Monday, April 29, 2013

Henry Church, 63rd Regiment of Foot

There's a common perception that people in the 18th century didn't live as long as they do today. It's true that the average life expectancy wasn't nearly as long, but some individuals became centenarians, dodging hazard and illness to far exceed the typical life span not only of their own era but also of the present one. One of these men was Henry Church.

Church was a native of England, born on 30 November 1750. He did not set foot in America until he was almost thirty years old, as a private soldier in the 63rd Regiment of Foot. That regiment had been in America since the middle of 1775; Church was a recruit who arrived in October 1780; family tradition suggests that he had prior experience as a soldier, and the fact that he was assigned directly to the regiment's light infantry company supports this theory (at least a year of experience was usually required before being sent to the light infantry or grenadiers).

However long his career as a soldier was, it 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.

The end of the conflict brought about the repatriation of prisoners of war, but some chose not to return home. British prisoners who did not return were written off as deserters, among them Henry Church. He married a Philadelphia Quaker named Hannah Keine, three years younger than him, and the couple moved west to frontier lands. 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.

They lived on. Things changed. It is difficult to imagine such a temporal connection, but Henry and Hannah Church watched from his home as a railroad line was built nearby. The line, belonging to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, was not an early experimental venture; it was 1852 when regular service on it began. Henry Church was 101, and his wife 98. They lived on, and saw many trains pass. Henry Church came to be known in the region as "Old Hundred" in recognition of his age.

In 1858 railroad officials offered to give them a train ride to Wheeling, the nearest large town, 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. And many more passed.
Henry Church, from Harper's Magazine

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.

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