David Mathews

For the U.S. HEW secretary, see F. David Mathews; for a similar name, see David Matthews
David Mathews
43rd Mayor of New York City
In office
Preceded by Whitehead Hicks
Succeeded by James Duane
Personal details
Born c. 1739
New York
Died July 28, 1800 (aged 61-60)
Sydney, Nova Scotia
Spouse(s) Sarah Seymour
Alma mater College of New Jersey

David Mathews (c. 1739 – July 28, 1800) was a lawyer and politician from New York City. He was a Loyalist during the American Revolutionary War and was the 43rd and last Colonial Mayor of New York City from 1776 until 1783. As New York City was the center of British control of the Colonies during the war, he was one of the highest ranking civilian authorities in the Colonies during this period. He was accused of supporting a plan led by Thomas Hickey to kill the Revolutionary General George Washington. He resettled in Nova Scotia after the war, and became a leading political figure in the Cape Breton colony that was created in 1786.


Mathews was born in New York to Vincent Mathews and Catalina Abeel, the daughter of Johannes Abeel, the second Mayor of Albany, and Catherine Schuyler. He earned an A.M. degree from the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1754. He married Sarah Seymour on November 6, 1758 in New York. He was admitted to practice law in Orange County, New York in 1760.[1]

Mathews was in 1770 one of the founders of the Moot Club, a forum for legal discussion, whose members consisted of William Livingston, James Duane, Gouverneur Morris, Stephen DeLancey, John Jay, Egbert Benson, and Robert R. Livingston. John Jay would later be one of the signatories of Mathews' arrest warrant in 1776.

He was appointed Mayor in February 1776 by William Tryon, Governor of the Province of New York.

Mathews lived in Manhattan but maintained a summer residence in Flatbush, located approximately at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Parkside Avenue,[2] and where he conducted much of his business while Mayor.[3]

Plan to Kill George Washington

Mathews, in 1776, was implicated in a plan to kidnap George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Mathews and William Tryon, the governor of the Province of New York, were also accused of being involved, as was a member of Washington's Life Guard, Thomas Hickey, who would eventually be executed for his role.

The New York Provincial Congress ordered Mathews's arrest for "being engaged in a Conspiracy against the Authority of the Congress and the Liberties of America." Mathews was arrested at his Flatbush home on June 22, 1776[3] by Lieutenant Colonel Ezekiel Cornell and was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut and placed under house arrest in the home of Major Moses Seymour, who was a relative of his wife Sarah Seymour. Major Seymour's orders were as follows: "you are directed and required to take him under your Care and him safely convey from Hartford in Hartford county to Litchfield ___ aforesaid and him there hold and keep in safe Custody permitting him only to walk abroad for the Benefit of the Air in the Day Time and to attend Divine Service at some place of public worship and that under your law or that of some other trusty keeper on the Sabbath Day, until you secure further Orders from me or from the Provincial Convention of the State of New York"[4]

Mathews in a letter to a fellow Princeton classmate during his imprisonment denied his involvement in the plot against Washington: "I have made so many fruitless applications lately that I am almost discouraged putting pen to paper again. [It]...is verily believed throughout this Colony, that I was concerned in a Plot to assassinate George Washington and blow up the Magazine in New York? The Convention well knows such a report prevails. They also know it is false as hell is false." [5]

The charges were never proven, although some sources claim he later admitted his culpability while in Nova Scotia.[3][6]

Mathews later took advantage of a greater level of freedom from a minor parole to meet with other Loyalists, including Joel Stone, who helped Mathews escape.[7]

On November 27 Major Seymour placed the following notice in the Connecticut Journal seeking help in recapturing Matthews for the reward of $50 (about US$3,000 today). The notice read as follows:

                          FIFTY DOLLARS reward
              On the night after the 20th instant escaped from Litchfield 
              David Mathews Esq., late Mayor of the City of New
              York, who was some months since taken from hence, on
              being charged with high crimes against the American States, but on
              giving his parole was admitted to certain limits, which he has
              most basely and perfidiously deserted. He is well made, about
              6 feet high, short brown hair, about 39 years old, and has a very
              plausible way of deceiving people. It is supposed he will endeavor
              to get to Long Island, where his family now resides. 
              Whoever shall take him up and return him to the subscriber in Litchfield,
              shall receive the above reward and necessary charges...[8]

New York Under British Control

Mathews subsequently resumed his office as mayor in late 1776, during which time New York was firmly in British control. He also was given command of two military units, the Loyal Volunteers of the City of New York and the Mayor's Independent Company of Volunteers.[9]

In 1778 a party of 20 men "with their faces blacked and otherwise disguised" went to Flatbush in a failed attempt to capture Mathews. They instead took away Major James Moncrief. [10]

The New York Assembly, on October 22, 1779, in an Act of Attainder, declared Mathews to be one of 59 state felons who was to be executed if found in the state. His property, which totaled nearly 27,000 acres, was confiscated. In his father Vincent Mathews' will he was not mentioned and only his children were listed as inheritors.

