Patient Hero: John Henry and the Earliest American Account of Posttraumatic Stress


September 19, 2017
by Bradley Sussner Also by this Author


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In 1871, Jacob Mendes Da Costa published a study of a condition he termed “Irritable Heart” that described a series of symptoms observed among soldiers during the American Civil War that he believed were the result of a cardiac condition stemming from combat.[1] The symptoms that included nightmares, palpitations, headaches and digestive problems were later thought to be psychogenic in origin and likely manifestations of what is now known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Da Costa acknowledged that the condition was not unique to the Civil War given that others had observed similar problems during conflicts earlier in the nineteenth century and he further suggested that the illness had “always existed.” Descriptions of combat trauma were common features of the diaries and letters of those who fought in the American Revolution, but the psychological impacts of these experiences are largely unknown. A review of documents associated with the Colonial era, however, confirms that as the battles that brought forth a new nation commenced, posttraumatic stress was soon to follow.

In his biography of Patrick Henry,[2] Robert Douthat Meade was the first to publish the story of John Henry, Patrick’s second child and first son born in 1757, who, according to a family story included among the archives of the Virginia historian Charles Campbell (1807-1876),[3] experienced a mental breakdown at the Battle of Saratoga in the Fall of 1777. Some have suggested that the event likely reflected PTSD,[4] but the validity of the account has not been fully investigated.

In the undated and anonymous one-page description of the incident, the author highlighted John’s reaction to the trauma he had witnessed.

At the close of action however he was observed walking over the fields of battle, occasionally pausing to recognize such persons among the fallen as he chanced to know; at length he stopped by the body of comrades, & there stood wistfully ‘gazing on the face of the dead’ as if lost in abstraction; suddenly drew his sword from its scabbard, snapped it in pieces, dashed it on the ground and went raving mad.

A family love triangle was also identified as contributing to John’s distress.

… when at school with Dolly Dandridge, fell in love with her. It so happened afterwards Patrick Henry the father ignorant of his son’s early attachment courted and married the same lady.

The author further surmised that the elder Henry felt personally responsible for his son’s condition.

When Patrick Henry heard of the calamity that had befallen his son and learned for the first time his attachment to Miss Dandrige now his mother-in-law he was overwhelmed with grief and was often heard to exclaim poor John, poor John and at the bare mention of his name would shed tears.

The author acknowledged that the story might seem “too romantick to be true,” but suggested that it was likely accurate given that it was conveyed to him by William Spotswood Fontaine, the husband of Sarah Shelton Aylett whose mother, Elizabeth Henry Aylett, was John’s sister.

Meade was indeed skeptical about the account given the fact that the author was not a witness to the event, but he agreed that it might be valid. Meade cited a letter from George Washington to Patrick Henry, dated September 13, 1778, in which the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army referred to correspondence he received from Patrick that included a letter (that has never been found) he hoped would be delivered to his son.[5] Washington noted that he was returning the letter intended for John because the younger Henry was no longer serving in the Continental Army.

I have been honored with yours of the 21st Augt inclosing a letter for Capt. Henry, whose ill state of health obliged him to quit the service about three weeks past. I therefore return you the letter.

Meade’s description of the event ended there, but correspondence from Washington to Patrick Henry dated November 3, 1778 suggests that the elder Henry had sent a follow-up letter “of the 15th” (the letter has never been found, but it was most likely from October 15) with a further inquiry about his son.[6] Washington, likely out of sympathy for his friend whose son was an officer under his command, had already initiated a search for John shortly after he drafted his letter to Patrick in September.

Soon after the date of my Letter giving you an acct of Captn Henry’s having left the Service, I was informed (upon further enquiry after him) that he had got no further than Elizabeth town in the Jerseys & was there rather distressed for want of money, having been indisposed at that place for sometime.

Washington also notified Henry that he had instructed Col. John Banister, who had visited the general’s headquarters in White Plains, New York while on his way to Philadelphia, to give John whatever funds he needed and to help him find his way home to Virginia. Washington expressed hope that by the time Patrick received his letter, his son would have been reunited with him.

