Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Part II: Henry Barton Dawson (1821-1889)

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, Short Biography, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
July 15, 2016

Title page of the catalogue.
Title page of the catalogue.

Award-winning journalist and World War II historian Rick Atkinson visited the Washington Papers near the start of his research for a trilogy examining the Revolutionary War. He sought insights into Washington from the editors and obscure sources that might shed light on overlooked or shadowy aspects of the conflict. The editors shared plenty of thoughts and anecdotes, and Atkinson nosed around our extensive holdings of microfilm and reference works. What I enjoyed most, however, was bringing to his attention an item from my personal collection: the auction catalogue for dispersing Henry B. Dawson’s library produced by the New York City house Bangs and Co. and titled Catalogue of the Large Historical Library of the Late Henry B. Dawson, LL.D., an Extensive and Valuable Collections of Books, Pamphlets and Periodicals . . . . I told Atkinson that if he were starting a major Revolutionary War work in the later nineteenth century and sought insights and obscure sources, he would have visited Dawson rather than a documentary editing project like the Washington Papers.

Henry B. Dawson rose to prominence during the nineteenth century as a historical controversialist and magazine publisher. Born in England, he came to New York at the age of 13 with his parents in 1834. Family financial demands prevented him from attending college even though his academic promise had earned him scholarship opportunities. Dawson worked as a gardener, wheelwright’s apprentice, publishing house clerk, and bookkeeper for various concerns over the course of two decades before focusing on the study and presentation of history, first as a newspaper editor and eventually—as well as most notably—as editor of the Historical Magazine. He conducted the latter for nearly 10 years beginning in 1866. An unfinished series of volumes on early United States history and a highly admired study of Westchester County, New York, occupied Dawson’s subsequent years until declining health and family misfortunes stilled his pen.1

A sketch of Henry B. Dawson.

If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts had been seeking a wizard of history rather than an instructor for the history of wizardry, the school probably would have been pleased with Dawson. His wild mane of hair, long and unkempt beard, and intense eyes projected intellectual determination and penetration. Dawson loved to probe arcane and forgotten sources—the more, the better—in his relentless search for truth, and his endeavors led him to accumulate an impressive collection of historical materials.

Not sharing the same passion for research and presumably needing money, Dawson’s descendants auctioned his library after his death. A signal benefit of this decision was the compilation of Dawson’s holdings in a published catalogue. Careful description accompanied many of the titles, which numbered more than 5,000. Highlights included four important works printed in limited editions detailing the capture, trial, and execution of British major John André for his role in Major General Benedict Arnold’s treachery, and Gaine’s Universal Register; or, American and British Kalendar for the Year 1776, with a map of New York City as a frontispiece, listed as “Very scarce.”

Pages from the catalogue.
Pages from the catalogue.

Samuel H. Hunt, a New Jersey bibliophile with a particular taste for historical works, whose copy of the Dawson catalogue is now in my possession, apparently attended the auction and meticulously recorded the sale prices of each lot.2 Nothing brought what today we would consider a princely sum—with the $13 for the Gaine’s Universal Register being among the highest—but the aggregate certainly approached and perhaps exceeded $20,000. That amount meant something in the 1890s.

For the Washington Papers, Dawson’s catalogue is valuable for its bibliographic riches. It will be mined for primary sources that have defied our electronic database searches. I am confident that nuggets will be found that assist our editorial efforts and especially annotation.


1. For a fine account of Dawson’s life and his views on historical scholarship, but one that completely ignores his personal library, see David D. Van Tassel, “Henry Barton Dawson: A Nineteenth-Century Revisionist,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 13 (1956): 319-46.
2. For a biographical sketch and image of Samuel H. Hunt (1814-1902), see James P. Snell, comp. History of Sussex and Warren Counties, New Jersey . . . (Philadelphia, 1881), 434-36.

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