Colonial Intrigue: It’s possible that the last surviving veteran of the French & Indian War is buried in Warren

Times Observer photo by Josh Cotton The grave of John Owen – potentially the last surviving veteran of the French and Indian War – at Oakland Cemetery in Pleasant Township.

You read that headline correctly – it’s possible that the last living veteran of the French & Indian War is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Warren.

Maybe.

But some background….

The French and Indian war – 1754 to 1763 – was, essentially, a European conflict settled on colonial North American soil.

“The French and Indian War resulted from ongoing frontier tensions in North America as both French and British imperial officials and colonists sought to extend each country’s sphere of influence in frontier regions,” according to a synopsis from the Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department. “In the resulting Treaty of Paris (1763), Great Britain secured significant territorial gains in North America, including all French territory east of the Mississippi river, as well as Spanish Florida, although the treaty returned Cuba to Spain.”

While the British can rightly claim victory, the ensuing decades would result in that victory coming at an ever-increasing cost.

From the State Department: “Unfortunately for the British, the fruits of victory brought seeds of trouble with Great Britain’s American colonies. The war had been enormously expensive, and the British government’s attempts to impose taxes on colonists to help cover these expenses resulted in increasing colonial resentment of British attempts to expand imperial authority in the colonies. British attempts to limit western expansion by colonists and inadvertent provocation of a major Indian war further angered the British subjects living in the American colonies. These disputes ultimately spurred colonial rebellion, which eventually developed into a full-scale war for independence.”

We received an email in our Virtual Newsroom earlier this year from Joshua Nieters, an amateur genealogist from Minnesota.

He introduced us to John Owen, one of over 50,000 who served in the war.

Owen lived until potentially until the age of 107 and died in 1843.

The commonly accepted last veteran of the French and Indian War is Jonathan Benjamin, who died in 1841.

How did Nieters come across Owen?

“I am an amateur genealogist and have an interest in military history,” he told the Times Observer. “The last surviving veteran of the French and Indian War is generally regarded as Jonathan Benjamin, who died in 1841. I thought that seemed too early, especially since the war ended only 78 years before. Wars with fewer soldiers that took place that long ago generally have their last veteran die around 80 years later, but the last veteran of most conflicts die about 90-95 years after.

“So, I figured that if I did an empty search – I used Ancestry, but a lot of sites would have worked – for someone who died later in the 1840’s with a 1730 to 1750 birthdate, took out erroneous records and cross referenced them with French and Indian War service records, there was a high potential someone could be found. That’s how John Owen was found. And I thought finding the last veteran of a war would be an interesting credit to have.”

Nieters shared his research with us, which serves as the basis for this story.

Military record keeping in the 1700s was less than precise so it’s entirely possible that Owen – because of a lack of research – was the last surviving veteran.

As much as we hate to admit it, though, it’s equally possible that he isn’t. We can’t say with absolute certainty.

But his life makes a great story nonetheless.

Owen was born in Lebanon, Connecticut.

The “when” isn’t quite so clear.

His gravestone at Oakland Cemetery indicates he died at “107 years, 10 months and 8 days old.”

Given that he died in 1843, that would put his birthday back to April 16, 1735.

His advanced age and military service resulted in his death being picked up by some distant newspapers.

From the March 4, 1843 edition Commercial Advertiser and Journal in Buffalo: “At Carroll. Chautauqua county, on the 24th, Mr. John Owens, aged 107 years. The deceased was born at Salisbury, Conn, served in the old French war, and was a soldier and pensioner of the Revolution. He removed to Warren, Pa. in 1807; settled in Chautauqua county, in 1818 he has since resided.”

Other records point to a 1741 birth year for Owen.

An 1840 veteran’s census of Revolutionary War pensioners lists Owen as 100 years old.

Further, membership geneaology work completed for admission to the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution concludes the likelihood of an 1741 birthday.

Either way, colonial church records show that Owen was baptized at the First Congressional Church in Lebanon, Connecticut on September 2, 1744.

A 1934 book compiled and edited by E.J.P. Sage with a lengthy title – Samuel Morrison of Bucks and Lycoming counties, Pennsylvania and some of his descendants, with a brief sketch of John Owen, 1741-1843, of Carroll township, Chautauqua county, New York and his descendants – is a good resource for information on Owen.

Sage concluded that Owen likely moved from Lebanon to Salisbury, Connecticut before 1750.

He enlisted on April 15, 1758 in the Second Company under Lieut. Colonel Benjamin Hinman of Woodbury and served until October 9 during what amounted to an unsuccessful attempt to drive the French from New York.

The 1921 History of Chautauqua County, New York and Its People by John Downs and Fenwick Henley indicates possible service with the British in 1759.

They noted that “Owen served with the English in the attack on Quebec in the old French War.”

Sage claimed that Owen also appears on a military roster of the Fourth Company under Captain Elmer of Sharon serving from 16 April 1761 to 4 December 1761.

Rolls of Connecticut men serving in the Conflict indicate that he served in Whiting’s Regiment in the 10th company in the northern colonies and Montreal.