Though Washington’s letters lend credence to the account in the Campbell archives, an important element of the family story it conveyed was clearly incorrect: John Henry did not serve at the Battle of Saratoga. A review of documents from the era reveals that John did see combat during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The historical record clearly confirms that he suffered from some form of illness shortly after the battle and that he ultimately resigned his commission in mid-August, 1778.


The Military Career of John Henry

John enlisted in the 1st Virginia Regiment based in Williamsburg in late-1775 under the command of his father, Col. Patrick Henry.[7] On June 14, 1776, John was made a cornet in the 1st Continental Regiment of Light Horse, a cavalry unit later known as the 1st Continental Light Dragoons, under the command of Col. Theodorick Bland.[8] He was promoted to lieutenant on December 4, 1776. On February 7, 1777 he received a commission as 1st lieutenant in the Continental Artillery Regiment under the leadership of Col. Charles Harrison, ultimately rising to the rank of captain.[9] John officially resigned from service in Bland’s regiment on February 20, 1777.[10]

On July 1, 1777, Congress ordered Harrison’s regiment to stay in the Hampton Roads section of Virginia in order to protect the state against British warships that were hovering in the area.[11] In March, 1778, the regiment was ordered to join Washington’s main army stationed at Valley Forge; it arrived in early May where it joined with other forces that had lost approximately 2,500 soldiers from disease, starvation and exposure.[12] Harrison’s regiment would see their first combat action during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 after George Washington decided to send his army to attack the British forces that had evacuated Philadelphia to support their main base of operations in New York City.[13]

In addition to muster and pay rolls that list John as a captain in Harrison’s regiment,[14] pension applications from two soldiers who served under John in 6th company of the regiment refer to him serving at the Battle of Monmouth. For instance, the application of John Allen from July 27, 1818 noted that “… he enlisted in the Company of Artillery Commanded by Captain John Henry in the Regiment Commanded by Colo. Charles Harrison and was at the battle of Monmouth …”[15] In his pension application of September 14, 1818, Thomas Campbell also noted that he served under John in Harrison’s regiment.[16] He further noted that John “… caused him to be taught music, and made a fifer of him, in which he served out the full period of his enlistment … & he was in the battle of Monmouth …”

Harrington’s regiment played a major role in the “Great Cannonade,” an artillery duel lasting at least two hours, approximately 1,200 yards across the “West Morass” from Brig. Gen. James Pattison of the Royal Artillery, commandant of all artillery in British North America.[17] Col. Israel Shreve, who served in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and witnessed the exchange, suggested that it was heavyer than Ever known in the field in America before.[18] Reubin Griffis, a member of Harrison’s regiment, described the battle as “Severe.”[19] Though casualty estimates from the battle have varied significantly, it has been estimated that approximately 360 American soldiers were wounded and 90 were killed.[20] British casualties significantly exceeded those of the Continental Army with between 480 and 640 wounded and around 250 dead. Heat exhaustion may have claimed the lives of one-third of those who died during the engagement due to temperatures that approached 100 degrees with limited supplies of water for the troops.

As the account of John’s breakdown suggests, it is likely that he saw fellow soldiers that he “chanced to know” among those that were struck down during the battle. Some have suggested that the casualty figures Washington included in his report to Congress may have been low (69 dead, 161 wounded and 140 missing – some of whom later returned), but if the true military unit distribution of those killed was consistent with his account, approximately ten percent of those who died were in the artillery ranks.[21] In a letter to his wife a day after the battle, Gen. Henry Knox, who commanded the artillery, reported that he had “several Officers killd and Wounded.”[22] At least two soldiers from Harrison’s regiment who were wounded during the battle later succumbed to their injuries.[23]

Though no documents other than the account in the Campbell archives have been located that describe John’s reaction to the battle, the scene he witnessed was surely horrific. General Knox described it as a “field of Carnage and Blood.”[24] As historians Lender and Stone noted,

The Americans had won a gory field. Men lay where they had fallen, some of them horribly mutilated by bayonet and saber wounds, musket fire, and all manner of artillery projectiles. Most bodies were bloated in the heat, some with their faces almost black. Scattered among the dead, the wounded waited for help, some dying before it arrived.[25]

Samuel Adams, Jr., the Massachusetts surgeon and son of Samuel Adams, who served in Colonel Crane’s artillery regiment during the battle, described the scene as a “shocking sight.”[26]

