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Biography: Nathaniel Henry Dawson born Feb. 14, 1829 – photograph

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Dawson, Nathaniel Henry 1829-1895 Dallas



(1829 – 1895)

Dallas County, Alabama

Nathaniel Henry Dawson was the son of Lawrence E. Dawson and Mary Wilkinson Rhodes. He was married to Elodie Breck Todd, half sister of  Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Nathaniel Henry Dawson, a Confederate, was half brother-in-law of President Lincoln. (continued below)

The following is from Memorial Record of Alabama and Find A

“This gentleman is the eldest son of Lawrence E. and Mary Wilkinson (Rhodes) Dawson, and was born in Charleston, S. C., February 14, 1829, and now resides at Selma, Ala. His father was born in Charleston, December 9, 1799, and was the son of John Dawson, Jr., and Mary Huger. John Dawson, Jr., was the eldest son of John Dawson and Joanna Broughton Monck. John Dawson was a native of Westmoreland, England, and was born April 14, 1735, and emigrated to the colony of South Carolina when quite a young man, and settled in Charleston, where he became a successful and wealthy merchant. He was a member of the South Carolina convention of May, 1788, which adopted the Federal constitution of the United States. His sons-in-law, Col. John Glaze and Capt. William Postell, were delegates to the same convention.

He married October 9, 1760, Joanna Broughton Monck, the only daughter of Col. Thomas Monck, and granddaughter of Col. Thomas Broughton, who was governor of the colony of South Carolina from May, 1735, to his death in 1738. His wife was Anne Johnson, the only daughter of Gen. Nathaniel Johnson, who was a distinguished soldier and a member of the British house of commons; governor of the Leeward Islands in 1689, and afterward governor of South Carolina from 1703 to 1709. He died in 1713, leaving one son, Robert Johnson, who was the last governor of the colony under the proprietary government.

John Dawson and his wife, Joanna Monck, lived to old age, and died in Charleston, he on May 7, 1812, and she on October 9, 1819, leaving three sons and one daughter surviving them. Their descendants are found in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. John Dawson, Jr., was born in Charleston, July 8, 1765, and was a prominent merchant and citizen of his native city. He was intendant of Charleston for three successive years, from September, 1806, to September, 1809. His wife, Mary Huger, was a daughter of John Huger and Charlotte Motte, who were descended from Daniel Huger and Jacob Motte, who were among the Huguenot immigrants who came to South Carolina from France, after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, in 1786.

John Huger filled many positions of honor in society, was a member of the council of safety during the Revolution, and intendent of Charleston in 1792, and a member of the state convention which adopted the Federal constitution. His brothers, Isaac, Francis and Benjamin, were prominent in the Revolutionary war. The latter was killed at the siege of Charleston in May, 1779. Jacob Motte was treasurer of the province for over thirty years prior to the Revolutionary war, and had two sons, Isaac and Charles, who were distinguished soldiers in that contest.

One of them, Maj. Charles Motte, was killed at Savannah, October, 1779. Lawrence E. Dawson married Mary Wilkinson Rhodes, a daughter of Dr. Nathaniel H. Rhodes and Mary Hamilton, of Beaufort. Her grandfather, John Rhodes, came to South Carolina from England in 1760, and married Mary Talbird of Beaufort. He was an influential citizen,and took an active part in the Revolutionary war. Mary Hamilton was a daughter of Paul Hamilton and Mary Wilkinson. Though very young when the Revolutionary war commenced, he volunteered as a soldier, and served during the entire struggle. He was a member of the state convention which adopted the Federal constitution; was comptroller-general of the state from 1800 to 1804, and was governor from 1804 to 1808; and was secretary of the United States navy during the first term of Mr. Madison’s administration. It will thus be seen that Lawrence E. Dawson and his wife were descended from, and connected by intermarriage with, many families that were distinguished for several generations in the history of South Carolina from its earliest settlement.

Lawrence E. Dawson was liberally educated and studied law with his kinsman, Col. William Drayton Of Charleston, S. C., and was admitted to the bar January 12, 1821. He was also a graduate of the law school of Judge Gould, of Litchfield, Conn. He resided in Charleston until 1829, when he removed to Beaufort district, and practiced his profession there until 1834, when he was forced by ill health to retire from a large and lucrative business.

