Tuesday, February 21, 2012

John Clayton, 20th Regiment of Foot and 17th Light Dragoons

When John Clayton was discharged from the 17th Light Dragoons in September 1783, he received a standard printed discharge form with his own personal details filled in. This important document was his proof that he was legally released from military service. It states simply that Clayton had served nine years in the regiment along with standard language that he had no debts to the army or arrears due from it. But Clayton's career was considerably more interesting than the brief discharge document reveals.

Clayton was born in January 1758 in Manchester, England. He did not learn to write but did learn the trade of a butcher; like many young tradesmen he soon sought a more adventurous life. With the outbreak of war in America he enlisted as a soldier, joining the 20th Regiment of Foot at the young age of 16 or 17. He was soon bound for America. The 20th was among the regiments sent to Quebec in early 1776 to relieve the siege of that city and turn the momentum of the war in Canada back in favor of British arms. Clayton's regiment participated in a series of actions that reclaimed posts extending from Quebec down to Lake Champlain.

The following year brought the ill-fated campaign led by Lt.-General John Burgoyne that sought to secure the waterways from Quebec to Albany. In concert with troops operating out of New York city, the goal was to effectively divide the colonies into two regions that could be more easily pacified. The campaign began with splendid success including the capture of strategic Fort Ticonderoga. The young Clayton must have been full of ardor from his army's progress, but as the summer waned so too did their fortunes. A series of setbacks led to the capitulation of the army at Saratoga in October. John Clayton became a prisoner of war, but his war was far from over.

After spending a winter in crude barracks outside of Boston, followed by a long march to Albemarle, Virginia, the young Clayton had had enough of captivity. He followed the example of hundreds of other prisoners from Burgoyne's army and slipped away in July 1779 with the goal of returning to British lines. It took him longer than he'd hoped.

It took him only a few days to get to Winchester, Virginia, but there he was caught and put into jail. After a year of confinement he managed to break out and get to Fredericktown, Maryland - only to be caught and jailed once again. After a week in that town's jail, he was put in irons and marched to Fort Frederick which, in spite of the similar-sounding same, was over 150 miles from Fredericktown. Fort Frederick was used to detain British prisoners of war, but those men had become adept at escaping from it, and Clayton managed to abscond after a week or so.

He made his way to Philadelphia, where once again he was captured and put into jail. His course so far had been harrowing but hardly unique; hundreds of British prisoners of war went through similar ordeals of escape and recapture. He remained in the Philadelphia prison until the summer of 1781. He and six fellow soldier prisoners tunneled under the foundation of their cell and escaped, this time finding their way to the network of British sympathizers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that helped countless escapee make the perilous journey to the garrison in New York. They worked their way to Barnegat Point on the New Jersey shore where a boat took them to their destination. After almost two full years as a prisoner of war, John Clayton joined the 17th Light Dragoons in late August 1779.

Although he had served in the infantry, the 5 foot 9 inch Clayton along with a number of others from Burgoyne's army joined a cavalry regiment. The 17th did include a dismounted component and it is possible Clayton served in that capacity. He also may have begun his army career in the cavalry and volunteered for the infantry in order to serve in America; several hundred cavalry men did so, but we have not found Clayton's name on any cavalry muster roll to confirm this. Regardless, he served the remainder of the war in the 17th Light Dragoons in the New York City area.

When the war ended, the army was reduced in size by disbanding some regiments and decreasing the established size of others. Soldiers eligible for discharge were given several options: return to Great Britain and be discharged there, with the possibility of receiving a pension; be discharged in New York and either re-enlist in a regiment bound for continued overseas service in Canada or the West Indies, or take a land grant in Canada and settle there; or be discharged in New York and remain in America. Clayton chose Nova Scotia, sailing there on a fleet that made its way to Port Roseway (present-day Shelburne) at the end of September 1783.

For reasons unknown, Clayton did not stay long on the rugged shores of Canada. In 1784 he made his way to Hallowell, Maine, took possession of a plot of land, planted potatoes, and married a woman named Susanna Cowan. Their first child was delivered by the famous midwife diarist Martha Ballard, who recorded that she was called for the delivery at 11PM on 15 August 1787, and the next day “put mrs Claton to Bed with a Son at 3 PM.” But tragedy soon followed; on 20 August Ballard wrote,

mr Hinkly brot me to mr Westons. I heard there that mrs Clatons Child Departed This life yesterdy & yt Shee was thot Expireing. I went back with mr Hinkly as far as there. Shee Departed ys Life about 1 PM. I ascisted to Lay her out, her infant Laid in her arms. ye first such instance I ever saw & ye first woman that died in Child bed which I Deliverd.

Susanna Clayton and her infant were interred together two days later. It appears that John Clayton was out of town when all of this occurred, for Ballard wrote on the 24th that "Claton & David Came inn from Sandy river," a plantation some distance inland from Hollowell where he apparently worked.