The Henry family story of John’s experiences noted that he had “distinguished himself” in battle,[27] but no other accounts of his performance under fire have been found. Other first-hand reports, however, are consistent in their universal praise of the actions of the artillery regiments during the Battle of Monmouth. In his report to Congress dated July 1, 1778, George Washington made specific mention of the gallantry of Knox’s troops.[28] “All the artillery, both officers and men, that were engaged,” he wrote, “distinguished themselves in a remarkable manner.” Knox was equally effusive regarding the performance of his men in a letter to his wife the day after the battle.[29] “My brave Lads behav’d with their usual intrepidity,” he recounted, “& the Army give the Corps of Artillery their full proportion of the Glory of the day.”


Pre-Military Factors

It seems likely that exposure to combat trauma was the trigger for John’s breakdown, but he may have also have been vulnerable to PTSD due to factors that preceded the Battle of Monmouth including a family history of mental illness. John likely witnessed his mother Sarah’s struggles with depression and psychosis prior to his military service. Patrick Henry and Sarah Shelton were childhood sweethearts who married in 1754. Starting as early as 1770 when her name was absent from a series of land transfer documents that both spouses would normally sign,[30] Sarah exhibited signs of mental decline. According to Thomas S. Hinde, the son of Dr. Thomas Hinde, the Henry family physician, Sarah’s symptoms worsened until she had “lost her reason.”[31] Her symptoms ultimately became so severe that Dr. Hinde had her placed in a “strait-dress,” a colonial-era version of a strait jacket, to keep her from harming herself. The younger Hinde wrote that Patrick was so devastated by his wife’s condition that “his soul was bowed down and bleeding under the heaviest sorrows and personal distresses.” Sarah “Sally” Henry died in February of 1775 at the age of thirty-eight when John was in his late teens.

No evidence could be located that corroborates the element of the Henry family story in which John held romantic feelings for his father’s second wife Dorothea “Dolly” Dandridge, the granddaughter of one of the colony’s most well-respected governors, Alexander Spotswood, and a cousin of Martha Washington. It is known, however, that Dolly had at least one other suitor prior to her marriage to Patrick: John Paul Jones, who would later become famous as an intrepid naval commander during the Revolution.[32] Despite rumors that Dolly may have held some affection for Jones, her father preferred the more prominent Patrick Henry. They were married on October 25, 1777 while John was serving in Harrison’s artillery regiment. Thus, it is likely that as an army captain at the age of nineteen or twenty who had yet to see battle, nor establish a prosperous career of his own, John, if he did hold affection for Dolly, would have known that he had little to no chance of successfully competing against older and more established gentlemen for her hand in marriage.


Evidence to Support John’s Illness

The story in the Campbell archives is the only known account of John’s breakdown, but muster rolls from the period after the Battle of Monmouth do confirm that he was separated from his regiment due to some form of illness. For instance, John was listed as “Sick at Brunswick” on the muster roll for Harrison’s regiment for June 1778 that was drafted on July 22.[33] Given that the battle occurred near the end of June, it is likely that he was sent to the area of current-day New Brunswick, New Jersey to recover shortly after combat ended. It is possible he was under the care of the regimental surgeon, Thomas Christie, who was listed on the June muster roll for field staff and officers of Harrison’s regiment as “with the Sick in Jersey.”[34] The muster roll for July 1778 indicated that John remained in New Brunswick.[35] The muster roll for John’s company for August and the company return for September 1778, however, listed him as “Sick at PrinceTown,”[36] suggesting that he may have been transferred to Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) that was used as a military hospital during the war.[37]

As Washington’s letter of September 13, 1778 suggested,[38] John resigned his commission on August 15, 1778.[39] Command of his company was then transferred to Captain Lieutenant Whitehead Coleman. Neither the muster rolls nor the pay rolls (John was only paid for fifteen days in the month of August) that reflect his resignation provides a reason for his decision to end his military career.[40] It is possible, however, that John later attempted to rejoin his regiment. After the Battle of Monmouth, Washington celebrated Independence Day with his troops in New Brunswick before marching with them, including John’s former company, to White Plains, New York.[41] As Washington informed Patrick Henry in his November letter, John had been located in “Elizabethtown” (modern day Elizabeth, New Jersey) at some point in mid- to late September. Washington’s troops had arrived in White Plains long before John resigned his commission and left Princeton.

