Along the Heritage Trail

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Who was John Allen?

And why does our county bear his name

By Tom Castaldi
Allen County was created on April 1, 1824, by an act of the Indiana General Assembly, which had passed the enabling act on Dec. 17, 1823. The newly created county was named for Colonel John Allen.

Who was the John Allen whose name now graces the largest geographical area of any of Indiana’s 92 counties? Allen was a member of the Kentucky militia who had helped relieve the siege of Fort Wayne in 1812 and who was killed in 1813 at the River Raisin massacre near the present-day Monroe, Mich.

He was born in Rockbridge County, Va., on Dec. 30, 1772. Allen’s father James Allen moved to Kentucky with his family in 1780, eventually settling near Bardstown near Louisville. John enjoyed the benefit of attending private school before studying law at Staunton, Va. He then returned in 1795 to practice law in Shelbyville, Ky., where he rose to great prominence as a lawyer. Among his celebrated cases was serving as an associate of Henry Clay in the defense of Aaron Burr. When he ran for governor of Kentucky against Gen. Charles Scott, he lost the election by one vote. He did, however, win several elections that gained him a seat as a state senator. John Allen was described by his fellow Kentuckians as a tall, handsome soldier who enthusiastically led his valiant troops to the place of rendezvous and to his own death.

Jane, Col. Allen’s wife, was a daughter of Gen. Benjamin Logan. Logan’s adopted son Spemica Lawba, a Shawnee nephew of Tecumseh, also has Fort Wayne connections. Known as “Captain Johnny Logan,” he became dear to the American defenders as the man who escorted the women and children safely to Piqua during the siege of Fort Wayne, and for whom the Indiana city of Logansport received its name.

During the War of 1812, the occupants departing Fort Dearborn on Aug. 15, 1812, were attacked by the native Indians and the garrison was lost. The fall of Fort Dearborn emboldened the native warriors to join the British side planning the siege of Fort Wayne.

As the war progressed, Kentuckians were encouraged to organize, and a volunteer force of more than 2,000 men came forward, led by Col. John Allen along with John M. Scott and William Lewis. Allen was charged with a rifle regiment reporting to Gen.William Henry Harrison, who had been given command of all the troops of the Indiana and Illinois territories.

On Sept. 3, 1812, Col. Allen’s regiment with two companies was ordered to make a forced march for the relief of the siege of Fort Wayne. The corps that arrived were composed of volunteers of all ages including many who held important offices in their native state. Allen’s regiment formed the right column. During the night, the enemy spies caused some alarm as they moved around learning that Harrison’s army was certain to arrive the next day. The Indians left the field, and people who had taken refuge in Fort Wayne expressed great relief and joy.

Pursuing this war with Britain, Col. Allen was ordered to march with 110 soldiers to follow Col. Lewis’ 550 troops to the River Raisin early on Jan. 17, 1813. When the outnumbered Americans began battle on Jan. 22, Allen pressed the enemy; however, overwhelmed in numbers, the Americans were pushed back themselves. A surrender was negotiated with the British Col. Proctor, who failed in honoring his promise to restrain his native forces from indiscriminate revenge killing of the wounded.  

Although wounded in his thigh, John Allen urged his troops to make all their actions count as they made their escape. Exhausted after he had worked his way some two miles, Allen sat down on a log, resolved to meet his fate. Robert McAfee, in “History of the Late War in the Western Country” in 1816, wrote of Allen’s last moments that an Indian chief attempted to take him prisoner but was persuaded otherwise by Allen. According to McAfee, “Another (Indian) having at the same time advanced with a hostile appearance, Col. Allen, by one stroke with his sword, laid him dead at his feet. At third Indian, who was near him, had then the honor of shooting (Allen) one of the first and greatest citizens of Kentucky.” The disastrous affairs of the River Raisin aroused the American resolve.

The War of 1812 eventually concluded on Dec. 24, 1814 with the signing of the peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain at Ghent, Belgium. Because of the state of communications in those days, future American President Andrew Jackson, unaware of the peace treaty, was victorious at the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815, and the British withdrew. 

Indiana’s largest county is inexorably tied to that war because of Colonel John Allen.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 2:38 pm
Last updated: Mon, 10/29/2012 - 1:45 pm