It is likely that Mathews was at least complicit in the handling of colonial military prisoners, who were not considered Prisoners of War until months after the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown. Over 10,000 colonial soldiers died as prisoners during the American Revolutionary War, most of them in New York and on prison ships in the East River. Mathews is on record as a visitor to colonial prisoners and in fact helped to produce affidavits denying allegations of abuse and neglect from half a dozen British officials swearing that American prisoners were fed and comfortable.[11]

Mathews' character was considered questionable not just by Patriots but by fellow Loyalists as well. Former Chief Justice of the Province of New York and fellow Loyalist William Smith wrote that Mathews “sends out Parties to the Country to plunder & he has a Share of it,” even alleging that he had clearly lied about magnanimously sending stolen goods on the Poor House. Smith then contemplated that “If these Charges are true this Man must dread the restoration of the Peace of his Country & the Re Establishment of order.” Thomas Jones described Mathews as “a person low in estimation as a lawyer, profligate, abandoned, and dissipated, indigent, extravagant, and voluptuous as himself.” [12] Peter Dubois, fellow magistrate of Mathews, spoke of him as a "profligate and villain" who took advantage of his status and position by taking possession of stolen household goods and even goods that were destined for people in poorhouses. [13]

Departure to Nova Scotia

On our around Evacuation Day (New York), Mathews left with other Loyalists to Nova Scotia, having had his two houses and 26,000 acres of land seized by the colonists. Failing to gain an appointment as that province's attorney general, he traveled to Cape Breton Island, which in 1786 was administered as a separate colony. There he was appointed attorney general and a member of the Executive Council by Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres. Although an elected house of assembly was to have been established, this did not occur, and Mathews became a leading and divisive figure in the small colony's politics. He had a difficult relationship with both DesBarres and his successor, William Macarmick, who eventually left the colony in 1795, leaving Mathews, as senior counselor, as interim administrator of the colony. Mathews then packed its government with friends and business associates. When he was succeeded as administrator by John Murray, the latter dismissed him from the post of attorney general. Mathews made common cause with the Duke of Kent, who had a personal dislike of Murray, and engineered Murray's replacement.

Mathews died on July 28, 1800 and was buried in Sydney.[14]


Some of Mathews' nine children remained in Canada. Others, such as his daughter Harriet Mathews whose daughter Anna Winslow Green married Harvard University President Samuel Webber, married Americans and moved to the United States. His eldest daughter, Catalina, married a Lieutenant in the 35th (Royal Sussex) Regiment of Foot and subsequently moved to Rye, East Sussex England, where she bore children. Mathews' granddaughter married Vice Admiral James Noble who served on the HMS Agamemnon with Lord Nelson. Catalina Mathews' descendants include solicitor and editor Horace Pym and can be found in England, Canada, United States and Australia.

Descendants of Mathews have served in both Canadian and United States politics and government in both local and national capacities. In Canada Murray Dodd, represented Cape Breton in the Canadian House of Commons from 1882 to 1887 and was named Queen's Counsel in 1880. Also Lewis Wilkieson Johnstone (1862-1936), who was also a grandson of Edmund Murray Dodd, was a Conservative member of the Canadian House of Commons representing Cape Breton North—Victoria from 1925-1935.

In the United States collateral descendants of Mathews include Fletcher Mathews Haight (1799-1856), great nephew of Mathews, was a United States Federal Judge in California, and his son Henry Huntly Haight, was the 10th Governor of California.

Mathews's brother, Fletcher Mathews, was ordered arrested by George Washington around the same time in June 1776 for suspicion of a "Scheme of Inlisting Men for the Kings Service". No evidence was found, and he was subsequently released.[15] Unlike David, Fletcher was permitted to stay in the country upon the end of the war due both to his relationship from childhood to Governor George Clinton and to his wife Sarah Woodhull being the sister of General Nathaniel Woodhull who died in 1776 from wounds resulting from his capture by the British. Another of Sarah's sisters was married to Col. Isaac Nicholl who was Governor Clinton's Sheriff.

Cornplanter, a first cousin once removed of Mathews and a Seneca chief, was also a collaborator with the British against the colonists.


The Mathews estate was located at what is now Petersfield Provincial Park in Westmount, Nova Scotia.

A New York City playground located in the Bronx, operated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation called the Mathews Muniler Playground, is in part named after David Mathews. Part of the inscription related to Mathews says "...the British-born (note: this is an error) Mathews was installed as the Loyalist mayor. Mathews was known as a thief, an embezzler, and a spendthrift."[16]


  1. Chester, Alden and Williams, Edwin Melvin. Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History, 1609-1925, Volume 1, page 1315.
  2. Vanderbilt, Gertrude Lefferts The Social History of Flatbush, and Manners and Customs of the Dutch Settlers of Kings County D. Appleton & Company, 1881
  3. 1 2 3 Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War Basic Books 2008
  4. Litchfield Historical Society, Woodruff Collection, Governor Jonathan Trumbull to Major Moses Seymour, August 22, 1776
  5. Mclachlan, James. Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton University Press, Mar 8, 2015, page 107
  6. Newton, David & Pamela They Came from Away: Yanks, Brits and Cape Breton iUniverse, 2010
  7. Claims & Memorials Witness on behalf of Joel Stone of Connecticut On Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies. Retrieved November 17, 2013
  8. Connecticut Journal, November 27, 1776, as found in The Invincible Frenzy Colonel Joel Stone: Founder of Gananoque, Ontario. Retrieved November 17, 2013
  9. Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War 2010
  10. Chopra, Ruma. Unnatural Rebellion" Loyalists in New York City During the Revolution . Charlottesville, VA 2011, page 163.
  11. Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War Basic Books 2008
  12. O'Reilly, Edward. “Profligate, abandoned, and dissipated”: New York City’s Last Colonial Mayor From the Stacks: New York Historical Society June 10, 2015. http://blog.nyhistory.org/profligate-abandoned-and-dissipated-new-york-citys-last-colonial-mayor/ Accessed August 11, 2015.
  13. Chopra pages 153-154
  14. Mclachlan, James. Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton University Press, Mar 8, 2015, page 108
  15. Letter from George Washington to Colonel James Clinton, 20 June 1776 US National Archives. Retrieved November 17, 2013
  16. Mathews Muliner Playground, NYC Parks (City of New York Parks and Recreation) Retrieved November 15, 2013

Other sources

Preceded by
Whitehead Hicks
Mayor of New York City
Succeeded by
James Duane
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