Griffin Dobson, Cynthia Dobson, & Family

Griffin Dobson’s life is unusually well documented for several reasons: he sailed with his enslaver, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, on several naval voyages; he had children with a free woman, Charity Carter, who are mentioned by name in official records; and he bought his freedom and that of his family with a second wife, Cynthia, from Jones.  Nevertheless, we do not know some basic facts about Dobson’s life, including who his parents were, exactly when or where he was born, or whether he had siblings. 

Based on an 1867 San Francisco death record recording his age at death as 49 (which may or may not be accurate), it appears that Dobson was born c. 1818.  According to genealogical research conducted by members of the Carter family, he had five children with Charity Carter, daughter of Keziah Carter, a free woman of indigenous (Tauxenent) and African descent. By 1840, Griffin had begun a relationship with Cynthia, a woman who was also enslaved by the Jones family. Together, they had another five children born c. 1840-1847.  

We know that Dobson accompanied Jones on voyages to the Pacific in 1842-1844 and 1847-1849. During the second voyage, Dobson, with the encouragement and financial support of some of his shipmates, approached Jones with a proposal to buy his freedom.  Jones, by his own account, was “astonished” by the request, but agreed, only “stipulating” that Dobson wait until they both returned to Virginia to claim his freedom.  In 1849, Jones “yielded to Griffin’s earnest solicitations” to leave the ship and take advantage of the California Gold Rush economy to earn money to buy his wife and children. 

A deed recorded at the Fairfax County courthouse on Sept. 22nd, 1852 (and certified by William W Ball, serving as a Justice of the Peace), confirms Dobson’s success.  In the deed, Jones, in exchange for $1200,  transfers ownership of Cinthia (30), Polly (10), Watt (12), Beverly (9), Henry (7), and Edmund (5) to “Griffin Dobson (a free man of Color) of California.”

In California, Griffin Dobson worked in various capacities, including as a bank porter and a waterman.  He also became a Mason, serving as an officer of Hannibal Lodge No. 1, Free and Accepted A. Y. Masons; and was a close associate of Rev. Barney Fletcher, founder of St. Cyprian’s A. M. E. Church (so he, like both his former enslaver and his Carter in-laws, may have played a role in supporting the founding of a church). 

While the Dobsons were by many measures successful in building a life in California, they did not entirely escape the dangers of the slave system.  In 1859, Henry Dobson, who had been apprenticed to a barber, was kidnapped by Missourians who hoped to sell him back into slavery.  Henry was rescued with the help of a Black man on board the steamer on which his kidnappers took him, but Griffin Dobson remained concerned about the safety of his sons as they reached ages at which they would be considered especially valuable property.  In 1862 he took out a newspaper advertisement “warn[ing]” “all persons” “against” “harboring, shipping or advising any one of the four boys of the subscriber, against his will or without his consent.” 

Griffin Dobson died in 1867, just as the United States was entering the Reconstruction era.  His son Beverly (who spelled his last name Dodson) remained in San Francisco, playing an active role in Democratic politics, and working as a coachman and eventually as a grading and sewer contractor. I haven’t fully investigated later generations of this branch of the family, but it appears that Beverly had a son, Beverly George Dodson, who, according to the 1920 census, was the proprietor of a garage and married to Pauline, a naturalized citizen of Mexican descent. 

It appears from census and other records that Griffin Dobson’s children with Charity Carter remained in Virginia, living with or near their free mother and other members of the Carter family.  Griffin and Charity’s son Charles Dobson, like Peter Gibson, a number of his Carter relatives, and other Black men in the neighborhood, voted for the first time on Oct. 22, 1867, helping to establish a Virginia Constitutional Convention and elect delegates to that gathering.  In the 1870 census, we find Charles living near Alfred, John, and Augustus Carter and their families, working as a farmhand, and owning real estate worth $600.  In 1871, Charles Dobson married Rachael Johnson. 

While Griffin Dobson’s life is better-documented than that of many enslaved people, a number of questions remain about him and his family.  I have not learned who Griffin’s parents were, or whether he had siblings.  (Dobson was described in some records as a “mulatto,” raising the possibility that his father was White and his mother enslaved.  If this is the case, one fairly obvious possible candidate for Griffin’s father, Thomas ap Catesby Jones, can probably be ruled out if Dobson was, indeed, born in 1818, since Jones was on a voyage to the Mediterranean from June 1816 to July 1818. However, the timing is tight enough, and the records uncertain enough, that the possibility remains).  

It seems likely that Griffin Dobson was related in some way to other people enslaved by the Jones family with the last name Dobson or Dotson, including Rachel Dotson (mother of William, Robert, and David and nurse to Mark, Mary, and Martha Jones), and Judy Dobson (freed by Elizabeth Jones’ will), but we don’t know exactly how. 

There is also some question as to whether Griffin Dobson was, in fact, legally enslaved at the time that he bought his freedom from Jones.  In a 1995 article “Griffin Dobson: Servant to a Commodore,” Lewinsville historian Frank Gapp raised the possibility that Griffin was one of the people freed by Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will. This possibility has been echoed in other accounts since.  Gapp’s reasoning is based on the possibility that Griffin Dobson may, like Judy Dobson, who is described in the Fairfax County Register of Free Negroes as “emancipated by the last will and testament of Elizabeth L. Jones,” be one of the unnamed “children of Nancy” freed by Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will. 

As Gapp notes, Griffin Dobson is not listed in the register, but he was frequently away from Fairfax, and would have been on his final voyage with Jones when Judy registered, along with her five children, in March 1848.  Another argument in favor of this possibility is that Griffin Dobson would have been very young in 1822, making it possible that he could be among the unnamed children included in the will.

On the other hand, it is possible that Dobson was Judy’s married name, and/or that she was an in-law or other relative rather than a sibling of Griffin Dobson.  Her children would have shared her free status regardless of the status of their father, who is not named in the registry.  In that case, Griffin Dobson may not have been one of the unnamed children included in Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will and may have enslaved in law as well as in practice until he bought his freedom. 

Whatever his legal status, once Griffin Dobson started having children with Cynthia, he had a powerful incentive to remain with Jones until he could formally arrange for their freedom, even if he believed he could claim his own freedom through legal means. If Dobson was legally free, this seems like a more likely explanation for his not asserting his claim than the “enduring bond” between the two men that Gapp posits.  Jones, who was mostly at home during the late 1830s, may even have helped create this incentive by encouraging Dobson’s relationship with Cynthia and/or discouraging his relationship with Charity Carter (perhaps by limiting his mobility). 

What does seem clear is that Griffin Dobson was aware of the various ways an enslaved man might free himself and/or his family, and took advantage of several of them, including having children with a free woman, and creating and/or seizing opportunities to buy himself and, later, enslaved members of his family when circumstances were favorable.  Despite Jones’ “great surprise” at Dobson’s 1848 proposal, it seems likely that Dobson had been aspiring to and planning for freedom for some time.

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