Biography of Col. John Armstrong

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Col. John Armstrong
Revolutionary War Officer; Explorer; Judge and Magistrate in Ohio

(as listed in American National Biography, Vol. 1 and Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. I)

(my 4th great-grandfather)

b. 20 APR 1755 Camden, NJ - d. 4 FEB 1816, Spring Hill, Clark Co., IN Territory at age 60
m.Tabitha GOFORTH 26 JUN 1793, Columbia, Hamilton Co., OH

Colonel John ARMSTRONG was one of the most important people in the early history of the Ohio valley. Born in New Jersey on April 20, 1755 to Thomas Armstrong of Donagheady, County Tryone, Ireland, and Jane HAMILTON, his wife, daughter of Michael Hamilton of Tully, County Londonderry, Armstrong grew up in Pennsylvania. Little is known about his early life and education but the NSDAR Lineage Book Vol XXVIII 1899, p. 55 states "while a student at Princeton, entered the army in the Pennsylvania LIne." At an early age he had entered the service in the Revolutionary army as a private soldier, but was immediately made a sergeant, and, on the 11th of September, 1777, was commissioned as an ensign, in which capacity he served until the close of the war in 1783. He joined the Continental Army in 1776, serving under George Washington. He served as a soldier and an officer with the 3rd and 12th Pennsylvania regiments (1776-1784).

While in the Revolutionary War, Armstrong survived several historic battles, including Stoney Point, Monmouth and the Battle of Yorktown. He also made the famous Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River, which probably changed the course of the war.

Although the highest rank he achieved in the Continental Army was captain--he later earned colonel in the Ohio militia--Armstrong earned his stripes. The army was very tiny. There wasn't much room for upper-level officers. Despite his low rank, Armstrong rubbed elbows with the likes of "Mad" Anthony Wayne, the Marquise de Lafayette and George Rogers Clark.

Following disbandment of the Continental Army in 1784, Armstrong joined the First U.S. Regiment (1784-1793). Acting as commandant in 1784, he participated in Pennsylvania's conflict with the Connecticut settlers at Wyoming (1783-1784). Armstrong also commanded Fort Pitt (1785-1786) in Pennsylvania and Fort Finney (1786-1790), a Jeffersonville stronghold located near the current site of the Kennedy Bridge (Jeffersonville, IN).

In 1790, when the U.S. government had determined to attempt a secret exploration into the Spanish territory, and up the Missouri River, Amstrong was entrusted with the hazardous enterprise. Such profound secrecy veiled this undertaking, the forerunner of the Lewis and Clark expedition, that little is known of it beyond the guarded letters that passed between Gen. Harmar, Gov. St. Clair, and Knox, the Secretary of War, and a few momoranda made by Armstrong himself. A biographical sketch (1844) by his son, William Goforth Amrstrong, who was intimately familiar with his father's career, states that "he proceeded up the Missouri some distance above St. Louis, not with ... an escort, bu entirely alone! It was his intention to examine the country of the upper Missouri and cross the Rocky Mountains," but owing to intertribal Indian wars he was obliged to abandon the undertaking. He was then detailed to explore the Wabash River and its communications with Lake Erie, and, although it was the very eve of a war with the Indians, he made this exploration through the heart of the Indian country with only two friendly Indians as companions."

Armstrong also participated in the military campaigns of Col. Josiah Harmar (1790) and General Arthur St. Clair (1791), the largest Indian massacre in the United States; both events were victories for the Miami Indian tribe.

The following is an excerpt on Armstrong's accounts of his action in the Harmar Expedition from A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County Ohio, 1882 (see link below to read in full):


In September, 1789, about six years after the close of the war of the Revolution (having continued uninterruptedly in service), he received the appointment of a lieutenant, on the nomination of President Washington, which appointment was confirmed by the Senate in June, 1790; and, having joined the army under the command of General Josiah HARMER at Fort Washington, marched against the Indians on the 30th of September, 1790, during which campaign he was in the action fought under the command of Colonel HARDIN on the 19th of October, west of the Miami village, in what is now the State of Indiana, and a few miles west of where Fort Wayne was afterwards built, suffering severely. The militia having been thrown into disorder, suddenly retreated, leaving Lieutenant Armstrong to contend at the head of a decidedly unequal force. The Indians on this occasion gained a complete victory, having in the whole near one hundred men. Lieutenant Armstrong in this engagement lost one sergeant and twenty-one men out of thirty of his command.

Lieutenant Armstrong and most of his men stood their ground, anticipating a rally of the militia, in which they were disappointed, when the lieutenant, after shooting an Indian in the act of scalping the last man he had on the field, threw himself into the grass between a large oak stump and a log which had been blown down, where he remained about three hours in daylight. At night the Indians commenced their war-dance, within gun-shot of where he lay. Desiring to sell his life as dearly as possible, he at one time thought of trying to shoot a chief, whom he could distinguish by his dress and trinkets in the light of the fires. Taking his watch and compass from their fobs, he buried them by the side of the log where he lay, saying to himself, "Some honest fellow tilling the ground, many years hence, may find them, and these rascals sha'n't have them." Finding , however, great uncertainty in drawing a bead by cloudy moonlight and that the fires at the dance, and thinking it possible that he might escape, in which case which watch and compass would be useful to him, he dug them up, and replaced them in his fobs. Soon after, he was satisfied that there were Indians near him, and was conscious that they would prefer taking him prisoner to shooting him. Should he cock his gun, and on attempting to escape, be discovered, he could wheel and shoot before the Indians would attempt to shoot. He thereupon cocked his rifle; the Indians near him began to mimic ground-squirrels and perwink. The lieutenant cautiously moved, and on the third step was so distinctly discovered by the Indians that the savage yell was given, when everything was instantly silent at the dance. Armstrong then took to his heels, springing the grass as far as practicable to prevent tracking. After running a short distance he discovered a pond of water, into which he immediately jumped, thinking there would be no track left there. Seating himself on a tussock of grass, with his gun on his shoulder and the water round his waist, he had not been in the pond for five minutes when the whole troop if Indians, foot and horse, were around the pond, hurrahing for him. Using his own expression, "Such yells I never heard. I suppose the Indians thought I was a wounded man, that their yells would scare me, and I would run, and they could catch me; but I thought to myself, I would see them damned first. The Indians continued their hunt for several hours, until the moon went down, when they retired to their fires. The ice was frozen to my clothes, and I was very much benumbed. I extricated myself from the pond, broke some sticks, and rubbed my thighs and legs, to circulate the blood, and, with some difficulty at first, slowly made my way through the bush. Believing that the Indians would be traveling between their own and the American camp, I went at right angles from the trace, about two miles, to a piece of rising ground. Thinking to myself, it is a cold night, if there are any Indians here, they will have fire; if I can't see their fire, they can't see mine, and a fire is necessary for me, I went into a ravine where a large tree had been blown up by the roots, kindled a fire, dried myself, and laid down and took a nap of sleep; in the morning, threw my fire in a puddle of water, and started for camp."