It stands to reason that once John ended his military career he would have headed south to return home to Virginia. Instead, he headed northeast from Princeton in the direction of White Plains. Therefore, as Washington’s November letter indicated, whatever illness John suffered may have prevented him from continuing on to White Plains, he subsequently ran out of money and he found himself stuck in Elizabeth slightly less than half-way to his ultimate destination.

Washington’s efforts were ultimately successful with John returning to Virginia to be with his family. He married Susannah Walker around 1789. Their first and only child, Edmund, was born in 1791.[42] By all available accounts, John spent the remainder of his life on his father’s 10,000 acre Leatherwood plantation where he died around 1791 at the age of thirty-four.[43] Some have suggested that he succumbed to injuries sustained in a riding accident,[44] but no concrete evidence of his cause of death has been found. Records from the July, 1792 court order and will books from Henry County, Virginia indicated that his estate was valued at £377 with all assets bequeathed to his wife.[45] John may have been buried on the Leatherwood plantation, but the precise location of his grave remains unknown.

Despite considerable circumstantial evidence supporting the Henry family story about John’s breakdown, no direct contemporary accounts have been found that definitively prove that it occurred. The incident, however, can serve as a reminder that like the service members of today, those who fought in the American Revolution surely suffered mental health problems stemming from combat trauma. As Da Costa suggested shortly after the Civil War, the invisible wounds of war have likely been evident for as long as human beings have taken up arms against one another, thus the stories of John Henry and the countless other patriots whose names and sacrifices are lost to the ages should be included in the early history of the United States.



This article would not have been possible without the expertise, guidance and contributions of Mark Couvillon, Curator of Red Hill, the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation and author of Patrick Henry’s Virginia: A Guide to the Homes and Sites in the Life of an American Patriot. The archival research of Steven Sussner on the Battle of Monmouth was also essential in the development of the project.


[1] Jacob Mendes Da Costa, “On Irritable Heart; a Clinical Study of a Form of Functional Cardiac Disorder and its Consequences,” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 121 (January 1871): 17-52.

[2] Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969).

[3] “Biographical Material on John Henry,” Charles Campbell Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary,, accessed April, 3, 2017.

[4] Edith Poindexter, “Information on John Henry,” booklet complied for the Patrick Henry Descendants Branch of the Red Hill Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, Brookneal, Virginia, 2001.

[5] George Washington to Patrick Henry, September 13, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives,; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 16, 1 July–14 September 1778, ed. David R. Hoth (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 600–601.

[6] Washington to Patrick Henry, November 3, 1778,” Founders Online,; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 18, 1 November 1778 – 14 January 1779, ed. Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 30–31. Patrick Henry to Washington, October 15, 1778, Founders Online,; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 17, 15 September–31 October 1778, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 388.

[7] Gregory Sandor, ed., Journal of the Public Store at Williamsburg: 1775-1776 (Ohio: by the author, 2015), 90, 141, 48.

[8] Revolutionary War Rolls, compiled 1894 – 1913, documenting the period 1775 – 1783; 1st Regiment Light Dragoons, accessed May 16, 2017.

[9] Muster Roll of the Field Staff and Other Commissioned Officers in the Corps of Artillery in the Service of the United States Commanded by Col. Charles Harrison for June, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[10] Revolutionary War Rolls … 1st Regiment Light Dragoons.

[11] Patrick Henry to Washington, October 29, 1777, Founders Online,

[12] Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: US Army Center of Military History, 1989). Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Russell Freedman, Washington at Valley Forge (New York: Holiday House, 2008).

[13] Lender and Stone, Fatal Sunday.

[14] Muster Roll of the Field Staff and Other Commissioned Officers in the Corps of Artillery. Company Pay Roll, Capt. John Henry’s Company in the Regiment of Artillery Commanded by Col. Charles Harrison,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[15] Pension Application of John Allen, July 27, 1818,, accessed May 2, 2017.

[16] Pension Application of Thomas Campbell, September 14, 1818,, accessed May 2, 2017.

[17] Lender and Stone, Fatal Sunday.

