Mary Dobson

Author: Laurie L. Kearney

Mary Ann Dobson and her sister, Lilla, were both living at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls when the 1860 Federal census was taken. The school’s records indicate they arrived at the school some four years earlier when it was still located in Winchester, Massachusetts. Mary would have been ten years old when she came to the school, and her sister only nine. Mary’s mother must have been very happy to have secured such a placement for her girls. She was not able to find such a placement for her son, as census records and the records of the almshouse indicate that he lived there until 1868. Mrs. Dobson stated on


A domino found at the dig site suggests the girls had time to play.
(Boston City Archaeology Program)

her daughter’s intake records that she was not well enough to care for them; at the school, the girls would be fed, clothed, receive an education, and be trained as domestic servants.

Mary was born in Taunton, Massachusetts on February 9, 1846; her parents were Edward Dobson, a wheelwright and Mary Folton. Edward was born in Boston between the years 1818 and 1823. According to the Massachusetts census of 1855, Mary Folton was born about 1832 and came to Massachusetts from Ireland; if this age is correct she would have been a girl of thirteen when she married. Edward and Mary had five children: Mary Ann Dobson (1846- ), Elizabeth “Lilla” (1847- ), Edward J. (1849- ), Maria (1851-1853), and Amelia M (1855-1856).

Mary and Lilla and their little brother Edward were counted twice in the 1855 Massachusetts State Census. They are listed with their parents and baby sister in Boston, Ward 6—a neighborhood with a large black and mulatto population located in part of the Beacon Hill section. However, a notation in the census says that the children were at Deer Island. This may indicate that they had recently been placed in the

Boston, Ward 6, Beacon Hill ca. 1855

This 1855 map of Boston shows the boundaries of Ward 6 in Beacon Hill. Today it is a very tony neighborhood, but in 1855 mostly working class people lived here, and many were black or mulatto.
(Norman B Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

almshouse. It is the last time Mary (Fulton) Dobson appears in records. The three oldest Dobson children are also listed in 1855 in Boston’s Ward 2, living in the Almshouse on Deer Island, which had opened in 1850. Mr. and Mrs. Dobson appear to have kept baby Amelia, perhaps because she was still being nursed; sadly, Amelia passed away just before her first birthday.

Life for the Dobson family does not appear to have been very easy. Mary’s father, Edward, was a wheelwright, which means he built carriages. He does not appear to have his own shop, as the family moved from Boston, to Taunton, to Somerville and back to Boston in a period of about four years. When Mary and Lilla were admitted into the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls, their mother indicated her husband was “intemperate;” in other words, he drank too much alcohol. Articles from Boston newspapers paint a sad tale of Mary’s father, Edward’s life; in 1854 and 1856 he was arrested for assault; in November 1858 Edward Dobson was severely injured when struck by a loaded hack carriage but he apparently recovered, as he is recorded in 1870 living in Belmont, New York where he worked in a carriage shop. Belmont, New York is almost 500 miles from Boston; Edward may have abandoned his family, or he may have gone there in search of work, but the distance from Boston tells a possibly heartbreaking story.

1855 Mass census w. parents

A page from the 1855 Massachusetts State Census. It shows the Dobson Family living in the home of Hector Smith (a black man born in Virginia and a “convict”). In the far right column, the Dobson children, Mary A, Elizabeth (“Lilla”) and Edward have the notation “Deer Island.”

The Almshouse on Deer Island

The New Almshouse on Deer Island. This was used as a poor house from 1853 to 1898 when it was converted to a prison. Mary and Lilla lived here for about a year, their brother Edward spent most of his life here.
(WikiMedia Commons)

In June of 1856, Mrs. Dobson most likely collected her girls from the almshouse and took them to Winchester to admit them to the Industrial School for Girls. Mary and her sister, Lilla, were two of approximately thirty girls who called the school home. Girls who were students at this school, were the most destitute; if they did not live here, they most likely would be living in a poor house. Here girls received an education and vocational training; the school would even find employment for the girls after they had acquired their skills.

After approximately five years at the school, in March of 1861 the school placed Mary as a domestic servant in the home of Nathaniel Bent in Canton, Massachusetts. Several years later, in February 1864, Mary’s appointed guardian from the school found her to be “contented” with her placement. Nathaniel Bent and his twin brother, Elijah, were successful merchants who ran a grocery and dry-good business and also operated a local tavern, the Massapoag House, in Canton. The Bent family’s genealogy paints a glowing picture of Nathaniel and Elijah Bent as

massapoag_march_color (1 of 1)

The Massapoag House. Twin brothers Nathaniel & Elijah Bent who inherited the tavern from their father. It was located on Washington Street in Canton, Massachusetts.
(Collection of George Comeau)

active members of the Unitarian Church, who abstained from drink and refused to sell tobacco. They were respected by the townspeople and were “in sympathy with and greatly loved by the young people around them.” If this was an accurate portrayal, perhaps this accounted for Mary’s four and a half years stay with the Bent family.

In August 1865, the school records indicate Mary had gone to live with another family in West Cambridge, but they do not name the family. In October of 1871, Mary married James H. Watkins in Boston. James was a “colored” man, born 1846 in Petersburg, Virginia to John and Eliza Watkins. What happened to James and Mary has been difficult to find out, as their marriage record is the last time Mary (and James) appear in official documents. Perhaps they moved away, and, as a biracial couple, they may have purposely eluded census takers, or it may have been difficult to find work,

Dobson-Waktins marriage certificate

The certificate of marriage for Mary A Dobson and James H. Watkins. The recorder noted both Mary’s race (“white”) and James’ race (“colored”).

or perhaps Mary died in childbirth a few years after she married. Mary Ann (Dobson) Watkins so deserved a happy ending, because her life had not been easy an easy one, though she had several stable years living at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls and the Bent family of Canton.

Sources Consulted (Click Here)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s