John Clayton soon remarried; Sally Austin was 7 years his junior and over the next 21 years the couple had at 10 children including a set of twins. After their first child was born they moved to Sandy River, and Clayton was among those who petitioned that Sandy River be incorporated as the town of Farmington.

Although he was unable to sign his discharge from the army, instead making an X mark, local lore has it that he was "quite a poet in his own way." In addition, he remained intensely proud of his English heritage and continued to revere his former commander General Burgoyne. When a number of his children were ill at the same time, under the care of the oldest two, he composed a whimsical verse that likened his large family to his former comrades:

As my two daughters did combine,
To nurse the army of old Burgoyne;
Their nursing was good but not very lasting,
For they were granddaughters of old granny Asten.

Clayton clearly had great respect for his wife's mother "Granny Austin." Sally died in 1821, and John Clayton survived her by a decade, expiring in September 1832 at 74 years of age.


  1. Interesting Patriots of the American Revolution magazine article and blog. Have you ever heard of any British soldiers named Prunty (or something similar) that came to Virginia or Pennsylvania before the revolution? If so email me at sloaner64@yahoo.com

  2. I am very interested in this man and some of his friends. What source material is available for research on John Clayton? Are there documents related to any of his arrests in Winchester or Philadelphia to your knowledge?

    1. Thank you for asking! The information on John Clayton comes from the following sources:

      His service in the 20th Regiment of Foot and in the 17th Light Dragoons is recorded in the muster rolls of those regiments, WO 12/3676 and WO 12/1306 in the British National Archives.

      His escape from captivity and the various hardships he experienced before rejoining the British army are from his own deposition given in 1782. This document is also in the British National Archives, part of the British Headquarters Papers (Carleton Papers) catalogued as PRO 30/55/6884. It is available on mircofilm in several collection in North America. The full text of the deposition reads as follows:

      "John Clayton of the 17th Dragoons, now late of 20th Regt of Foot says that he left the 20th Regt the 5th of July 1779 at Albermarle, that he came into New York17 Augst 1781; that from Albermarle he went to Winchester wh he reached in four or five days & was there thrown into Goal, where he remained between 12 & 13 Months, when he broke out of Goal & went to Frederick Town, where he was again put into Goal & remained there 6 days, and was then marched in irons to Fort Frederick, and detained there 7 days, that he broke out of the Fort & proceeded to Philadelphia & was there taken up & put again into Goal, where he remained 11 Months, and then he and six other British soldiers broke out of the Dungeon, they had been put into, by digging beneath the foundation, and they went to the house of Mr Abel James near Frankfort, where Coachman & Carpenter inlsited them with a Baltore to get over the Delaware & gave them directions virbally to go to Saltin’s Works in New Jersey & from thence they went to Egg harbor & Barnagit, where they waited almost a fortnight & then got off in a boat to New York—he claims his intermediate pay."

      The text of Clayton's discharge, as well as the details on his post-war life and marriage to Sally Austin, can be found in the book "A history of Farmington, Franklin County, Maine, from the earliest explorations to the present time, 1776-1885" by Francis Gould Butler.

      To learn more about escaped prisoners in general, I recommend the book "Escape in America: Escape in America: the British Convention prisoners, 1777-1783" by Richard Sampson; it relies heavily on the depositions in PRO 30/55/6884.

  3. Great great info John Clayton was my 5th great grandfather on my mothers side and I also have on my fathers side in the Colonial Army Col Jonathan Holman and Andrew Cushman and Joseph Knapp to name a few also some others on my mothers side in the Colonial Army as well

    1. He is also my 5th great grandfather, so I am thrilled to find this blogpost, and maybe a "cousin?"

    2. Norman I have reason to believe that I too am related to John clayton but cannot connect My Great Great grandfather to John Clayton I ave proof that My GG grand father was from Kennebec and this Family seems to be the only family of that day.

  4. He was my 5th great grandfather on my mothers side I always found him interesting as I have quite a few in the Colonial army on my fathers side and some on my mothers as well I always wondered how many of us are there here in America descended from redcoats

  5. I'm glad you found Clayton's story interesting. There are indeed many descendants of British soldiers living in America today, many of whom are unaware of their heritage!

  6. I have reason to believe that I too am related would any relatives of john please contact me @ raynerick@yahoo.com

  7. Rick: My 3g grandfather was John Clayton, through his son Bartholemew and his son Collormore Purrington Clayton, a Civil War veteran and my g grandfather through his daughter, Florence who married John Bryan, my grandfather. I have much data on the descendants of Bartholemew Clayton. If interested, contact me by email at bbryan130@comcast.net

  8. Fascinating! He is my 4G grandfather, through his son Jacob, his granddaughter Eunice Ann and her daughter Nellie Salome Thomas who is my great grandmother. Nellie is a registered DAR which is the only lineage I ever heard about growing up. So glad to know more about "the other" side of the family!. Thank you all for this.