William Mercer Owens Dawson

Submitted to the West Virginia Biographies Project by:
Sandy Spradling
September 26, 1999

History of Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia and Representative
W.S. Laidley
Richmond Arnold Publishing Co., Chicago, ILL.
p. 428-432

HON. WILLIAM MERCER OWENS DAWSON, exgovernor of West Virginia, was born at
Bloomington, Md., within a few hundred yards of the Virginia (West Virginia)
line, May 21, 1853, son of Francis Ravenscroft (sometimes written Ravenscra
ft) and Leah (Kight) Dawson. He is descended on the paternal side from
martial an-cestors who accompanied Oliver Cromwell to Ireland and fought
to subdue the insurrectionary forces in that unhappy island. One of them
came to this ceuntry quite early in the history of the colonies. At a later
day we find a branch of the family residing in Allegheny county, Maryland,
where John Dawson, our subject’s grandfather, was born. The latter was a
blacksmith by occupation and locally a well known and respected citizen. He
married a Miss Ravenscroft. who was born and lived and died in Maryland, in
or near Dawson. John Dawson and wife had seven children, most of whom grew to
maturity, married, and reared families of their own. The members of the
family generally were Methodists in their religious affiliations. The
youngest son of John Dawson, the Rev. Samuel R. Dawson, was for many years a
well known and popular preacher in the M. E. church, North, and died in 1892
at an advanced age, at Ellenboro, Ritchie county, W. Va. Another son of
John, Hanson B. Dawson, was clerk of the Circuit Court of Romney, Hampshire
county, W. Va.; he died September 6, 1876. He married a Mrs. Shabe, widow of
Daniel Shabe and daughter of James Parsons, whose wife was a sister of
General Fairfax. They had no issue.
Francis Ravenscroft Dawson, father of our subject, was the eldest child of
his parents, and was born near Dawson, Md., in 1809. He learned his father’s
trade of blacksmith, and later became clerk for Samuel Brady, a wealthy man
who owned a large plantation and a number of slaves. Later Francis R. Dawson
took up the mercantile business at Piedmont, W. Va., and at Bloomington, Md.
He died in July, j88i, at the age of almost eighty years. He was a class
leader in the M. F. church, and a very hospitable man. During the Civil War
peribd, his sympathies were with the Union cause. One of his sons, Frank M.,
was a soldier in the 17th W. Va. Volunteers, enlisting as a private and
serving from 1863 mitil the close of the war.
Francis R. Dawson married, in 1832, Leab Kight, who was born in Virginia in
1811. Her father, John Kight, and her mother, whose maiden name also was
Kight, were both Vir-ginians. They were active members of the Methodist
church and both attained an advanced age. The children of Francis R. and
Leah Dawson were Penelope, John H., Nancy C., Mariam, David Shoaf, Frank M.,
and William Mercer Owens. Of those other than our subject, the record in
brief is as follows: Penelope, who is the widow of E. Clark Jones, but has no
children, resides in Terra Alta, W. Va. John H., who was a well known
steamboat cap tam on the Ohio river, died at Parkersburg, W. Va., in 1879.
He married Miss Jennie Shaffer, who resides at Parkersburg, W. Va. Her only
son, Harry H. Dawson, of Norfolk, Va., died in the fall of 1910. Nancy C.,
widow of George E. Gtithrie, resides with her son, the Rev. Charles E.
Guthrie, pastor of the First M. E. church at Wilkesbarre, Pa. Other children
of hers are D. S. Guthrie, of Chicago; Wade H., state printer at Charleston,
W. Va., and William V., publisher of “The Methodist,” of Baltimore, Md.
Mariam, the fourth child of Francis R. and Leah Dawson, married Joseph
Goodrich, and died leaving several. children. David Shoaf, the fifth child,
if now living, is probably in South America. No news has been received from
him for a considerable time. Frank M., whose military history has been
already referred to, is a machinist, and resides in Toledo, Ohio. He married
Miss Cole of Grafton, W. Va., and they have sev-eral children.
William M. 0. Dawson, with whose history we are more directly concerned, had
the misfor-tune to lose his mother when he was a child of less than four
years, and he resided successively with his father at Cranberry (now Terra
Alta), Bruceton Mills, and Ice’s Ferry. In 1863 he began to learn the
cooper’s trade at Cranberry, where also for a time he attended public school,
subsequently continuing his education in a pri-vate school at Terra Alta.
During this period he also worked for some time as a clerk and taught school.
In 1873 he became a resident of King,vood, the county seat of Preston
coun-ty, and became editor of “The Preston County Journal,” a Republican
newspaper, for which he had previously been a correspondent, as well as for
the “Wheeling Intelligencer.” Two years later he became the owner of the
“Jour-nal” which under his management became a po-tent factor in state
politics. In 1874, though nor seeking the position, he was elected chairman
of the county Republican committee, and was twice re-elected, serving for
thirteen years, at the end-of which time he retired. In 1880 he was
unanimously nominated as the Republican canidate for state senator from Tenth
district, composed of Monongalia and Preston coun-ties, and was elected. He
