Tuesday, July 14, 2009

John W. Dawson: shovel-ready governor

Image from saltlakemagazine.com

As John W. Dawson told it, his stagecoach was at its first stop on a cross-country journey on New Year's Eve of 1861 when he found that several items of clothing had been taken. While waiting in the coach for the return of his physician, the driver made insulting remarks to him and Dawson chose to take his leave. As he was walking to a nearby house, the former Governor of the Utah Territory was attacked and beaten by the driver and other ruffians, an incident that punctuated Dawson's disgraced exit from the land.

Dawson was born in 1820 in Cambridge, Indiana. He worked as an office clerk and studied at Wabash College and Transylvania College. Further working as a lawyer and farmer, he eventually settled into the position of editor of the Fort Wayne Times and Union. Through the newspaper, Dawson supported public schools and temperance and criticized Catholics and abolitionists. He was especially vehement in this latter attitude when the Civil War broke out, saying the abolitionist movement only gave advocates of the Confederacy arguments to use in support of secession. Dawson's basic argument was that the preservation of the Union was a more important goal than the abolition of slavery. He asked if William Lloyd Garrison, a New England newspaper editor and prominent abolitionist, if he would admit "that this war is not a Godsend war for the abolition of negro slavery, but to maintain the supremacy of the Union and the Constitution, and that you will henceforth be silent on the wrongs of the slave and the atrocities of slaveholders, until throughout all the land the federal laws are freely obeyed?"

Like his working career, Dawson dabbled in a variety of political parties in a series of unsuccessful bids for public office. In 1854, he ran for the state house of representatives on the People's Party ticket. Two years later, he was back on the ballot running for Indiana secretary of state. This time, he was on a fusion ticket supported by the Republican and Know-Nothing parties. In 1858, he ran for the House of Representatives as a Democrat. In the election of 1860, however, he backed Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, in his paper.

Given his relative lack of political experience, it is unclear how Dawson got the nod to be Governor of the Utah Territory. Some have suggested that he was a man of loose morals and an embarrassment to the Republican leaders in Indiana, and the distant desert territory seemed to be a proper point of exile. The post was also not the most popular one up for grabs, and Dawson's willingness to serve probably played in his favor. After Governor Alfred Cummings chose not to seek re-appointment, Lincoln appointed Dawson as the third Governor of the Utah Territory on October 3, 1861.

Dawson did not arrive in the territory until December 7, and took the oath of office on the 10th. It didn't take long for him to irk the predominantly Mormon population. In his first address to the territorial legislature, he urged them to pay a $26,982 annual tax to support Union war efforts. Doing so, he explained, would show that the Mormons were supportive of the country, not disloyal as had been alleged.

On December 17 and 18, the legislature passed a bill calling for a convention of delegates to create a constitution and organize a state government. Territorial secretary Frank Fuller of New Hampshire, who had served as acting Governor while waiting for Dawson to arrive, had already given his support for the measure. Dawson, however, vetoed it. He said the proposed date of the convention (January 6, 1862) was too close to submit the bill to Congress or notify the people of the territory. He also said the bill sought to fix the state's boundaries, which Congress would have to do. The rejection of the bill again did nothing to endear Dawson to the population.

On New Year's Eve, having served less than a month, Dawson suddenly packed up and began a journey back east. He left Fuller to take over the Governor's duties. A variety of reasons were given for Dawson's departure. Fuller said he had received a note saying Dawson was leaving for health reasons. The Deseret News said Dawson was leaving "under circumstances somewhat novel and puzzling," and alleged that the Governor had gone "distressingly insane."

The newspaper also mentioned the more prevalent theory behind Dawson's hasty retreat. He was accused of making indecent proposals to Albina Williams, his housekeeper and a Mormon widow in Salt Lake City. As the story went, Williams was so offended that she chased Dawson out of her house with a fireplace shovel. Dawson was also accused of trying to pay Williams $3,000 to keep quiet about the incident, and threatening to shoot Mormon newspaper editor Thomas B.H. Stenhouse if he published anything on the matter.

Stenhouse may have been sufficiently intimidated, though he also later left the church; in an account published in 1873, he said Dawson "was almost immediately a victim of misplaced confidence, and fell into a snare laid for his feet by some of his brother-officials." Catherine Van Valkenburg Waite, writing in 1867, also took this point of view. She argued that the incident was entirely fabricated as a way of expelling Dawson, since he was not as lenient toward Mormon leader Brigham Young as his predecessor. John Hanson Beadle, editor of the Salt Lake Reporter, also implied that the charges may have been false but clearly had no sympathy for Dawson. In an anti-Mormon book he wrote in 1870, Beadle said Dawson's later beating was "richly deserved for his cowardice, and, if the charge above be true, for his detestably bad taste."

