This handwritten journal tells of the adventures of Christopher Hawkins as a boy during the Revolutionary War. Museum of the American Revolution
This handwritten journal tells of the adventures of Christopher Hawkins as a boy during the Revolutionary War. Museum of the American Revolution

Local

Rare Revolutionary War journal found nestled in Kansas City linen closet

By Matt Campbell

mcampbell@kcstar.com

April 30, 2018 02:42 PM

Margaret Davis never talked about it. But her relatives found it after she died.

As they were going through Davis' things in her Kansas City home they came upon a handwritten journal of 150 pages or so. The penmanship was from another time.

In fact, the journal was written in 1834. But the 70-year-old author was recounting events he had experienced more than a half century earlier. And what a tale it was.

Christopher Hawkins was a 13-year-old from Providence, R.I., when he abandoned an apprenticeship and joined a privateer ship to fight the British in the War of American Independence. Unluckily for him, he was captured and made to be a cabin boy on a British ship.

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He escaped but was later captured again. In his journal, he recalled stealing an ax from the ship's cook. During a storm, he chopped his way through a barred porthole, timing the blows with the claps of thunder.

It was the stuff of adventure books. In fact, a version of the journal was published in 1864, titled "The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins." It's still for sale through Amazon and other outlets.

But nobody knew the original survived. It was waiting to be discovered in a linen closet in the Crestwood neighborhood of Kansas City.

"We kind of put it aside and didn't do much with it for a while," said Maragaret Davis' son — Hawkins' great-great-great-great-grandson Heywood "Woody" Davis, a Kansas City lawyer.

His wife Louise Davis, transcribed the journal on a computer. Gradually the family learned of its significance. They kept it in an acid-free box.

Heywood "Woody" Davis (from left) of Kansas City, with his daughter, Lynne Boyle, grandchildren Cecily and Brennan Hawkins Boyle and wife, Louise Davis, presented the family's Revolutionary War journal to historian Philip Mead at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Museum of the American Revolution

The family decided to donate the journal to the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened last year in Philadelphia. The Davises delivered it there just after Thanksgiving with their daughter, Lynne Boyle, and her 11-year-old twins, Cecily and Brennan Hawkins Boyle.

The museum, which has a replica of a privateer ship that people can board, is developing plans to display the journal.

A privateer ship is on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Museum of the American Revolution

"Hawkins' account is one of the liveliest tales of the Revolutionary War from the perspective of a boy sailor that exists," said Philip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the museum. "Until now, scholars have only known Hawkins' tale from the published version in 1864. Reading the stories from Hawkins' own hand brings the story to life in a new way. It is as close as we can get to sitting by a fireside and listening to the aging veteran tell his tale."

This journal, written in 1834, recounts events a half-century earlier in the Revolutionary War.
Museum of the American Revolution


Imagine that fireside now.

The second time Hawkins was captured, he was thrown into the HMS Jersey, a notorious prison ship anchored in New York Harbor. About 11,000 rebellious colonists died aboard such crammed ships, many from disease or malnutrition. That was more than the roughly 6,800 who were killed in action. Hawkins was determined not to be among them and shimmied out the porthole he had chopped open.

"I was completely naked except a small hat on my head which I had brought with me from the 'Old Jersey,' " Hawkins writes of his stormy escape in the harbor. "What a situation this! Without covering to hide my naked body!, in an enemy's country, without food or means to obtain any!, and among Tories more unrelenting than the devil! more perils to encounter and nothing to aid me but the interposition of heaven.

"Yet I had gained an important portion of my enterprise," the journal continues. "I had got on land, after swimming in the water two hours and an half, and a distance of perhaps two and a half miles."

Hawkins later became the first permanent settler in the small upstate town of Newport, N.Y., where he is buried.

"He writes pretty well," Woody Davis said of his ancestor. "He ends up his tome by saying that after a double whammy (of captivity) and four or five years he has lost his zeal for going to sea."