was the youngest member of the body, and- the only Republican member except
his colleague. At the end of this four-year term, he was again nominated
without opposition, and re-elected to the state senate. In 1888, at the end
of his second term, he declined to be again considered as a candidate though
he could have been nominated for the third time without opposition. When he
re-tired in i888 the Senate was nearly equally di-vided between the two
political parties. During his career as senator Mr. Dawson rendered valuable
service as a member of the committee on banks and corporations, on finance,
on the joint committee on finance, on the joint subcommittee on finance to
prepare the appropria-tion bills; on counties and municipal corporations, on
the penitentiary, on mines and mining, on public printing, and was the only
Republican member of a special committee to investi-gate the public printing,
his report being adopted by the Democratic senate. The decided stand he took
for the protection of the school fund is still well remembered and is a
matter of public record. He also advocated the regulation of railroad
charges on the lines afterwards adopted by the Federal government in the
creation of the interstate commerce commission. He is also the father of the
first mine inspection law of the state, and he initiated and carried through
much other beneficent legisla-tion. His name has been since associated with
the “Dawson Corporation Law,” enacted by the legislature in 1901, while he
was secretary of state, and which made much needed and benefi-cent
alterations in the corporation laws of the state, adding over a quarter of a
million dollars to its revenues from the tax in corporation charters.
In 1891 Mr. Dawson was unanimously elect-ed chairman of the Republican State
Committee, a position to which he was twice re-elected. When he took charge
West Virginia was Democratic by a majority of 5,000 to 6,000, and had be’en
in complete control of the Democratic party since 1871. His conduct of the
campaign of 1892 wrought a great change in the political situation and was a
surprise to all the party leaders of the state, and particularly so to the
enemy. Under his management the Republican party won the great victories in
West Virginia of 1894, 1896, 1898 and 1900. Since 1896 the state has been
Republican in all branches of the government, having a majority in both
houses of the Legislature. Mr. Dawson resigned the office of chairman in
In 1897 he was appointed secretary of state by Governor Atkinson, and was
reappointed to that office in 1901 by Governor White, being the only man who
has served two terms in that important office. His administration of its
affairs was marked hy personal integrity, efficiency, and devotion to the
public welfare that won for him universal commendation and compelled the
respect even of his political enemies. having the legislature pass the
“Dawson Cor-poration Law,” referred to above.
Every one remembers the great political campaign of 1904 in West Virginia.
The all-absorbing issue was “tax reform.” It was hased on the
recommendations of the tax commission of 1901, which made its report to the
legisla-ture of 1903. The body refused to consider the bills to amend the
tax laws proposed by that commission. On the question of their
con-sideration Mr. Dawson became a candidate for the Republican nomination
for Governor. It was a fierce, hot campaign. Mr. Dawson was nominated; and
the campaign that ensued, resulting in his election, was probably the most
hotly contested in the history of the state. Mr. Dawson served as Governor of
West Virginia from March 4, 1905, to March 4, 1909, and during his
administration he succeeded in hav-ing “tax reform” enacted into laws, now
often referred to as the “Dawson Tax Laws.”
As the incumbent of this high office, he again justified his party’s choice
and his record as governor is one that will hear close comparison with that
of the ablest of his predecessors. It is sufficiently well known to the
people of the state to need no detailed recapitulation here. Among minor
offices that have been held by Mr. Dawson are those of clerk of the House of
Delegates, in 1895, and mayor of Kingwood. He is a member of the Masonic
order belonging to Preston lodge, No.90, A. F. & A. M. of Kingwood, and is
past chancellor of Brown lodge, No.32, also of Kingwood. He is a member of
the Presbyterian church and has been active in Y. M. C. A. work.
Mr. Dawson was married in 1879 to Luda, daughter of John T. Neff, of
Kingwood, W. Va. She died in 1894, leaving a son, Daniel; and in 1899 Mr.
Dawson married Maude, daughter of Jane Brown, of Kingwood, of which union
there is a daughter, Leah Jane, born April 4, 1901, and now attending the
pub-lic schools. The son Daniel, who was born January 13, 1881, was educated
in the Charleston schools, including the high school, and subsequently
entered the University of West Virginia at Morgantown, where he was graduated
in 1904. He then took a one year course at Harvard University, and later
graduated from the law school of West Virginia University. He is now engaged
in the practice of law at Huntington, W. Va. Ex-Governor Dawson is a printer
by trade and a lawyer by profession. He is now engaged in the practice of
law at Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia.

Sandy Spradling
State Contact for WV GenExchange