Whatever the case, Dawson was fearful enough of assault that he took a hired guard to accompany him out of the territory. According to a statement Dawson later wrote for the Deseret News, he was told by Ephraim Hanks, station master at the first mail stop on the route, that some people might intend to rob or assault him. Dawson asked Hanks to accompany him, but Hanks said he was unable to and sent a man named Moroni Clawson to act as protection. Dawson said he gave Clawson five dollars for his troubles.

After the stagecoach stopped at Hanks' mail station at Mountain Dell, Dawson said, the crowd at the stopping point had supper and proceeded to get drunk and rowdy. When he checked on the coach, he found that it had been relieved of several blankets and "an elegant beaver robe." It was after this discovery that Dawson said the driver, apparently a relative of the scorned woman, began insulting him. Dawson insisted he had not provoked the men who attacked him after he exited the coach. In the statement to the Deseret News, he identified seven men who attacked him, including Clawson ("the traitor") and other men who had been hired to protect him.

According to one account, Dawson's injuries were "nearly emasculating," leading to rumors that he had been castrated as well as beaten. Dawson was quick to use the attack to characterize the Mormons as a lawless and detestable bunch. In a letter to Lincoln, he accused the population of disloyalty and said their push for statehood was only an effort to remove federal authorities from the territory and give polygamy "sovereign protection." He added, "The horrid crimes that have been committed in this territory & which have gone unpunished, have no parallel among civilized nations." Young, meanwhile, continued to push for statehood, saying the goal was "to no more endure the imposition of such men as...Governor Dawson." Though the convention seeking to create the state of Deseret went forward, Utah would not be admitted as a state until 1896.

Though they were no fans of Dawson, the Mormons did not want the attack to further inflame public opinion against them. Of the seven identified by Dawson, three were shot dead while trying to escape from police. Lot Huntington was killed on January 16, 1862. Clawson and a man named John P. Smith were killed the next day. The other attackers were captured and brought to justice.

In an interesting side note, the attack on Dawson indirectly led to the capture of an infamous grave robber. After Clawson was killed, he was buried in a Salt Lake City cemetery after his body was not initially claimed. When his family asked that Clawson be exhumed to be relocated to a family cemetery, they found that Clawson had been stripped of his clothes. The investigation found that a gravedigger, John Baptiste, had collected clothes, shoes, and personal effects from some 300 grave robberies. Baptiste was ultimately isolated on Fremont Island on the Great Salt Lake, but disappeared later in 1862, never to be seen again.

Dawson returned to find that the Senate had ultimately rejected his appointment, apparently based on the allegations that had come up against him. The incident also made Dawson quite unpopular in his home state, if he had ever garnered much favor to begin with. "He is a poor, despised, and hated ruffian, without a solitary friend of any influence on earth, outside of his own printing office," one letter to the People's Press of Bluffton, Indiana, declared. "This is not the first time that the community has been sickened and disgusted with the infamy and crime of John Dawson."

Not much is known of Dawson's post-gubernatorial activities. Most notably, he helped elevate the legend of Johnny Appleseed by writing the first accounts about him in 1871. Dawson had met the John Chapman, the person the legend is based on, when he was younger. In 1877, Dawson passed away in Indiana.

Sources: Utah History To Go, "The Governor of Utah Territory: A Significant Sign" in The Democratic Watchman on Nov. 21 1861, "Executive Communications" in the Deseret News on Dec. 25 1861, "Governor Dawson's Statement" in the Deseret News on Jan. 22 1862, "What The Public Journals Say About John W. Dawson" in the Deseret News on Feb. 26 1862, "Scandals, Shame, & Skeletons In The Closet" in Salt Lake Magazine in April 2009, It Happened In Utah by Gayen and Tom Wharton, Church Chronology: A Record Pertaining to the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Andrew Jenson, Improvement Era edited by Joseph F. Smith and Edward H. Anderson, Popular History of Utah by Orson F. Whitney, Abraham Lincoln and the Western Territories edited by Ralph Y. McGinnis and Calvin N. Smith, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of their Origin to the Year 1901 by William Alexander Linn, The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons by Thomas B.H. Stenhouse, Life in Utah; or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism by John Hanson Beadle, The Saints and the Union: Utah Territory during the Civil War by Everette Beach Long, The Mormon Prophet and His Harem by Catherine Van Valkenburg Waite

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