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Williamsport, PA, 17701
United States

Biography

Like many men at the start of the American Revolution, John Allen, a sixteen-year-old from Franklin County, PA, joined the Continental Line to fight against the British. Allen recounted his young adult life at seventy-five years old before a judge in order to receive pension for his service. He mentioned that he obtained a written discharge following his release but it had “been long burnt by accident.”[1] Therefore, Allen used other evidence to prove his  participation in the war, his own recollection. 

John Allen’s family resided in Chambersburg, Franklin County—now part of Cumberland County which consisted predominately of farmers and laborers.  Chambersburg, originally recognized as the site for a gristmill and sawmill, evolved shortly before the start of the Revolutionary War -“The Community was formally laid out in 1764 by the then Colonel Chambers extending south and east from the fort that had been built for protection against Indian raids.”[2] Chambersburg turned into a heavily populated agricultural area and like many families living there, John Allen’s family farmed and owned property to support themselves. This agricultural life was not always peaceful, even the most mundane of days could be filled with some sort of hardship. Allen was no stranger to this reality, after the war a fire ravaged through his family farm destroying his family Bible containing the records of everyone’s births. Losing this family artifact effectually erased the celebration days we today know and love. By the time he made his way to court to recount his life and service he did not even know the actual date or even year of his birth; he had to merely guess that he was around seventy-five years old. 

When he enlisted as a private in the Continental Line in 1776, John Allen was about sixteen and did not own any possessions. Allen did not give just cause as to why he enlisted into the war, but according to historians, “An economic motive for supporting the Patriot party is evident; safe behind the Susquehanna, they were free to produce and sell to the rebel army great reserves of food and supplies that were amassed at the Carlisle quartermaster depot and in cellars, barns, and private houses leased as emergency storage spaces.”[3] The war effort increased the local economy and encouraged young men with little property to fight while the large farms produced resources to benefit the army. Allen was one of those young men with little to no property and testified to the court that he enlisted early and served five years in the war,  under, he thought, a Captain Brown and a Colonel Campbell in what he believed to be the 7th Regiment. However, at seventy-five, Allen's memory was a bit hazy as neither Captain Brown nor Colonel Campbell commanded the 7th Regiment.  He most likely served in the 6th Pennsylvania Battalion which would later be known as the 7th Regiment. Initially, the 6th Battalion was created in Cumberland and York Counties, but after the Canadian expedition,  the unit was forced to move. In December 1775, the Cumberland County Committee of Correspondence organized what Congress on January 9, 1776 designated the Sixth Pennsylvania Battalion with William Irvine of Carlisle as commander. It went to Canada, where it took was captured at Three Rivers. The remnants and new recruits were organized into the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, placed under Irvine (who had been exchanged) and kept in existence until early 1781."[4]   

John Allen did not mention any specific tasks or assignments he performed during the war. However, he did recall his injuries as a result of the Battle of Brandywine. The battle took place on September 11, 1777 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania (then Chester County). British General William Howe moved to seize the rebel capital, Philadelphia, and General Washington led his troops to defend it. One of the largest battles, over 30,000 soldiers converged near Chadds Ford, resulting in a British victory and  nearly 1,500 American casualties. Allen was one of those casualties. He later remembered that he “was wounded there in the hand and lost one joint off the middle finger of the left hand.” As a laborer, an injury to the hands created great difficulty when he performed tasks and told the court of his sufferings following his discharge.[5]    

After leaving the service, John Allen worked as a laborer and lived as a freeman for a majority of his adulthood. He joined the Continental Line at sixteen and left at twenty. With few possessions and many opportunities, Allen made his living through his  limited skills and trade with little attachment to people or land. According to historian Lucy Simler, Allen’s status as a freeman meant that he was “a single free man, over twenty-one years of age and out of his servitude or apprenticeship for a stated period of time. Early in the eighteenth century a freeman helping his parents of the farm or at a trade was exempt from the head tax.”[6] From the tax records one can see that Allen moved every two to three years; a necessary reality for an unskilled laborer such as Allen.  Post-war Allen worked on other people’s land without the responsibility or, just as likely, the wherewithal to pay a land tax.[7] He eventually traveled to Delaware County, Ohio and married Elizabeth Rodgers in 1821 and had one child in 1822. Their son, Frederick A. Allen, appeared before the court following his father’s death, and stated that John Allen never received his due pension. He claimed that his father endured a hard life with his injury from the war and could not perform tasks as well as other laborers. Frederick noted that the family moved further out west to Indiana in 1835 in order to make ends meet. More opportunities existed out on the frontier lands, and people took the chance for a better lifestyle. Yet, just five years after the move, John Allen’s wife, Elizabeth, died, and he packed up his small family and moved back to Delaware County. In 1846, like he had done for most his life, Allen moved his family out west again, but this time it would be his last.  John Allen died in March of 1849.     

His son Frederick came to court in 1854 on behalf of his family to convey the hardships they endured as a result of not receiving his father’s due pension, especially in his father’s later years. The transcription does not give any indication as to whether or not Frederick received this pension after his appearance, but one can assume that the money never arrived. He stood in front of the court not only demanding the debt be paid, but for those who served to not go unnoticed. Thousands of men, like John Allen, appeared before the courts and pleaded for restitution but were turned away. They had valiantly served their country, like the elite generals, but were left with physical and mental damages and little means to support themselves. A majority of the revolutionary soldiers came from backgrounds like Allen's and, like the young sixteen year old, felt it was their duty to defend their land.    

 

Lexie Miller

Lycoming College

 

Endnotes

[1] John Allen, Pension File, R.122

[2]“History,” The Borough of Chambersburg, last modified 2012, accessed April 12, 2015, http://www.borough.chambersburg.pa.us/history.php.

[3] John B Frantz and William Pencak. Beyond Philadelphia. (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998). 129.

[4] Frantz and Pencak. Beyond Philadelphia. 125.

[5] John Allen, Pension File, R. 122.

[6] Lucy Simler and Paul Clemens, “The ‘Best Poor Man’s Country’ in 1783: The Population Structure of Rural Society in Late-Eighteenth-Century Southeastern Pennsylvania” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No.2. (Jun., 1989), 238.

[7] Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, Volume XXII, “Transcript of Property with Number of Inhabitants in the County of Westmoreland, 1783.”