Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: The Youngest Allen

It was the 1780s and the American Revolution was over. But there was some unfinished business that had to be attended.

Under the terms of the treaty that ended the war, the British Parliament created a commission “to enquire into the Loses and Services of American Loyalists.“ Among those petitions arriving at its office was one from an officer in a regiment known as the Pennsylvania Loyalists. Using the standard form, he “humbly showeth” that he had joined the British Army at Trenton, N.J., in 1776, and was appointed in 1777 by Sir William Howe a lieutenant-colonel and commandant of the Pennsylvania Loyalists.

In late 1778, they were ordered to a British fort at Pensacola, Florida, “where we remained until taken by the Spaniards” in 1781. The officer noted that as a “consequence of his loyalty to His Majesty and attachment to the British Government his estate (in America) had been confiscated.” He was therefore putting in a claim for compensation. With that he signed his name. “Will. Allen.”

This was a position that William “Billy” Allen Jr. probably could not have imagined being in just a few short years before. As the fourth son of William Allen Sr., perhaps the wealthiest man in British North America, young William was, with his brothers John, Andrew and James, scion to a fortune that promised personal estates that numbered their acres in the thousands.

Where others in America toiled away at farms or trades, the Allen boys attended the Middle Temple, the most prestigious law school in Britain (James Allen notes in the early pages of his diary that his Greek could use improvement), and polished off their education with the Grand Tour of France and Italy.

Gazing languidly “at the grandeur that was Rome,” collecting views of Venice by the artist Canaletto and marveling at the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii, they self-consciously copied the English “milords” who they equaled in all but a title.

William Allen Sr., who over a period of six years, had attended Cambridge University and done the Grand Tour himself (bringing back a life-long love of Italy, a fondness for rich and mild Parmesan cheese and Gorgona anchovies), could hardly be judgmental.

But still sometimes Allen wondered, as he wrote, if his boys’ “taste for English manners and customs” were “a little too dominant…which is too often the consequence of our young men being some time in Europe.”  Although “rather more indolent then I might wish…to battle in the world,” his sons, he concluded “have no vice in them.”

About William Allen the younger’s early life little is known. He attended Friends School in Philadelphia also the College of Philadelphia, later to become the University of Pennsylvania. There is no record of his graduation or the courses he took.

At age 11 or 12, “ Billy,” as the family called him, joined the family on a tour of the British Isles. Some suggest this influenced his later decision in the Revolution. Perhaps the most important act “Billy” Allen performed that was related to the Lehigh Valley occurred on January 5, 1767.

That day he acted as witness as his father conveyed by deed to his brother, James, 3,338 acres and 114 perches of land. These holdings included the new town of Northampton, later known as Allentown, laid out by William Allen in 1762. The young man also hunted and fished both at his father’s cabin on the Jordan Creek behind what is now Central Catholic High School and his brother James’s Trout Hall estate, which then consisted of a personal property of over 700 acres. The rest deeded over to him was sold or rented out to tenants.

As America headed for the Revolution, the Allen family seemed to be fiery for the patriot cause. William Allen Sr. was going to the point of having cannon balls made at his New Jersey iron furnace for the colonial cause and holding meetings in his Philadelphia mansion to discuss resisting the acts of Parliament.

Young William Allen got a lieutenant colonel’s commission in a Pennsylvania Regiment. In 1776, he was with the troops under General Arthur St. Clair at Fort Ticonderoga. But when the Declaration of Independence was read to the troops that July, “Billy” Allen, as he always said he would if that happened, resigned his commission and rode to Philadelphia.

He was later reported in a diary to have almost started a brawl in a tavern with a defender of independence and had to be separated by a third party. The Allen clan decided they could not go as far as independence. Used to being deferred to because of their wealth and social position, they were shocked, as one wit said, “that Americans had declared independence without asking their fine family first.”

William Allen Sr., his son Andrew, who was the colonial attorney general and William Jr., who had joined the British Army in Trenton, followed it to England. James retreated to Trout Hall hoping to remain neutral.

