Late on the night of April 18, 1775, Boston patriot Joseph Warren learned of a British military operation planned for the next day. To warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were across the Charles River in Lexington, Warren dispatched two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes. Revere took the shorter route "by sea," while Dawes went "by land" over the isthmus from Boston to Roxbury, then crossing the Charles River over a bridge in Cambridge. Revere's ride has been celebrated in poems and textbooks, but Dawes' role was at least as important.
Rumors of a March on Concord
On the night of April 18, 1775, rumors of a planned British action to seize ammunition in the town of Concord raced through Boston. Word reached William Dawes, a tanner, who told Paul Revere — who had heard about it from two others already. The two men received orders from Dr. Joseph Warren to ride to inform the leaders of the Provincial Congress of the developments.
Sneaking Past Guards
Dawes' route led him to the British guards at the gate of Boston Neck -- the narrowest part of the isthmus -- as he rode south out of the city. A naturally witty and friendly man, Dawes had spent numerous afternoons sneaking in and out of the city without being stopped. He would disguise himself as a peddler or a drunk, smuggling gold coins disguised as buttons that he wore sewn on his coat. Dawes also befriended any British guards who seemed amicable. On the historic night, one of his buddies was on duty. When the guard opened the gate for some British soldiers, Dawes slipped through with them.
Spreading the Word
On his ride west, Dawes alerted more riders, who in turn rallied companies from neighboring towns: Dedham, Needham, Framingham, Newton and Watertown. Avoiding trouble, Dawes made good time and caught up to Revere in Lexington just after midnight. After notifying Hancock and Adams, Dawes and Revere set out for Concord together, joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott, a Concord resident who had been visiting a girlfriend.
A Clever Escape
Revere, riding in front, ran into a British roadblock. Dawes and Prescott were captured before they could be warned. As the British tried to lead them into a meadow, Prescott signaled that they should make their escape, and all three rode off. Back on the road towards Lexington, Dawes realized that his horse was too tired to outrun the Redoats. As he pulled up in the yard of a house, he reared his horse and shouted, "I've got two of them -- surround them!" His trick succeeded in scaring off his pursuers, although he fell from his horse and lost his watch.
Prescott Warns Concord
Prescott, the local, rode off toward Concord through fields and creek beds that he knew, quickly outdistancing his would-be captors. It was Prescott who warned the town of Concord of the impending British march.
A Low Profile
The night was over for Dawes, who walked back to Lexington and kept a low profile. A few days after the battle, he went back and found his watch. Several months later, he fought at Bunker Hill, and later started a business to supply the new army. He died long after American independence, on February 25, 1799.
So Forgotten It's Funny
Over the years, Dawes' relative anonymity has become something of a joke. In 1896, Helen F. Moore published a parody of Longfellow's famous poem about the historic night, entitled "The Midnight Ride of William Dawes," one verse of which reads:
'Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear --
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
A cartoon in the early 1960s turned on the same humor, namely that "Dawes" was a name less suited for rhyming than "Revere" (in that comic strip, Longfellow is stuck on "Listen my children while I pause, to tell the ride of William Dawes" when his wife suggests using the name of that other rider). More recently Dawes was the punchline on an episode of "The Simpsons," as the epitome of the forgotten Revolutionary hero.