American Towns named for British Soldiers

Hundred, West Virginia. Source: Google
Hundred, West Virginia. Source: Google

If you want to visit a town named for a Revolutionary War veteran, it’s pretty easy to do. There’s the nation’s capital, of course, among other places named for George Washington. Many states feature a Lafayette, commemorating the young Frenchman who became an American general. Or Greensboro, North Carolina, a tribute General Nathanael Greene (in spite of the slight change in spelling); Knoxville, Tennessee, recalling General Henry Knox; Steubenville, Ohio, named for General von Steuben; and countless others celebrating the great leaders who brought about American independence.

But what about the other end of the spectrum, the common soldiers? And not American soldiers, but British soldiers – would any towns in America be named for them? There are, in fact, at least two. Although both are tiny settlements well off the beaten path, the stories of the men for whom they are named are worth remembering.

One is Abraham Pike, an Irishman born around 1750 – sources disagree on the year of his birth, ranging from 1747 to 1752. He joined the army in December 1775 during feverish recruiting efforts to increase the size of regiments already serving in America. He enlisted in the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. By this era, the term Welch was strictly an honorific referring to the regiment’s origin nearly a century earlier; like most British regiments, the 23rd recruited from all over the British Isles. Pike and other recruits raised in the ensuing months boarded transports in the summer of 1776, finally arriving in New York in October. Here Pike joined the main body of his regiment on campaigns in New York and New Jersey.[1]

After less than a year, Abraham Pike was in trouble. With two fellow fusiliers, near Head of Elk, Maryland at the start of the Philadelphia campaign, he was spotted by soldiers of Captain Patrick Ferguson’s rifle company. The three, two on foot and one on horseback, were coming towards British lines from the outlying countryside carrying fowls and a spy glass. Suspecting they had been up to no good, the British rifle men made them prisoners; they were put on trial by a military court for disobedience of orders (because they had been beyond the army’s advanced posts) and plundering. The trial was brief: Ferguson and a serjeant testified that the prisoners had been taken with the horse, spyglass and poultry; the defendants stated that when posted as advanced piquets they’d caught a stray horse, and found the poultry and spyglass in an abandoned house that was in fact within the lines.[2]

The three soldiers were found guilty and sentenced to 1000 lashes each. Such a punishment would strike fear into the prisoners, but immediately after the trial an unusual thing happened. General Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the army, deemed the sentence “inadequate to their crimes” and did not approve it even though he recognized their guilt.[3] They couldn’t be re-tried, so they were free to rejoin the regiment without any punishment at all. If escaping punishment instilled any sense of loyalty in Abraham Pike, it did not last; he deserted on 8 May 1778 as the army was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia.[4]

Deserters are usually difficult to trace after they absconded from British service, but Pike is an exception; it was after his desertion that the most memorable events of his life occurred. In the course of two years he married and made his way to Plymouth, Pennsylvania, a frontier town across the Susquehanna River near Wilkes-Barre where by March 1780 he lived with his wife Mary and their infant daughter.[5]

Pike may have been intent on a domestic frontier life, but war raged throughout the colonies and touched his young family with an unsympathetic hand. On 29 March 1780 they were in the wilderness about 10 miles northeast of Plymouth making sugar at a log cabin when a party of native warriors fell upon them. Ten in number, this band had recently made several attacks on settlers, killing half-a-dozen and taking three likely teenagers prisoner. The warriors knew that Pike was a deserter and they’d be rewarded for taking him alive to the British garrison at Fort Niagara. They took him and his wife prisoner but tossed the swaddled infant onto the cabin roof before hastening away. After some distance the insistent pleas of Mrs. Pike convinced them to release her; she recovered her child and hurried to alarm the nearest settlement.