He was several times a member of the legislature of his native state, and took an active part in the exciting political contest which resulted in nullification, giving the weight of his influence and talents, as a state rights man, to what he believed to be true doctrine of the constitution. He came to Alabama in 1842, and settled at Carlowville, Dallas county, where he died February 8, 1848. Soon after his removal to Alabama, he resumed the practice of his profession, but survived only a few years. He died in the prime of his manhood and usefulness, universally respected and lamented, having won a leading position at the bar of his adopted state.

Judge O’Neall, in an extended notice of him, in his Bench and Bar of South Carolina, says: “He was gifted with a fine manly person. He was tall and well formed, and possessed features exceedingly striking and attractive. His manners were at once so graceful, and his general appearance so dignified, that no one could see him without feeling that he was In the presence of a finished gentleman, in the true sense of the term. When he first appeared before the supreme court of Alabama, the bench and bar were struck forcibly by his person and address, and the remark was general: `There stands a perfect model of a high-toned, elevated, and accomplished advocate of South Carolina, upon whom seems to have fallen the mantle of Hale and Mansfield.’ The language of Mr. Dawson at the bar was energetic and lofty; his voice sonorous and manly; his action appropriate and full of authority. He had the rare gift of combining the eloquence of diction and a flow of melodious and well considered periods, the ornaments of speech, with convincing, clear and perspicuous reasoning.”

He was a consistent and devout member of the Protestant Episcopal church and died in its communion. His wife survived him but a few years and died in June, 1851. She was a woman of rare intellectual gifts, a devoted wife and mother, and a sincere Christian.

They left four children; the subject of this sketch; Mary Huger, who married C. M. Lide and died at Talladega, Ala., in August, 1887; Lawrence E., who is a farmer and resides near Camden, Ark., and Col. Reginald H. Dawson, of Camden, Ala., who is a lawyer by profession, and was solicitor of the eleventh circuit from 1860 to 1864. He was lieutenant-colonel of the Thirteenth Alabama regiment, in the Confederate service, and was specially mentioned, in general orders, for gallantry in the battle of Seven Pines, where he was wounded and had his horse killed under him. He has been for several terms president of the state board of inspectors of convicts, and of the penitentiary, and has administered his duties with marked success and credit. He is in the prime of life and is highly respected as a man and public officer. The village of Carlowville, Where Mr. Lawrence E. Dawson resided, was settled by a colony of South Carolinians, and was noted for the culture, refinement, and generous hospitality of its citizens.

In this community the boyhood of the subject of this sketch was passed, surrounded by all the social and educational advantages that southern youth then enjoyed. After pursuing his studies at the local schools, he was matriculated at St. Joseph’s college, Mobile, Ala., and left that excellent institution of learning well equipped for his future battle in life, which finally placed him among the leading representatives of the legal profession in Alabama. He at once commenced the study of law in the office of his father.

The town of Cahaba was, at this period, the capital of the great and wealthy county of Dallas, and was justly considered one of the centers of wealth, intelligence and refinement in Alabama. It had at one time been the capital of the state, and many names, famous in Alabama, were associated with its history; among these may be mentioned those of such gentlemen as William L. Yancey, Edmund W. Pettus, Joel Early Mathews, John T. Morgan, George R. Evans, George W. Gayle, Daniel S. Troy, C. C. Pegues, William Hunter, Charles G. Edwards, and others, who, in their day and generation, took a conspicuous part in shaping the history of Alabama.

It was here that Col. Dawson, after the death of his father, located, and amid such surroundings grew up to vigorous manhood. He entered the office of Hon. George R. Evans, and in 1851 was admitted to practice. From this time he was prominent in all the public affairs of the town and county in which he resided, and pursued his profession with energy and success.

In 1852 he was married to Miss Anne E. Mathews, a lady of rare mental and personal traits of character. She was a daughter of Joel Early Mathews, a gentleman of broad philanthropy, comprehensive intellect, and a firm believer in the possibilities of southern development, demonstrated by his large investments in home enterprises, one of which, the Mathews cotton mill, of Selma, which he founded, and which is named in his honor, stands as a lasting monument to his intelligent foresight and public spirit.

