This past weekend I ran across the story of six Revolutionary War veterans who were photographed and interviewed for a book published in 1864 by Reverend Elias Hillard, The Last Men of the Revolution. I wrote an article in conjunction with last week’s Surname Saturday article highlighting the Waldo surname. Daniel Waldo was one of those veterans. He died on July 30, 1865, just a few weeks short of his 102nd birthday after living an amazing life – you can read about his story here.
For the next few weeks, in honor of America’s birthday, I will highlight the lives of the remaining five veterans. All of them were over the age of one hundred at the time of their interviews. One other man, James Barham, was thought to be still living at the time but Reverend Hillard was unable to locate him to conduct an interview.
Samuel Downing was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts to David and Susannah (Beechem) Downing on November 30, 1761. He must have been an adventurous sort of child. At the age of nine Samuel was left alone while his parents were away for the day. A stranger walked up to him and asked if he would like to learn how to make spinning wheels. Samuel left with the man and traveled that day to Haverhill, Massachusetts and the next day on to Londonderry, New Hampshire where they spent the Sabbath. On Monday the pair continued to Antrim, New Hampshire.
The man who had brought Samuel to Antrim was Thomas Aiken, a manufacturer of spinning wheels. Aiken put Samuel to work and although he did well for the first few days, Samuel became homesick and threatened to run away. According to Samuel’s interview with Reverend Hillard, Aiken had promised him an education, an outfit of clothes and a kit of tools when he completed his service.
Back at home Samuel’s parents mourned and assumed he was dead, perhaps falling off the dock and drowning. Mr. Aiken did write to them a year or so after Samuel “disappeared” to let them know he was alive and well and promised to send him to school if he could remain. His parents, poor and having a large family, agreed to let Samuel stay since he appeared to be doing well and was learning a trade. Aiken never kept his promise and Samuel threatened again to run away. He never carried out the threat and remained with the Aikens family almost seven years. He referred to Mrs. Aikens as “Aunty” and Thomas as “Uncle.”
When the war broke out Aiken joined the militia as an officer. He would gather his men to meet in his shop to discuss the war. The talks that Samuel overheard fueled his passions, deciding himself to run away and enlist. In June of 1777 while the Aikens were away he slipped away and walked eighteen miles to Hopkinton, Massachusetts where a recruiting station was located. Samuel, only fifteen years old and of small frame, was refused.
Undeterred, Samuel continued on to Charlestown where he was introduced to Colonel Fifield. In need of men, Fifield accepted Samuel for service. His first duty was to guard wagons traveling from Exeter to Springfield. About a year into his service, Samuel met his father, the first time the two had seen each other in seven years. Eventually he was stationed in the Mohawk Valley of New York, scene of dozens of key battles, including the Battle of Saratoga when General Burgoyne was defeated by the patriots, a turning point in the war. He also claimed to have been a body guard for George Washington.
After the war, Samuel returned to Antrim, in his words, “too big for Aunty to whip.” During the war he had made the acquaintance with members of the George family of Antrim. Upon his return he soon married Eunice George and to their marriage were born thirteen children. Samuel began to farm and eventually learned to read. He and Eunice were faithful members of the Center Church and when they departed in 1794 to New York, they took with them the highest recommendation for membership “where Providence is pleased to fix them.”
At that time, “York State” was considered “out West”. A company of twenty men from Antrim decided to form a settlement there; however, Samuel was the only one who ventured out. He was said to have regretted stepping out by himself because he had sold his farm for a “trifle” and didn’t have enough to buy another. But, he was able to locate land in Saratoga County, New York which he could afford and set out to make living for his family. He remained there seventy-three years.
In 1846 Eunice passed away at the age of eighty-one and many of Samuel’s children preceded him in death. On November 30, 1861, Samuel celebrated his one hundredth birthday. According to History of the Town of Antrim, New Hampshire, one thousand persons attended his celebration and one hundred guns were fired. The highlight of the celebration:
On this anniversary Mr. Downing was hale and hearty, seeming young as a man of seventy. To show his vigor he cut down in the presence of the company a hemlock tree five feet in circumference. This tree was sold on the spot, and was cut up into canes and keepsakes, and carried off by the multitude. The ax he used was sold for seven dollars and a half!
His vigor at that advanced age was also noted by Reverend Hillard:
At the age of one hundred, Mr. Downing had never worn glasses, or used a cane. The fall before, he had pulled, trimmed, and deposited in the cellar, in one day, fifteen bushels of carrots.
At the time of his interview, he was living with his son James. His health had always been good, he paid “no particular attention to his diet; drinks tea and coffee, and smokes tobacco.” His son indicated that he tired sometimes but at night he slept well. Curiously, however, although his hair had turned silvery-white years before, it had begun to turn black.
Samuel’s faith remained strong to the end. After moving to Saratoga County he joined the Methodist church. In the words of Reverend Hillard, “[H]e is as staunch in his religious belief as he is in his personal character; expounds his faith intelligently and forcibly; believes thoroughly what he believes, and rejects earnestly what he rejects.”
On February 18, 1867, at the age of 105 years, 2 months and 21 days, Samuel Downing passed away, the last of the Revolutionary War veterans. According to an obituary captioned “The Last Link Broken” and published in the Rome Roman Citizen, his death was announced in Congress on the 19th and entered into the records of the House. “He gave his first vote for Washington and his last for Lincoln. In the late war he sympathized heartily with the national cause. He was strictly temperate, but not a teetotaler.”
I’m always amused at the tone and content of obituaries at that time in history. Another one, worthy of note from the Albany Journal, elaborated on his “temperance” and personal habits:
As his age would indicate, he was a man of an iron constitution, the result of regular habits and a religious life. Both himself and his wife were exemplary members of the Methodist Church, and his Bible was his constant companion.
Although a temperate man, he was not a tee-totaller. He took a glass of liquor occasionally but was never intoxicated. He had not a very high opinion of the quality of the rum of the present day, and thought if what people drank was as pure as that made in the good old times, there would be less evil resulting from the habit. He also used tobacco, and tea was his favorite beverage. We are afraid some of our dietarian friends will be disappointed at this revelation of Mr. Downing’s habits – Whisky [sic] occasionally and tobacco and tea all the time, and yet lived to be 105 years! This is not the modern theory. But perhaps if he had used neither he might have lived to a hundred and fifty!
If you’d like to read Reverend Hillard’s interview, go here. Samuel Downing’s account in his own words is quite entertaining.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.