With their four prisoners, the war party proceeded along the Susquehanna towards their own territory. Pike was keenly aware that he faced harsh punishment or execution if turned over to British authorities; with nothing to lose, he initiated a bold scheme. He’d observed that the youngest prisoner, a fourteen-year-old, did not have his hands tied like the others and was required to sleep under the same blanket with the party’s leader. As the group waded across a deep creek, Pike took the lad over his shoulder and whispered a plan: stay awake that night and slip the leader’s knife from his belt while he sleeps, then cut Pike’s bindings. Pike would take care of the rest. Pike communicated to the other prisoners to stay awake that night, 1 April. When darkness fell the party kindled a fire, ate, then spread their blankets with five on either side of the four prisoners.

Deep in the night, by the faint light of a partial moon and glowing embers, the plan was effected. The young prisoner deftly procured the knife and slipped from under the blanket. Pike held up his bound hands and was cut free; he then carefully stole the firearms away from the sleeping warriors. Accounts by the survivors disagree on the ensuing events, but it is clear that Pike and the older two prisoners used their captor’s tomahawks to kill at least two and disperse the rest; they shot another who was fleeing. When the melee ended, the prisoners were unscathed and free. On 6 April 1780 they arrived at Fort Wyoming in Wilkes-Barre.[6]

Grave stone of Abraham Pike. Source: findagrave.com
Grave stone of Abraham Pike. Source: findagrave.com

Abraham Pike was reunited with his wife and daughter, and they had five more children over the next 15 years. The story of his escape was told and retold. Pike the deserter, Pike the family man, became known throughout the region as “The Indian Killer.” His family and celebrity, however, did not sustain him. A person who knew him in his later years lamented, “…he became extremely intemperate in his old age, and his mind was impaired and his eye wandered in vacancy… His habits of extreme intemperance in his old age had blasted and destroyed a mind quick, discriminating, and very sensitive to honor; and utterly prostrated a stout and well-knit frame, which in its hour of development had undergone great hardships and endured the most oppressive fatigues.” Pike met the loneliest of ends, “a wandering mendicant, going from door to door for charity, and finally died a pauper, by the roadside, November eleventh, 1834, with no kindly hand even to close his eyes after his spirit had departed.” [7]

Pike’s legacy, however, is not completely forgotten. His grave can still be seen in the Idetown cemetery in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. And the area where he was taken prisoner one day while making sugar came to be called Pike’s Swamp, and the stream that fed it Pike’s Creek. Today, in Luzerne County, you can stop at the intersection of state routes 29 and 118 and wonder whether the residents of the little village of Pike’s Creek know that their town was named for an Irishman who spent two years in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Another British soldier, Henry Church, arrived in America after Abraham Pike had already deserted. Church was a native of Suffolk, England, born in 1750.[8] It is not known when he joined the army, but he came to America in 1780 as a recruit for the 63rd Regiment of Foot. He was assigned directly to the regiment’s light infantry company which suggests that he had prior military experience.[9]

However long he had been a soldier, his military career came to a quick end in America. The light company of the 63rd was sent to Virginia in early 1781, and Henry Church was taken prisoner in the vicinity of Petersburg. He was sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where many other British prisoners were held, and remained there until a peace treaty was signed in 1783.[10]

Henry Church, as illustrated in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1858
Henry Church, as illustrated in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1858

The war’s end brought about repatriation of prisoners of war but some chose not to return and were written off as deserters, among them Henry Church. He married a Philadelphia Quaker named Hannah Keine, three years younger than himself, and the couple moved west to frontier lands.[11] They settled in present-day West Virginia very near the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania where they built the homestead in which they spent the rest of their lives, raising eight children. Their lives had none of the excitement of Abraham Pike’s family, at least none that is chronicled, and none of the subsequent depletion. All indications are that they lived productively on their rural farm.