By the marriage of Col. Dawson with his first wife, one child was the issue,

Elizabeth Mathews, now the wife of Dr. John P. Furniss, of Selma, who stands in the front rank of his profession. Mrs. Dawson died in October, 1854, loved and lamented by all who knew her. Her sun set while it was yet day.

In June, 1857, Col. Dawson was married to Miss Mary E. Tarver, daughter of Benjamin J. Tarver, of Dallas county. This estimable lady died in May, 1860, leaving one child, Mary Tarver, who married Jefferson D. Jordan, now a citizen of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Immediately after his second marriage, Col. Dawson moved to Selma, where he continued the practice of his profession, in partnership with Messrs. E. W. Pettus and C. C. Pegues of Cahaba.

In May, 1862, Col. Dawson was united in marriage to Miss Elodie Breck Todd, a daughter of Robert S. Todd and Elizabeth S. Humphreys, of Lexington, Ky., and a half-sister of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. She was a granddaughter of Rev. John Brown and Margaret Preston, of Staunton, Va. This lady, a lovely type of southern womanhood, had her whole heart enlisted in the southern cause.

Two of her brothers were gallant officers in the Confederate service, and laid down their lives for the cause of the south. Capt. Samuel Todd was killed at the battle of Shiloh, where Albert Sidney Johnston fell, and Capt. Alexander Todd at the, battle of Baton Rouge, while serving on the staff of his brother-in-law, Gen. Ben. Hardin Helm, of Kentucky.

To the efforts of Mrs. Dawson was largely due the erection of the Confederate monument, in Live Oak cemetery, in the city of Selma, in memory of the gallant Alabamians who gave their lives for their country. She was president of the Ladies’ Memorial association, of Selma, and untiring in her efforts to secure the means necessary to erect the monument. During her last illness, she requested that she should be buried in sight of this tribute to southern valor.

She died in November, 1877, and today her beautiful monument stands close by the one she aided to build, and the two are closely associated together. Her personal charms were only equaled by the lovely graces which adorned her character, which won the affection and admiration of all who knew her.

In 1855, know-nothing-ism was rampant in Alabama, and swept Dallas county like the waves of such political vagaries from time to time are apt to do. Mr. Dawson was one of the democratic candidates for the legislature, and made a splendid race, coming within a few votes of election. In 1860, he was a delegate to the Charleston convention, which ended in the breach between the Breckinridge and Douglas wings of the democratic party, and withdrew from the convention with the Alabama delegation.

He was also a delegate, in June, 1860, to the Baltimore convention, which nominated Breckinridge and Lane, and took an active part in the campaign which followed. Upon the secession of Alabama, Col. Dawson was chosen captain of the “Cadets” and left for Virginia. This fine company formed part of the Fourth Alabama infantry, which gained for itself such renown during the war. Subsequently, during the years 1863-1864, and until the close of the war, he commanded a battalion of cavalry. During this period he was elected to the legislature, and returned to his command at the close of his legislative services.
After the war, Col. Dawson resumed the practice of his profession, in the city of Selma, with his partner, Gen. Edmund W. Pettus, and no law firm in Alabama ever gained a higher reputation. Under the new regime, Col. Dawson took an active part in southern politics, and, through the dark days of reconstruction, was ever in the front, battling for the cause of local self-government and the success of his party. In 1872, he was an elector on the presidential ticket, and made an able canvass. For ten years he was a member of the state democratic executive committee. From 1884 to 1886, he was chairman of that committee, and rendered important service in the canvass of 1884, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for Cleveland and Hendricks.

In 1880, Col. Dawson, without opposition, was elected to the state legislature, and was chosen speaker of the house of representatives. He filled this position with ability and dignity, attaching to himself friends all over the state by his uniform courtesy and impartiality. Col. Dawson was supported by a large following, in the democratic state convention of 1882, as a candidate for governor, but the choice of the convention finally centered on that gallant patriot and soldier, Gen. E. A. O’Neal. But it was in 1886 that the most interesting contest for the gubernatorial nomination, in the history of Alabama up to that time, took place, in which Col. Dawson figured honorably and conspicuously.

