In the annals of American folklore and song, there are some fairly colourful characters who pop up with regularity. Woody Guthrie (and later Arlo, Joan Baez, Bill Staines) sang about the bank robber Pretty-Boy Floyd and about the gunslinger Billy the Kid. More infamously, he also sang about the train robber Jesse James. But one Robin Hood of what was then the American frontier, who deserved a few chords strummed his way but never seems to have gotten them, was the horse thief, bank robber, spy and Tory outlaw Moses Doan, who led the Doan Gang during the Revolutionary era, of whom, through my mother, I happen to be a kinsman.
During the War of American Independence, these Doans were fiercely loyal to the Crown, particularly Moses Doan, who had quite a colourful history. Apparently a rather stubborn and wilful teenager, he had a falling-out with his father in 1770, after which he left home, defended a settlement from an attack in defence of a girl, Mary Doremy, who spurned his subsequent declaration of love, and later, angry at the treatment of the Indians by the settlers, briefly joined the local Wolf Indian tribe.
The most interesting aspect of his character was his militancy – again, perhaps, a form of rebellion against his father’s peaceable faith. But although he rejected his father’s ideal of pacifism and refusal to align himself with either side in the political conflict, he never turned against the Quakers of Bucks County themselves. The local Whiggish Committees of Safety were, even as early as the closure of Boston Harbour in 1774, levying punitive taxes upon the peaceful Quaker homesteaders of Pennsylvania who merely wished to stay out of the fighting, vandalising their homes, stealing their crops and livestock and threatening to take away their lands. The Committee of Safety did confiscate the farm of Joseph Doan, threw him and his family off their land and gaoled and branded the Quaker farmer as a criminal for tax evasion. Moses managed to convince his four brothers (Joseph Jr, Aaron, Levi and Mahlon) and his cousin Abraham to join him in avenging the wrongs against the Quakers and fighting back against the Whigs and Revolutionaries – by stealing horses from wealthy Whigs and robbing the taxes from the Committees of Safety and sharing what they took with the harassed farmers.
As Moses was scouting possible routes the tax collectors might take, the newly-formed Doan Gang kick-started their career by trying to rob the Doremy family – the same one to which the aforementioned Mary, of Moses’s unrequited affections, belonged. Moses arrived to find his kinsmen in the middle of this robbery, physically stopped his brethren from beating her father and promised her that even though they might have no future together, he would always protect her and her family and she need never fear him or his brothers. Noted for their striking statures, physical attractiveness and prowess in riding and marksmanship, the Doan Gang became, practically overnight, larger-than-life legends. To the Quakers and Tories of the mid-Atlantic region, the Doan Gang became folk heroes with the status of Robin Hood. In the eyes of the Whigs, they were debauching devils.
They grew infamous for robbing wealthy Whig families and particularly for stealing horses and selling them to the British; Moses Doan also earned a reputation as General Howe’s ‘Eagle Spy’ for the detail and accuracy of the information he supplied. He even managed to send a brief letter to the British Colonel Rahl at Trenton warning of Washington’s infamous Christmas raid, which was sadly ignored until it was already too late. The note was found later by Washington’s victorious army in the aftermath.
The Doan Gang retained a sense of humour in their robberies, which often consisted of robbing men who boasted that they were proof against the Doans’ thievery, and then returning their goods some time later. Moses Doan, however, seemed to have worn his Robin Hood mantle quite seriously, and taken on an ideal of knight-errantry. He beat one of his own gang senseless, and later threw him bodily down a flight of stairs, for repeatedly trying to rape the wife of one of the men they were robbing. Later he would assist a young woman whose husband had taken up the rebel cause at Valley Forge in obtaining flour (ultimately, by gunning down one of the British sentries to clear a path for her back to her home). His gang also was responsible for freeing a number of British prisoners-of-war from the rebel stockade in Lancaster, to the point where the major of the stockade posed as one of his own prisoners in order to uncover the spy ring by which the Doans were freeing them. On another occasion, Joseph Doan audaciously impersonated Lord Rawdon (a popular and distinguished guest among wealthy Pennsylvania residents on both sides of the conflict), in order to relieve one of Lord Rawdon’s hosts of his money and silverware.
However chivalric Moses Doan may have been, his gang was generally prone to excess. Abraham and Levi Doan were accused in a newspaper broadside of having shot to death a French storekeeper on the Susquehanna. Their most infamous exploit, however, was the heist of £1,307 (a value of about $2,000,000 today) from the Newtown Treasury in Bucks County, supposedly in retaliation for the surrender of Cornwallis three days previous. They buried the money somewhere near Wrightstown, but it was never recovered.
After the war was over, the Doans were relentlessly pursued. The new government had confiscated all of their father’s property in retaliation for their actions, so they could not return home, nor could they count on Loyalist support for their actions. Moses Doan was tracked to a tavern, where he fought with one of his childhood rivals, a Colonel William Hart, before surrendering to the authorities. However, after having been arrested and disarmed, he was shot through the heart as he was lying prone, by one Captain Robert Gibson. Moses’s body was later delivered to his parents by a local Whig, who dumped him unceremoniously in front of them and said, ‘Here is one of your Tory sons. He won’t bother any of us soon again.’
Levi and Abraham Doan tried to negotiate Moses Doan’s release, but since he was already dead, the Whigs refused to bargain. In anger, Levi shot into the tavern, where his musket ball struck one of the Continentals’ rifle-butts, which sent a splinter into the groin of one Major Kennedy, who died of the wound several days later. After Major Kennedy’s funeral, the infuriated new state government put an enormous price on the heads of each of the Doan Gang. As such, the others of the Doan Gang met with similar fates. Levi and Abraham Doan turned themselves in in 1787, and were tried and sentenced to death, in violation of the Treaty of Paris. They tried to escape several times, but were hanged before they could succeed. Mahlon Doan was arrested also, and disappeared – it is uncertain whether he drowned in the Chesapeake, or survived to take refuge in Britain. Joseph Jr and Aaron Doan managed to escape to British North America.
At the end of the day, it is fairly easy to imagine why no American folk songs remain to be sung for Moses Doan. The civil mythology which surrounds the founding of the federal government – of a poor, ragtag group of rebels, motivated by high ideals and fighting for their rights against the mighty and evil British Empire – can afford it no place, even in our creative and very often subversive folk culture. The conservative Loyalist presence and consciousness in the thirteen colonies was effectively extinguished south of the 49th parallel by force of arms (indeed, Moses Doan’s modern headstone reads ‘vi et armis’) in a way in which, for example, the Confederate presence and consciousness in the American South which exalted Jesse James to his heroic status never has been. But the history remains to be remembered. And in an age when wealthy state-connected big bankers, more so now than then, have both the legal power and the will to cheat and defraud homeowners and farmers with practical legal impunity, there are far worse things than commemorating in song a gang which fought for the rights of the latter against the former. As the Bill Staines cover of ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ puts it:
Some say I am an outlaw, and some say I am a thief:
But here is a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.
Now as through this world you ramble, you meet many kinds of men,
Some’ll rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
But as through this world you ramble, yes, as through this life you roam,
You know you’ll never see an outlaw drive a family from their home!