As they lived on, things changed in America. Industrialization took hold and spread, influencing both urban and rural life. It took a long time, however, for technological progress to reach the rural enclave where Henry Church had settled; railroads were well established by the middle of the 19th century, and we seldom think of connections between this modern form of transportation and the American Revolution. Nonetheless, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was building a line from Grafton to Wheeling, West Virginia in 1850, the line passed the Church farm. Henry Church was 101, and his wife 98. Some of the construction crew boarded with them for several months, and in recognition of their hospitality built a flag station there and called it “Old Hundred.”[12] When regular service began in 1852, Henry and Hannah were there to watch the trains roll by.[13]

They saw many more trains pass. In 1858 the railroad invited a number of artists and writers on an excursion which stopped at Old Hundred. Henry and Hannah were greeted with fanfare which they received stoically until a British government official among the visitors played a martial tune that Henry recognized. Supposedly railroad officials offered to give the old couple a train ride to Wheeling where they would be treated with some celebrity. The story is that Henry declined the offer with the simple response, “I never did make a show of myself and I never will.” In spite of his modesty, conductors would point out the aged couple to passengers when trains passed.[14]

And many more passed. Hannah Church died on 27 July 1860, having lived for 106 years. Henry Church survived her by only 49 days, passing on 14 September. Their legacy, however, lives on. A town grew up in the area where they lived, first called “Old Hundred” and in 1886 officially named Hundred. It remains to this day, with a population of around 300 including descendants of Henry and Hannah Church, the former British soldier and his American wife.

 


[1] For a detailed discussion of wartime recruiting practices see Don N. Hagist, British Soldiers, American War (Yardly, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012) 2-12; for the demographics of the 23rd Regiment see ibid., 306n5.

[2] Picquets, or pickets, were soldiers placed at intervals in front of the lines as advanced sentries. Court martial of Abraham Pike, William Huston and John Smith, WO 71/84, British National Archives, 200-202.

[3] General orders, 2 September 1777, in Collections of the New York Historical Society (New York, NY, 1884) 483.

[4] Muster rolls, 23rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3960, British National Archives.

[5] This author has been unable to verify claims that he served in the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment.

[6] The youngest of the captives, Jonah Rogers, described the ordeal in The Wyoming Republican (Kingston, PA) 4 September 1833; accounts by other captives are in Hendrick Bradley Wright, Historical Sketches of Plymouth, Luzerne Co., Penna (Plymouth, PA: T. B. Peterson, 1873) 208-216.

[7] Hendrick Bradley Wright, Historical Sketches of Plymouth 217.

[8] Church was probably born in November or December, but there are some discrepancies in the available information. For a discussion of the possible dates and sources, see Henry “Old Hundred” Church, on West Virginia Heritage, http://www.wv-heritage.com/p1527.htm .

[9] Muster rolls, 63rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/7242, British National Archives. Study of muster rolls for several regiments shows that men were rarely put into the light infantry until they’d spent at least a year in the regiment, or had reenlisted after prior service.

[10] The specific circumstances of Church’s capture are not known; what is related here is from biographical sketches of Church published late in his life and was probably related directly by him. It is plausible based on the movements of the 63rd’s light infantry company. At this writing, Church has not been found on any surviving prisoner lists, but those lists are not complete. The 63rd Regiment’s muster rolls confirm that he was written off as a deserter in June 1783. Muster rolls, 63rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/7242, British National Archives.

[11] Henry “Old Hundred” Church, on West Virginia Heritage, http://www.wv-heritage.com/p1527.htm .

[12] Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania Proceedings Vol. 6 (1890) 91-92.

[13] This was the line from Grafton, WV to Wheeling, WV. James D. Dilts, The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, the Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1858 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[14] “Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad”, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine No. CIX Vo. XIX (June 1859) 16-18.

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2 Comments

    • You’re right, of course about the town and college named for Britain’s famous military commander. As noted in the second paragraph, I limited this article to towns named after common soldiers. Perhaps there are others?

      Also notice that the gravestone of Abraham Pike refers to service in the Continental Army. In researching Pike’s career I found assertions that he’d spent time in the Continental Army and was a “scout” at the Battle of Wyoming; because I was unable to verify this with a primary source, I chose to omit it from this article – but it is entirely plausible.

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