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John Allison was a schoolmaster that served in army during the American war for Independence. He was born sometime in the year 1747. It is not clear where he lived, however; some records have him listed in York County whereas some have him listed in Cumberland County. Nevertheless, the records for both counties make it clear that John Allison did not have a wife or any children. He applied for a veteran’s pension following an Act of Congress calling for the payment of pensions for Revolutionary War veterans who had proof of their service. He appeared before the Court of Common Pleas in Gettysburg in Adams County, Pennsylvania on May 2, 1818 and again on August 10, 1820. He finally received his pension in 1820 at the age of seventy-three.

Before the war, Allison was a schoolmaster. As such, he either would have worked in one of the newly established Pennsylvania schools of the 1760s or would have taught the children of colonial families in their homes. It is also possible, although less likely, that he was a teacher at the Philadelphia Academy, which functioned as a higher education opportunity for wealthy colonial youth. Religious sects also erected schools for the sole purpose of teaching children how to read the bible and sometimes write their name.  The different religious parishes funded their own schools to teach children religious doctrines so that they could be full members of the church community. Allison could have taught in either of these fashions, but given what is known about him, he probably taught the children in the homes of colonial families. In secular schools, with the exception of the colleges, boys would have learned reading, writing, arithmetic, oratory skills, and other subjects that were necessary for young men to be good citizens of society. Girls were taught a variety of home economic subjects such as cooking, music, dance, sewing, and knitting. As a teacher Allison would have played an active role in shaping the youth, mainly boys, so that they could enter American society.[1]

Teachers who taught in the homes were usually called itinerant because they taught children in one home for a short period and then moved on to another family. The salary of colonial teachers was low, and so most teachers had to find other employment. The immense difficulty of locating John Allison in a Pennsylvania county and his being listed in two different but close counties points to the possibility that he was probably an itinerant schoolmaster. Most schoolmasters would accept room and board with the family, whose kids they taught, in lieu of a fixed salary. Families were more likely to hire young, unmarried, men to board with them, which helps explain why Allison did not have a family of his own. [2]

A teacher was likely to join the Revolution the same as a farmer or any other poor person. Being a teacher was a disliked profession in the colonies especially in the pre-Revolution period. Anybody could become a teacher as long as they could read and write. It was not until the 1770s that people began to take education for the young more seriously. People began to see it as a necessity to educate the young so that they would be able to assume their new civic duty in the newly emerging country. Previously, this duty was the sole responsibility of the gentlemen, but the expansion of educational opportunities opened the duty to ordinary people. Even after teaching became an important profession, teachers still received a small salary and continued to seek other forms of employment to supplement their pay. One such way was militia duty, which seemed profitable during that turbulent time in the colonies.[3]

Allison said he completed four tours of militia duty prior to enlisting in the Continental Line of Pennsylvania. A tour of militia duty only lasted two months and was on a rotational basis. This would allow him to teach students for about two months and then return to his unit for his rotation. Pennsylvania established a militia in 1777 after radicals took over the Assembly and passed an act requiring all able-bodied men to serve militia duty.[4] Militia duty was very different from tours of duty within the Continental Army. Militia served as not only soldiers defending against the British but also as police forces within the county. They were called on to fight Indians and round up Tories along with anyone who opposed the new, emerging government while the colonies were at war with Britain.[5] Militia units were highly untrained at fighting and usually lacked the discipline of the Line soldiers. Because of this weakness, it was hard to use them effectively in battle; it was not until late in the war when a Continental officer figured out a way to use the militia effectively against the British.[6] They would normally serve their time in the field and return to their homes and farms where they may or may not reenlist.

 Following his militia duty, Allison enlisted in the 1st Pennsylvania Line 1st Brigade 4th Regiment, commanded by Major General Anthony Wayne, a man known for his courage and battlefield presence.[7] The Continental Line soldiers were more disciplined and more diverse than the soldiers of the militia, usually comprised of neighbors. New Yorkers, such as Captains Bicker and Humphrey,[8] could find themselves in a Pennsylvanian unit or a Maryland unit. Allison served the bulk of his Line duty as a Sergeant Major. Muster roles have him listed as the Sergeant Major to the 4th Regiment commanded by Col. William Butler.[9] As a Sergeant Major (SGM) Allison would have been on the Regimental Staff working with the Regimental Commander to coordinate drill and daily camp tasks. It was the SGM’s job to make sure that the soldiers did their duties and that the regimental camp was in working order. Keeping order and assigning tasks to subordinate NCOs and soldiers would have been a skill that he perfected as a schoolmaster. He was responsible for the education of young boys, which required patience, an attention to detail, and a commanding presence to persuade people to follow directions. The SGM would not have seen much fighting, but he would have been present at the battles alongside the Commander as events unfolded.

Before serving as a SMG, Allison said he served some time as a First Sergeant (1SG) during which he would have been responsible for the discipline of the soldiers both during combat and outside of combat. Discipline would have been his specialty given his teaching background, because teachers were given the freedom to discipline their pupils to make sure they learned their lessons and were respectful. The 1SG, unlike the SGM, saw combat because it was his duty to ensure that the soldiers remained in formation and continued to fire at the British no matter what the cost. Allison’s time as a 1SG was probably short lived because the records have him as a SMG before leaving Valley Forge. Despite his lack of combat time as a 1SG, he probably aided his Company Commander in the drilling of his company’s soldiers under the directions of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

His Continental Line enlistment began in 1778 and lasted until 1783. During that time, he served in the Second Battle at Trenton. He was also present at the Battle of Monmouth, the Sullivan Expedition of 1779 under the command of Gen Hand, the Battle of Green Springs, and the Siege and Surrender at Yorktown. Each of these battles were important because they showed that the Continental Army could fight effectively and battle face to face with the British regulars and their native allies.[10] Moreover, the Sullivan Expedition was one of few times when Washington allowed for his Line soldiers to fight against the Native Americans and their Tory allies. Previous to this, Washington felt that fighting Tories and Indians was a job for a state’s militia not his Continental Soldiers. [11]

Overall, little is known about the life of John Allison not even when or where he died. This man who lived and worked in the Pennsylvania frontier and fought over the country is nowhere to be found in records except to say that he applied for and received a pension from the Federal Government. However, based on the information known about that time, the life of John Allison can be reconstructed in a variety of ways each one more different from the last.

Murray Shackelford                                                                                                    

Lycoming College



[1]Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783, (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row, 1970), 549.

[2] Cremin, American Education, 549; Leonard Everett Fisher, The Schoolmasters, (Boston: David R. Godine, 1986), 22; John Allison, Pension File, S. 39931.

[3]Fisher, The Schoolmasters, 22.

[4] “Revolutionary War Militia Battalions and Companies Arranged by County,”, (accessed March 26, 2015).

[5] Christopher Pearl, “The State: Civil War and the Rise of State Power,” (lecture, Colonial America and the Revolution, Lycoming College, April 6, 2015).

[6] Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 87-99.

[7] “Anthony Wayne,” Gale Biography in Context, (accessed March 27, 2015).

[8] “Arrangement of the Officers of the Fourth Penna,” in Pennsylvania Archives, no. 5, vol. 2,  1034.

[9] Arrangement of the Officers of the Fourth Penna,” (accessed March 26, 2015).

[10] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 357-570.

[11] Albert Hazen Wright, The Sullivan Expansion of 1779: The Regimental Rosters of Men, (Heritage Books, 2009), 72.