Montoursville founder spent winter with George Washington

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette offers the next installment in a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us.)

Motorists on heavily traveled Loyalsock Avenue in Montoursville pass by the Gen. John Burrows Historical Society, but do they know that not only is he the founder of the borough, but also that he marched with Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge?

The society named in his honor is at 19 Loyalsock Ave. It began in 1987 with two oil paintings purchased at auction for $65,000, according to society President Maynard Bogert.

The paintings were of Burrows and his second wife, Mary.

When asked why the town was not named after Burrows, Bogert said it was due to complicated system of setting up the postal routes.

Instead, it was named for Andrew Montour, a guide and interpreter of Native American and French ancestry who was commissioned as a captain during the French and Indian War in 1754. In gratitude for his service, he was given 880 acres of land.

In 1812, Burrows purchased 500 acres of Montour’s tract for $9,500. He had a mill built and was in the process of laying out the town and selling lots by 1820.

According to records, Burrows was born in 1760 in Rahway, New Jersey. His father ran a mail route between Philadelphia and New York for the British government. At the age of 13, Burrows joined him on the route.

When the Revolutionary War began, he enlisted.

Soon afterward, Burrows officially joined the army in Morristown, New Jersey, and worked as an express carrier for $40 a month.

During the winter of 1777-78, Burrows was with Gen. George Washington in Valley Forge.

Burrows wrote a memoir of his life and recorded in it that Washington “marched with his little army on Christmas morning 1776 and crossed the Delaware that night, nine miles above Trenton.”

“When we have third-graders in the museum, I’ll joke with them and say ‘Gen. Washington was in Valley Forge, and his cellphone was broken, so he hired Burrows to deliver messages to his generals,” Bogert said with a laugh.

Burrows impressed Washington and was brought on to join the general’s family.

“During the 14 months that I was with him in this capacity, I was a member of his household,” Burrows wrote. He described Washington as “the great, the good, the prudent and the virtuous man.”

According to the historical society, Burrows had “his horse shot out from under him (during the June 1778 Battle of Monmouth) and Washington was said to have personally given him another horse. “

As a dispatch rider, Burrows was given the nickname “Devil Jack” because it was said that he could “ride like the very devil.”

He soon left the army, married Pennsylvanian Jane Torbert and had seven children. In time, those children would give the couple 43 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In 1792, he tried to make his way as a blacksmith in Bucks County. He did so with little success.

In 1794, Burrows “sold my tools and started with my wife and five children … for Muncy where I had some relations living and I arrived there on the 17th of April.”

Burrows and his family were crammed into a small cabin. He became a distiller but continued “to struggle against adversity, and by pluck and endurance … managed to support his family,” wrote John F. Meginness in his 1892 “History of Lycoming County.”

However, in 1796, he was appointed a justice of the peace by Gov. Thomas McKean and held the position for nine years.

In 1802, he was elected a county commissioner where he “assisted in erecting one of the handsomest courthouses in the state,” Burrows said.

His wife died in 1804, but Burrows continued working on the Lycoming County Courthouse. In 1805, he helped purchase the courthouse bell and even transported it from Philadelphia with his own team of horses.

Three years later, he married a widow named Mary McCormick. The following year, he was elected to the state Senate in Harrisburg, where he represented Lycoming and Centre counties.

Between 1811 and 1813, he was appointed major general of the ninth division of the Pennsylvania militia. Then he was appointed a “prothonotary of the Court of the Common Pleas, register of wills, recorder of deeds and clerk of the several courts.”

By 1828, the country had its first official third political party — the Anti-Masonic Party, which formed because of the country’s distrust of freemasons. The party helped a handful of state governors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives get elected.

“I agreed to stand (as) a candidate (for U.S. Congress), as a rallying point for the (Anti-Masonic) party, though well convinced I had no chance of success; for I well knew the Masonic party was all powerful in the district,” Burrows said.

In the early 1830s, Burrows moved in with his son, Nathaniel, who would go on to become a distinguished member of Montoursville society.

He received a semi-annual pension of $173.33 for his service in the American Revolution and lived out the rest of his life in comfort

“Although I have, in early life, been nipped with the frost of adversity and poverty … it has operated as a stimulant than a damper to my industry,” Burrows said.

He died at age 77 on Aug. 22, 1837, and is interred with his second wife, Mary, at the Montoursville Cemetery on Broad Street.