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Saturday, August 26, 2017

William Bonnell Wasn't in the Virginia Navy (or, Why Original Sources Matter)

John Bunnell provided an update on his research into the Revolutionary War service of William Bonnell of Virginia. His findings demonstrate the critical importance of tracking information back to its original source. 

The line of inquiry I initiated about William Bonnell being in the Virginia Navy during the Revolutionary War turned out to be a very seductive but ultimately false lead.  

If you remember, this started because the authoritative Revolutionary War historian, Hamilton J. Eckenrode, listed a "William Bonnell" in the service of the state of Virginia in Vol. 2 of Virginia Soldiers of the American Revolution. On page 37: "Bonnell, Willia, Aud. Acct. XXXI, 31." On page 9 Mr. Eckenrode explains the reference: "Aud. Acct. XXXI, Auditor's Accounts, vol. 31. One of a series of manuscript volumes indexed in the first report and containing duplicate lists with some new names." Below are copies of the cited pages. 


This took us to his source document, which was a 1786 pay adjustment for Revolutionary War service with the Virginia Navy.  To all appearances, this record reads "Wm Bonnell" and lists him as a ship's master.   

This theory was buttressed by the documented contact between our William Bonnell of Spotsylvania County and Colonel Fielding Lewis, George Washington's brother-in-law, who had significant responsibility in recruiting and fitting the Virginia Navy. Fielding Lewis was the presiding "gentleman of the court" while William Bonnell was administrating the estate of Jacob Wright (see following document).

This period (1777-1778) was simultaneous with the timeframe when the Virginia Navy Board directed Fielding Lewis to recruit a crew and the warrant officers for the galley Dragon then being built under Lewis' supervision at Fredericksburg (see below).  

As a matter of fact, The Virginia Navy Board made it clear to Captain Eliazer Callendar, then waiting to take command of the Dragon, that Lewis was unable to find a recruit a qualified ship's master.  

Up until last week, all of these facts seemed to be making a very compelling case.

Alas, however, it was not to be.  

After a great deal of on-site research in Virginia, cross referencing, and just a lot of effort, I've finally tracked this pay adjustment back to the original pay record at the time the sailor's discharge from the Virginia Navy on 28 April 1785.  

From this original document, it is clear that the individual in question is actually William Bennett, a sailor whose service as a ship's master in the Virginia Navy is already well established.  It is unclear how much we are misinterpreting the second scribe or how much the second scribe was misinterpreting the first in mistakenly interpreting the name as "Bonnell."

If the latter, I wonder if poor old William Bennett ever received the back pay that was due to him.  

Of note, we are not the first researchers to grapple with this problem, although I believe we are the first to solve it. Robert Armistead Stewart, who wrote the definitive history of the Virginia Navy in 1936, also tried to resolve the mystery of "William Bonnell, ship's master."  Ultimately, he decided, erroneously, as it turned out, that "Bonnell" must have been a misspelling of a member of the seafaring Bonnewell family.

Now that we know that William was not in the Virginia Navy, could he possibly have been in the Army?  I think it is unlikely that he was in regular service with either the Continental or Virginia line Regiments.  If that were the case, I think we would have run into some record of it by now.

John's efforts to track William Bonnell in the Virginia militia is the subject of another post.

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