[18] Israel Shreve to Polly Shreve, June 29, 1778, Israel Shreve Papers, Buxton Special Collections, Louisiana Technical University.

[19] Pension Application of Reubin Griffis, August 29, 1832,, accessed May 2, 2017.

[20] Lender and Stone, Fatal Sunday.

[21] Ibid. The Pennsylvania Packet, July 6, 1778.

[22] Henry Knox to Lucy Flucker, June 29, 1778, Massachusetts Historical Society, Henry Knox Papers, Volume IV, Item 116.

[23] Lender and Stone, Fatal Sunday.

[24] Knox to Lucy Flucker, June 29, 1778,

[25][25] Lender and Stone, Fatal Sunday, 356.

[26] “Our Army … Gave Them A Pretty Good Drubbing” as described in the Diary of Surgeon Samuel Adams, Monmouth Campaign, June-September 1778. New York Public Library. Transcribed by Bob McDonald, October, 1997.

[27] “Biographical Material on John Henry.”

[28] The Pennsylvania Packet, July 6, 1778.

[29] Knox to Lucy Flucker, June 29, 1778,

[30] Patrick and Sarah Henry to John Perkins, August 15, 1770, Louisa County Deed Book J, 541-542. Patrick and Sarah Henry to Lewis Walden, July 1, 1773, Louisa County Deed Book D 1/2, 519-520. Patrick and Sarah Henry to Humphrey Parish, July 19, 1773, Louisa Co. Deed book D 1/2, 594-595.

[31] Thomas S. Hinde, “A Descriptive View of Hanover, [In VA.], Extracted from a Pioneer’s Sketchbook,” The Daily National Intelligencer, September 19, 1843.

[32] Meade, Patrick Henry.

[33] Company Muster Roll of Capt. John Henry’s Company of Col. Charles Harrison’s Regiment of Artillery for the Month of June, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[34] A Muster Roll of the Field and Staff Officers, Belonging to Colo. Harrison’s Regiment of Artillery, for the Month of June, 1778,, accessed July 28, 2017.

[35] Company Muster Roll of Capt. John Henry’s Company of Col. Charles Harrison’s Regiment of Artillery for the Month of July, 1778, August 8, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[36] Company Muster Roll of the Company Formerly Commanded by Capt. John Henry, Now Under Command of Capt.-Lieut. Coleman, in the Regiment of Artillery Commanded by Col. Charles Harrison for the Month of August, 1778, September 6, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017. A Return of the Comp’y Formerly Commanded by Capt. John Henry now Under the Command of Capt. Lt. Coleman September 9th, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[37] “Princeton Hospital,”, accessed May 23, 2017.

[38] Washington to Patrick Henry, September 13, 1778.

[39] Muster Roll of the Field Staff and Other Commissioned Officers in the Corps of Artillery in the Service of the United States Commanded by Col. Charles Harrison for the Month of October, 1778,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[40] Ibid. Company Pay Roll for August, 1778, The Company Formerly Commanded by Capt. John Henry Now Under the Command of Capt. Whitehead Coleman, in the Regiment of Artillery Commanded by Col. Charles Harrison,, accessed May 16, 2017.

[41] General Orders, 4 July 1778, Founders Online,; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 16, 19–20. Pension Application of Sylvester Welch,, accessed May 24, 2017.

[42] Susannah (Walker) White (abt. 1760 – aft. 1830), 5468, accessed July 6, 2017.

[43] George Morgan, The True Patrick Henry (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010).

[44] John D Henry (abt. 1757 – abt. 1791), accessed July 6, 2017,, accessed July 6, 2017.

[45] Administration of the estate of John Henry granted to Susannah, Henry County Court Order Book, July Session, 1792. Henry County Will Book 1, July, 1792, 258.


  • Excellent read. Enjoyed the research. There’s a whole new historical field of study opening in-and-around the soldiers of the Revolution.

  • See the following on my Patriot Ancestor Samuel Adams (another 2nd cousin of President John Adams). Written by Mr Richard Church of Nelson, NH ri********@gm***.com I believe he was also a victim of PTSD. Samuel was a minuteman from Dedham Mass on April 19, 1775, moved to New Hampshire 1777-78, enlisted from again 1781 and served in the 2nd New Hampshire through 1783 under Col. Scammel who was killed at Yorktown.

