It’s difficult to know what 5-year-old Joseph Gawler was thinking as the ship bringing his family from Bristol, England, steamed into Alexandria, Virginia, that day in 1832. One can only imagine the wonder – and possibly the fear – he felt coming to this new land, a place that would become his home for the rest of his life.
Along with his sister and two brothers, Joseph’s parents also made the voyage. It is possible that his mother died aboard ship because archival materials indicate Joseph and his siblings were settled in Alexandria with their father, an Episcopal priest.
At some point soon after their arrival in Virginia, Rev. Gawler died, leaving his five children in the care of a family in Alexandria, perhaps a member of the same parish in which the Gawler family had settled originally. During this era in America, it was customary for most boys to learn a trade, and this training was provided through an apprenticeship with a tradesman. Typically, the apprenticeship began when the boy was 14 and continued until approximately 21. However, for orphaned boys, as was the case of Joseph Gawler, the adoptive family could enter an orphan into an apprenticeship as early as 9 or 10 years of age.
This may have been the fate of young Joseph Gawler, for he was apprenticed at some point to a local tailor, and, for whatever reason, at about age 13, he ran away to Baltimore on Aug. 29, 1841. The tradesman for whom he apprenticed, J. S. Emerson of Alexandria, ran several ads, beginning Sept. 11, 1841, in The Baltimore Sun.
There is little to document the teenager’s activities in the ensuing years, but, because he became a skilled cabinetmaker, we may assume he indentured himself to a tradesman who taught him these skills.
At some point during his time away from Alexandria, Gawler met and married Annie Louisa Bekner. In 1850, they moved to Washington and settled in a modest house in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. Twelve children were born, six surviving to adulthood: Joseph Gawler Jr., 1851-1909; Clara Louisa Gawler, 1854-1909; Charles J. Gawler, 1855-1919; Annie E. Gawler Monroe, 1862-1947; Ferdinand Gawler, 1866-1904; and Alfred Benjamin Gawler,1873-1954.
Early one Sunday morning in December 1853, the Gawler family miraculously escaped certain death when a raging storm weakened the walls of a nearby home. Bricks and heavy timbers showered the adjacent frame house where Annie Gawler and her children were asleep on the second floor. Trapped by debris, they eventually had to be extricated by passing strangers who heard their cries. A report of the harrowing experience was carried in The Washington Sentinel’s Dec. 20, 1853, edition. In the article, a word of thanks from the family was offered to two rescuers – Capt. Sanger and Mr. James Kelly.
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