Lieutenant Armstrong being a good woodsman and well acquainted with Indian habits, when he came to open woods, passed round them; in wet ground, walked on logs, and occasionally stepped backwards, to prevent being tracked. About half way from the battle-ground to the American camp, he discovered three Indians coming along the path meeting him; he squatted in the hazel bushes, about twenty steps from the trace, and the Indians passed without discovering him. Mr. Armstrong said: "I never so much wished for two guns in my life. I felt perfectly cool; could have taken the eye out of either if them, and with the two guns should have killed two of them, and the other rascal would have run away, but with one gun thought it best not to attack, as the odds would be against me as three to one."

Reaching the vicinity of the ground where he had left the main army the day before, the day being now far spent, he expected soon to meet with those he had left there, but was suddenly arrested in his lonely march by the commencement of heavy battle, as he supposed, at the encampment. Hesitating for a moment, and then cautiously moving to a position from which he could overlook the camp, instead of seeing there his associates in arms, from whom he had then been separated two days, a different scene was presented. The savages had full possession of the American camp-ground. "Is it possible," said he, "that the main army has been cut off?" Having been two days without eating a mouthful, except the breakfast taken early in the morning of his leaving camp, he began to reflect what should be his future course.

Much exhausted from fatigue, without food, alone in the wilderness, far from any settlements, and surrounded by savages, the probability of his escape was indeed slight, but duty to himself and country soon determined him upon the attempt. At this moment the sound of a cannon attracted his attention. He knew it was a signal for the lost men to come in, and taking a circle, passed in the direction from whence the sound came, and arrived safe at the camp. The army had changed position from the time he had left, to a point two miles lower down the creek, which presented ground more favorable for encampment, The dusk of the evening had arrived when he got to camp, greatly to the surprise of his acquaintances, who had numbered him with the men who had fought their last fight.

Armstrong, in speaking of this engagement, and the heavy loss in his command, always evinced much feeling, saying: "The men of my command were as brave as ever lived; I could have marched to the mouth of a cannon without their flinching."


From 1791-1792 Armstrong served as commandant at Fort Hamilton. The fort was a supply depot for St. Clair's unsuccessful campaign against the Indians of the Ohio country. Indian attacks were still the norm for the settlers when Armstrong retired from the US Army in 1793.

Upon his retirement from the Army, he married Tabitha GOFORTH, daughter of Judge William GOFORTH. Armstrong owned a general store near Cincinnati, Ohio from 1793-ca. 1811. He also served as Judge for Hamilton County, Ohio from 1796-1797, was a Magistrate in Columbia, Ohio, served as Treasurer for the Northwest Territory from 1796-1802, and was an officer in the Hamilton County Militia from 1796-ca.1811.

After living much of his later life in Ohio, Armstrong returned to Clark County, IN in 1814 to the farm he had established 18 years before. His farm was near the town he founded, Armstrong's Station, on the Ohio River, one of the first American settlements on Indiana soil. On Feb. 4, 1816, he died on the property where a 10-foot obelisk still marks his grave.

Even though Armstrong was a honored war hero, valued explorer and local statesman , his politics and military duties helped keep him from becoming a household name. Because he agreed with Alexander Hamilton's philosophies instead of the more popular views of Thomas Jefferson, his accomplishments weren't as celebrated. He also appeared to have personal differences with William Henry Harrison while they were both Army officers; Harrison entered the political arena by serving as Ohio secretary, congressman, governer and was elected US President in 1841. Any honorable mention of an old adversary like Armstrong was sure to halted by Harrison. Armstrong, while an Army officer, was also responsible for removing squatters from Indian land, which diminished his popularity on the frontier.

Details regarding Armstrong's life and career can be found in American State Papers, Class V, Military Affairs, vol. 1 (1832); James McBride, Pioneer Biography, vol. 1 (1869); Charles Cist, The Cincinnati Miscellany; or Antiquities of the West, vol. 1 (1845); R.G. Thwaites, VII, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1905); and Pennsylvania Archives, ser. I, 1852-56

View his family web card.

Further information can be found here on John Armstrong's history and battle details.

Full article from American National Biography, Vol. 1

Full article from Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. I

The Harmar Expedition 1790: 1st Defeat of the U.S. Army against the Miami Indians and their Allies

The St. Clair Expedition 1791: 2nd Defeat of the U.S. Army against the Miami Indians and their Allies

Indiana Historical Marker #02.1966.1

Butler County, OH history with references to Capt. John Armstrong

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