    Insanity Above Spoonwood Pond:
    [View from Greengate 1906]
    High above Spoonwood Pond sits a special place called Greengate. Today the scene is one of a beautiful house sited to take full advantage of majestic views and surrounded by nicely kept landscaping. What was it like in 1904 when William S. Hall bought the property from Wilmer Tolman? Tolman farmed when he could spare time from his mill at Mosquitobush, hiring out his teams for construction work and catering to the needs of city people who came to rent his cabins. He owned hundreds of acres of old farmland in Nelson; much of that had returned to forest.

    We know from photographs taken then that Hall could see the view that we see today and that Samuel Adams saw when he first cleared the site in the late eighteenth century. The old Adams home was certainly gone when Hall built a home on the old cellar hole. There might have been a few roses or lilies left to remind us of the people who’d lived there. In pictures taken at the time we can see that the apple trees Adams planted still graced a field growing wild. The new place designed by Hall’s friend and relative, Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. was planned to provide easy living in a tranquil spot with spectacular views of the ponds and Mount Monadnock. Olmsted was the namesake and son of America’s most famous landscape architect, the designer of New York’s Central Park. The son became a nationally renowned urban planner and landscape architect in his own right and helped Theodore Roosevelt found the National Park Service.
    [View from Greengate 1910]
    Hall reclaimed the old Adams hilltop developing what we now call Greengate. Here he retreated from his Boston law practice to enjoy the serenity of the view and the company of his friend Louis Cabot, another summer refugee from Boston who lived nearby at Merriconn Farm. Sarah Sharples Olmsted (wife of Frederick) and the Sharples family inherited the place when their batchellor cousin, Hall, died in 1937 and they sold it to Newt and Janet Tolman when Olmsted retired to California in 1950. Certainly the place created by Hall could be called scenic, beautiful and even serene. Just the sort of ambiance to calm a busy Boston lawyer, reinvigorate a well-known designer and inspire Newt Tolman’s writing and music.
    [Haying below Greengate]
    In 1810 the farm of Samuel and Sarah Adams was blessed with views of Spoonwood and Mount Monadnock, but the scene could not be described as serene or inspiring. Adams was in crisis and Adams’ twenty-two year old son, Joseph, had put his own prospects in jeopardy trying to hold his family together and save the farm. Samuel Adams state of mind could hardly be called calm or serene, he had gone insane, run up huge debts and brought his wife and their children to a state of crisis.

    Insanity afflicted the early settlers of Packersfield just as it does people today. Samuel Adams, the town’s only documented case, was a Revolutionary War veteran who ran up huge debts and threw his family on town support. The condition we call posttraumatic stress disorder was first documented in 1867 after it was discovered that the Civil War had affected the mental health of a number of its veterans. Packersfield’s Samuel Adams may have been the town’s first case. His huge debts suggest his illness had a manic element. It is impossible, of course, to diagnose him from a distance of over two hundred years.

    Samuel Adams bought his forty-acre farm at the site of Greengate in 1778. He cleared the farm and moved his wife and first child there about two years later. Children arrived at the regular two-year intervals until there were five in the fall of 1790. At some point Samuel became insane and lost the ability to manage his affairs. He lost the farm and became, with his wife and three of their children, the town’s most expensive welfare burden.

    Adams fought in the Revolution starting with the Lexington alarm marching with the minutemen from Dedham, Massachusetts. He enlisted for the balance of 1775 and 1776. Adams enlisted again from Packersfield in March of 1781 serving until April of 1783. His discharge papers describe him as “age 28 years, stature 5 ft. 5 in. tall.”

    At first things seem to have gone well for the Adams; as the children came, he added to his farm purchasing an additional 12 acres in 1799 for $25. Samuel and Sarah’s last seventh and last child, John, was born in January of 1801. Sometime after that Samuel’s management of his affairs began to unravel. Parke Struther’s History of Nelson New Hampshire reports that Samuel had gone insane.