Owen then fell back into civilian life.

Sage’s text notes that his first marriage was to Joanna Phelps of Windsor, Connecticut. They were married in Salisbury on May 31, 1768 and had five children – Ebenezer (born 16 May 1769), John (23 December 1771), Ethan (10 June 1774), Aaron (23 October 1776) and Herman (8 December 1779).

By JOSH COTTON

jcotton@timesobserver.com

In 1775, the calls to arms went out and Owen responded, joining colonial forces in the American Revolution.

Sage’s record details his Revolutionary service.

“During the Revolution he resided at Salisbury. He enlisted from this town as a private in the Connecticut troops Captain Nathaniel Buell’s (Buel) Company, Colonel Hinman’s Fourth Regiment for the expedition against Ticonderoga. They arrived there just after Col. Ethan Allen had taken it. This first term of service was for eight months, serving from April or March 1775. In May 1776 he was impressed and marched from Horse’s Neck in Captain Roger Moore’s Company Colonel Gay’s Regiment serving six months and during that time was in a number of skirmishes between the soldiers and the ‘Cowboys.’ In July 1777 he marched on an alarm to Fairfield in Captain Roger Moore’s Company Colonel Gay’s Regiment and served two months. In September or October 1777 he went on another alarm in Captain Nathaniel Buell’s Company Colonel Whitney’s Regiment to Red Brook on the North River serving three or four weeks.”

With his first wife evidently passing away, Owen married a second time – this time to “Lydia Gilson who was born 30 January 1773 at Sunderland Massachusetts daughter of John Gilson 4th of Sunderland by his only wife Patience Graves,” according to Sage.

They had six children – Elizabeth (born 23 March 1788), Elsie (8 July 1790), Ira (16 February 1793), Phoebe (23 July 1795), Reuben (12 July 1800), and Sally (20 October 1802).

“The family of John Owen appears to have been overlooked by the enumerators of the first census,” Sage wrote. “About the year 1790 he removed to Hudson New York and lived there perhaps eight or more years, when he returned to Delaware county and remained about four years. He came with his family from the Susquehanna valley crossing Pennsylvania with an ox cart as far as Pittsburgh and from there poled a flat boat up the Allegheny to Warren.”

Owen was listed as a taxable inhabitant of Conewango Township from 1806-1809 and is identified as “gone” in the 1810 record.

“During the year 1809 he purchased land in what was then Pomfret township (now Poland township) Chautauqua county New York and removed there the same or following year.,” Sage wrote. “In 1816 he sold his farm and opened a tavern on the east side of the Conewango creek in what is now Carroll township, near Fentonville, where he passed the remaining yeas of his life. He also operated ‘Owen’s Ferry’ for those wishing to cross the Conewango before the building of the bridge.”

Multiple accounts of Owen’s later years reveal a mythic story-teller and a very active centenarian.

“He is reported to have been a very good natured man and an excellent story-teller. His teeth were all double ones he had an impediment of speech which seemed to add to the interest of his stories,” Sage wrote. “His tavern became a favorite rendezvous for the lumbermen during the rafting season. Many a night when his floors were covered with wary raftsmen, for want of sufficient beds to hold them all, they were kept awake till a late hour by his witty stories.”

The Chautauqua County history notes that “Many a man has laughed at the old man’s stories and jokes till the sides were sore. He claimed that in his early days he never found but one man that got the better of him in a fair ‘stand-up’ fight.”

“He was a stranger to sickness and at the age of 100 years walked from Carroll township to the home of his grandchildren in Conewango township. The last years of his life were passed in the house of his son Reuben,” Sage wrote.

Owen died in Carroll on February 6, 1843, potentially at the age of 107 – depending on where you place his birth year – and two years after the death of Jonathan Benjamin, the accepted last survivor of the French and Indian War.

He was initially buried in the Fifth Street cemetery in Warren. The people buried there were exhumed and reburied at Oakland Cemetery once it opened in the 1860s. The stone on his grave at Oakland, though, is original to the Fifth Street cemetery, sources confirm.

His wife, continuing to collect his Revolutionary War pension, lived another eight years and died in 1851 in Pine Grove Township. She was buried near her husband.

Owen’s name is included on the General Joseph Warren statue in downtown Warren as “John Owens.”

Nieters pointed us to a section of Sage’s work that explains the difference in surnames between “Owen” and “Owens.”

“The family surname is Owen and not Owens. This is clearly established by the existing records of the family found at its early Connecticut seats. The corrupted form Owens has been adopted by some descendants of the John Owen traced herein,” Sage wrote.

An obituary published in the Mayville Sentinel after he passed away in 1843 notes that “He has a remarkably strong and robust constitution, his habits were remarkably active. At the age of 94 would mount a spirited horse from the ground. He had a vast fund of anecdote. Like that hardy race of men who achieved our independences, he wore but did not rust. His disease was emphatically called by his physician old age. His appetite began to fail 10 or 12 days before he died which was the only precautionary symptom of his dissolution and he sank down to rest… without pain, leaving a numerous progeny and a great circle of friends and acquaintances to cherish his memory.”

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