join the Americans. The large French ships required experienced pilots to navigate them into the unfamiliar harbor. Upon recommendations from both Alexander McDougall and General Clinton, General Washington sent for Captain Dobbs. Dobbs was "on his sickbed" when sent for, and recommended a couple of other pilots in his stead. However, the size of the French ships of line was beyond the experience of most pilots, and the French insisted on having the most experienced pilots to guide them. On July 18, Captain Dobbs presented himself to the French Admiral's service with a letter of introduction from General Washington. The plan for a French attack on New York was abandoned, however, and the Comte d'Estaing's fleet sailed for Rhode Island to wait for a better opportunity.
In October 1779, Captain Dobbs again received an urgent summons from General Washington, giving no details but asking him to come to Headquarters on a matter of "great importance", "prepared for a journey of some length", and requesting "all possible dispatch ought to be made and the greatest secrecy observed." The French fleet was once again expected, this time in the Delaware River, and Dobbs and another pilot were dispatched to Philadelphia. However, d'Estaing once again abandoned the attack of New York, and sailed back to France instead.
The following summer, Washington once again called on Captain Dobbs to meet an expected French fleet, this time under Comte de Rochambeau. Dobbs, and a fellow pilot, Captain Patrick Dennis, provided detailed navigational and tactical advice to General Washington about New York Harbor. Dobbs and Dennis were dispatched to Baskingridge to await the French fleet at Sandy Hook, but the fleet landed instead in Rhode Island. Washington asked Dobbs to wait in Baskingridge through August, as further French reinforcements were expected. In September, another message from Washington to Dobbs asked him to be prepared to go to Rhode Island at a moment's notice. Ultimately, word was received that the British had received large reinforcements of their own, and a planned attack on New York was once again postponed.
Captain Dobbs' final mission came in August 1781, when Washington requested he gather other pilots and proceed to meet Captain Dennis at Baskingridge. The Comte de Grasse had a French fleet in Rhode Island, and was expecting a larger fleet under Rochambeau to arrive at Sandy Hook presently, to finally make the attack on New York. Washington, concerned that Captain Dobbs and the pilots were in danger, directed them to not go near the coast, and to shift their lodgings often, not staying in any one place too long. They waited in Baskingridge through August, expecting the French fleet, but at the end of the month Washington sent word that plans had changed and the pilots could be sent home. (It was shortly thereafter that the course of the war shifted dramatically to the south, where Cornwallis was trapped in Virginia.)
The tombstone of William Dobbs gives his death date as 13 September 1781, which is just two weeks after his last mission for Washington looking for the arrival of the French fleet at Monmouth. Some accounts say that he got caught in the rain traveling between New Jersey and New York, and died of pneumonia. An 1893 testimony of a great, great granddaughter states "He died after a short illness which he was supposed to have contracted on an expedition of Secrecy in the service of the United States, from Fishkill to Rhode Island, having returned from there three days previous."[NSDAR] A more surprising story is found in an 1838 testimony of Mary (Dobbs) Crolius (the Captain's daughter), in which she states that Sir Henry Clinton had nicknamed William Dobbs the "Commodore of the Musketteo[?] Fleet", and offered a reward for him "dead or living". Clinton "finally carried his hellish purpose by hiring my Father's servants to poison their Master which ended his mortal carriers[?] in 1781 while engaged in defending his Country by an invading Enemy the British."
Revolutionary War Records
The career of William Dobbs in the Revolutionary War, both as a "regular" attached to the Department Quartermaster General in the Fishkill cantonment, and on special assignments for George Washington, are documented in numerous primary records. The known records are enumerated here.
Regular War Service
These records, from a variety of sources, provide evidence and give glimpses into the "regular" service of William Dobbs. During most of the war, Dobbs was attached to the Department Quartermaster General at Fishkill. The records also occasionally mention his two sons, Joseph and William Jr., who served with their father at Fishkill. The records here are enumerated in chronological order.
Special Missions for George Washington
The special missions of Captain Dobbs for General Washington are richly documented in the preserved correspondence of George Washington. The records here are enumerated in chronological order.
A careful genealogist must not conclude that different records identifying the same name necessarily refer to the same person. The possibility that there may have been other William Dobbs running around New York at the same time must be considered. In this case, we know at least that in addition to Captain William Dobbs, he had a father and a son also named William Dobbs, as well as a first cousin William Dobbs (who lived just north of New York, in Philipsburg and operated Dobbs Ferry). Captain Dobbs and his son William served together in the American Revolution (along with his other son Joseph), so war records referring to William Dobbs must be assessed carefully to see which William is meant.
Given two marriages, the question is raised whether the William Dobbs who married Catharina Van Syssen is the same William Dobbs who married Dorcas Harding. This can be answered in the affirmative. It is known that Dorcas's William was "Captain William Dobbs" (as identified in the obit of Dorcas, Republican Watch Tower, 12 December 1804, and was clearly a mariner familiar with the West Indies trade, since their daughter Mary was born in Curaçao. And it is known that Catharina's William was the pilot who served in the Revolution as documented in personal letters of William and Catharina's children, William and Joseph, as well as Mary (Dobbs) Crolius.
One might also question whether the Captain Dobbs who served George Washington as a pilot was the same William Dobbs who served in Richard Varick's Company as a superintendant of blacksmiths. However, army records during the Fishkill encampment make clear that that William Dobbs was serving alongside his son, and a document from the Quartermaster General, dated December 1781, identifies rations to go to "the Family of the late William Dobbs, Supt. of Blacksmiths & a public Pilot".
An open issue is whether the William Dobbs who was the keeper at Bridewell 1767-1773 was the same Captain William Dobbs who made an unexplained trip to Curaçao in 1771, while continuously employed at Bridewell. (See For Further Inquiry below.)
For Further Inquiry