    By age fifty-five Samuel Adams was deeply in debt and in danger of losing everything. It was left to Adam’s third son, twenty-two year old Joseph Adams, to attempt to save the family farm by adding his labor and credit to expand the farm and make it more successful. In 1810 he bought 60 acres on the “Island” between Nubanusit Lake and Spoonwood Pond to add to his father’s farm. His father’s debts had mounted, undoubtedly preventing the senior Adams from financing the deal himself. Later that same year Joseph bought his father’s farm and mortgaged it so that the elder Adams had $700 to pay of his debts in full. This was a huge amount of indebtedness for a farmer with 112 acres to incur, far exceeding the value of the home farm itself.

    For two years Joseph and Samuel attempted to make the farm support the family, but it wasn’t sustainable; their taxes and other bills went unpaid. The burden of his father and the hard times engendered by the Embargo of 1809 was too much to overcome. In 1812 Joseph petitioned the selectmen to take care of his parents:

    “Under existing circumstances I feel myself incapable to take care of my Honored Parents as I should wish and I think that a seperation [sic] would be for their and my benefit. This is to desire your interference in the way your wisdom may point out. Joseph Adams”

    The town formed a three-person committee to recommend a solution. Joseph Adams agreed to turn over to the town all the real estate and property he had received from his parents and the Town agreed “to keep Joseph safe” from the responsibility for his parents. Thaddeus Barker was appointed agent to take care of the Adams and their eleven-year old son, John.

    The selectmen received the deed to the Adams farm from Joseph Adams and 1 pair 3-year old oxen, 2 cows, a 2 year old heifer, 1 yearling heifer, 1 calf, 11 sheep and 2 swine. Joseph paid all of the debts owed by his father amounting to $46.13. He sold the “Island” pasture to the Bryant family. The town rented out the Adams farm for a number of years to cover some of the Adams’ costs. Having lost their home, the Adams were housed with other families at town expense. This was done annually at town meeting in a process called “bidding out” where the pauper was the subject of a public reverse auction in which people bid to provide their care.

    Bidders under this system were entitled to whatever labor the pauper could provide. As the Adams advanced in age and Samuel’s mental state deteriorated, the family became increasingly expensive. By 1820 they were the town’s most expensive welfare case at $153.13. The town budget that year was $2237.20; the school budget, $451.95 and the welfare expenditures in total were $637.81 covering 27 people. (1820 Nelson census: 907 inhabitants.) The Adams’ daughters, Polly (22) and Fanny (28) were on the town’s list of paupers on and off over the ensuing years.

    As a Revolutionary War veteran and a pauper, Samuel Adams was due a pension. In 1818 the town undertook an effort to obtain that pension. Henry Wheeler drove Adams to Fitzwilliam where Judge Parker dealt with his pension application. Based on his declaration of service, Adams obtained pension certificate number 10.826. This was followed by a town-paid trip to Marlow to collect the pension resulting in the Town’s receipt of Adam’s first pension payment in the amount of $85. Adam’s yearly pension of $46.67 became a regular part of the town’s receipts, but was hardly enough to cover the substantial cost. Selectmen regularly appeared in the Court of Common Pleas to attest to Adam’s continued poverty and so maintain the pension. The July 4, 1820 petition to the court declared that Adams had no means of support and was insane.

    In 1824 the town sold the 52-acre Adams farm for $482.40. Adams died in 1832 at the age of seventy-seven. Sarah followed him five years later. They are probably buried together in the Nelson Cemetery, but their graves are unmarked. Up on the old place his apple trees are gone but not his stonewalls.

    All we know of Samuel’s son, Joseph, is that he married Azubah Henrys in Packersfield in 1811. He doesn’t appear in town records after he sold his land on the “Island” to the Bryant family in 1815. He probably joined the growing number of Packersfield men who went west to New York for a new start.

  • Good article on a difficult subject. In cases of mental or emotional disorder, authors of the past had a tendency for events that caused the problem. Hence the suggestion that John Henry was unnerved by the situation with Dolly Dandridge. Reaction to trauma during the war does indeed seem like a more likely cause. With a family history of mental illness, however, John Henry might have suffered from such problems anyway, or might have been more vulnerable to stress and trauma than other people. It’s hard to know. This article does a good job of assembling information about Henry’s life and presenting the possible explanations. A firm conclusion remains elusive.

  • John Henry’s breakdown is briefly mentioned in my 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga. Carol Berkin deserves credit for bringing the case to my attention. This new article by Sussner will surely be added to my sources in any future new edition.

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