In the summer of 1777, a British fleet sailed up the Delaware headed for Philadelphia. With them were William Allen Sr., William Allen Jr. and brother, Andrew Allen. In late September, they occupied the city which they would hold until the summer of 1778. During that occupation, William Allen Jr., organized the Pennsylvania Loyalists.

It is not clear if it was Allen or Sir William Howe, commander of the occupation forces, that came up with the idea, although a letter in the Canadian archives suggests it was Howe. But when he heard of it, brother James Allen was shocked.

“It is reported that my brother William is raising a Regiment under General Howe, & from the many ways it is told, is probably true,” he noted in his diary. “I cannot conceive how my father would consent to it, as he looked with abhorrence on the thought: nor that my brother should engage in it against his will.”

Having doubts about independence was one thing, Allen seems to suggest, but to actively take up arms against fellow Americans was to open one to charges of treason with the gallows at its end. Some sources suggest that “Billy” Allen’s action was what led his father to remove him from his will, dividing his son’s bequest with others shortly before his death.

Soon handbills were plastered all over the city, promising those who joined a 50-acre farm “where every Hero may retire to enjoy his Bottle and Lass.” But these “heroes” had proved harder to come by than Allen had hoped.

In fact, most local Loyalists had joined units that had been established long before in New Jersey and Maryland. Instead of Pennsylvania becoming a major Tory recruiting ground as London had assumed, Allen spent most of his time struggling to hang on to the few recruits the Pennsylvania Loyalists had.

When the British Army fled Philadelphia for New York, the Pennsylvania Loyalist followed up in the rear. Once they arrived, the British troops were distributed, many to Canada. Much to Allen’s frustration he discovered his men, along with the Maryland Loyalists, were being sent to reinforce the British garrison at Pensacola, Florida.

After a rough sea voyage, they arrived.

Florida had been taken from Spain by England in the French and Indian War. Pensacola was considered a vital base now that Spain, for reasons that had more to do with Spanish foreign policy than American independence, had joined their side in the war.  Washington and Congress knew how important Spanish help could be and didn’t question its motives.

Pensacola was a swampy, mosquito-ridden sand spit, well-fortified but undermanned. General Bernardo Galvez, the energetic Governor of Spanish Louisiana quickly spotted its weaknesses. Despite obstacles in maneuvering large ships in the swampy bay, he conducted a vigorous siege leading to many deaths on both sides that gradually wore down the base’s defenders.

Finally on May 8, 1781, a Spanish shell exploded in front of the powder magazine as its door was open, killing 50 members of the Pennsylvania Loyalists and 50 sailors. Some sources claim it was a disgruntled member of either the Maryland or Pennsylvania Loyalist regiments that told the Spanish when to fire.

Seeing his opening, Galvez ordered his troops in, overrunning the fort. The British were forced to surrender.

Allen was not there to witness it.  A month before on hearing of his father’s death, he was granted leave to return to New York. “Billy” Allen was in New York on October 19, 1781, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia, virtually ending the Revolution with an American victory.

The members of the Pennsylvania Loyalists were with the British garrison that occupied New York. This is where Allen met up with them. They were disbanded in Nova Scotia. Allen turned down an offer of a small farm there.

After this, Allen’s whereabouts are for a time largely unknown. On January 11, 1787, he sent a letter from Lyon, France, to the British Board of Treasury, fighting to maintain the half pay he was receiving from the British Army.

Apparently, he did so and is recorded as still getting it in 1807. What military role Allen may have played in the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, if any, is not known. At some point he settled in England. If he received any other compensation or had any contact with his brother Andrew or sister Anne, also living in England, there is no record of it. He apparently never married.

Allen died in England in the 1830s at the age of 82. Contented or resigned, he is never known have regretted his decision to support Britain. But perhaps there were moments Allen recalled fondly, days when a boy named “Billy” dipped his fishing rod in Jordan Creek and hunted grouse with his now long dead brother James along the banks of the Little Lehigh.


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