There were four candidates: Dawson of Dallas, Henry D. Clayton, and John M. McKluat of Barbour, and Thomas Seay of Hale, all distinguished citizens of the state. Dawson led in the convention from the start, with Seay the hindmost man, and each of the other candidates with a large following. Ballot after ballot was taken, and it looked for a while as if there would be a deadlock; but the break at last came in this memorable race, ending on the second day, in the nomination of Mr. Seay. It was an exciting contest, but was conducted in admirable spirit, Col. Dawson coming out of it with great credit and without the slightest loss of popularity. As indicative of the spirit with which he accepted defeat, and in keeping with the character of the man, the following letter was addressed to each of his supporters in the convention:

Dear Sir: – The result of the convention was a disappointment; but I accept its decision as the verdict of the highest party tribunal, and will work earnestly and zealously, as I have always done, for the success of the nominees.
I would be ungrateful, did I not feel proud of the unflagging support given me by my friends in this protracted and heated struggle. Their fidelity and loyalty have robbed my defeat of any sting, and I am deeply grateful to them all. To you, personally, I beg to return my thanks, and to assure you of my sincere gratitude and esteem.

Yours truly,

The Bar association of Alabama is distinguished for ability in the south, numbering among its members many who have become eminent in the legal profession. Col. Dawson was chosen its president in 1884-85, and discharged his duties to the entire satisfaction of his professional brethren. Col. Dawson has ever been a warm supporter of the common school system of Alabama, and an especial friend of the State university. In 1876, he was appointed, by Gov. George H. Houston, one of the trustees of this institution, which position he still holds. He has aided in bringing it to its present standard of excellence
among American colleges.

In August, 1886, President Cleveland appointed Col. Dawson, without his solicitation, to the office of United Slates commissioner of education. On assuming charge of this bureau, he immediately set to work to make it of that practical use to educational interests for which the office was created. The affairs of the bureau were ably administered, and drew forth strong and favorable comments from the leading educators of the country. One of the most useful pieces of work, during his administration, was the history of education in all the states of the Union.These monographs were prepared separately for each state, and were illustrated with engravings of their leading colleges and educational buildings, with accurate sketches of their history.

They are not filled with the dry details of the ordinary official document, but form a series of interesting volumes and are an invaluable contribution to the educational history and literature of the country. The state of North Carolina, in appreciation of this excellent work, as it related to that commonwealth, presented the commissioner with a complete set of the colonial records of that state, by resolution of the general assembly. Columbia college, that old and honored institution of learning, in New York, in token of his efficient services to the cause of education, at the celebration of its centennial anniversary, on the 13th of April, 1887, conferred upon him the honorary degree of doctor of
letters. After the inauguration of President Harrison, Col. Dawson, in March, 1889, tendered his resignation as commissioner of education, which was accepted in August of that year. Since that time he has actively pursued the practice of his profession, looking after his large property interests, remaining out of active participation in politics, until the general election in August, 1892, when he was elected to the house of representatives, and has taken his seat in the general assembly for the third time as one of the members from Dallas county.

Col. Dawson is a member of the Protestant Episcopal church, and for a number of years has been one of the wardens of St. Paul’s church, Selma, and has several times represented the diocese in the general conventions. He is still in the prime of a vigorous manhood, of tall, commanding figure, well built and erect, and is a typical southerner in appearance. He is an able lawyer, an earnst and eloquent speaker, of engaging manners, and fine conversational powers, and dispenses, in his beautiful home, the elegant hospitalities of a refined and educated gentleman. He is very popular with young men, for the kindness and consideration he has always shown them. He is literary in his tastes, has a large and well selected library, and devotes much of his leisure to reading and study. Col. Dawson is also a public-spirited citizen and a man of sterling integrity, taking a deep interest in all public concerns. His popularity remains unabated among his fellow-citizens, who know and appreciate his worth. Few men have been more blessed with the favors of fortune, and few of his contemporaries have made better use of them. His friends hope that long years of health are in stove for him, and that his future is still to be crowned with the happiness and usefulness which have attended his past career.”


  1. “Memorial Record of Alabama”, Vol. I, p. 858-865 Published by Brant & Fuller (1893) Madison, WI
  2. Find A Grave Memorial# 34186549

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One comment

  1. […] Breck Todd was the daughter of Robert Smith Todd and Elizabeth L. Humphreys and the wife of Nathaniel Henry Rhodes Dawson (1829-1895).  She was a staunch Confederate supporter. Col. Dawson was once the U. S. Commissioner […]

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