The old general died early in May 1858. “Death found him in a vigorous old age”, writes the Western Gazette of Lima, “like an old oak still green”.
William Blackburn was buried “with martial rites” on May 8, 1858, “followed to the grave by an immense concourse of citizens – more than one breast swollen with emotion, as they followed the hearse that carried him to the tomb; and many tears covered the clods which fell on his coffin; all felt that a precious citizen, a warm and generous friend, had been gathered into the final resting place of all mortals.
Blackburn was an outsized figure, both physically – county histories put him at over 6 feet tall and weighing around 300 pounds – and in the role he played in early Allen County, where he served as a land agent, legislator and militia leader. A hero of the War of 1812, he became a major general in the Ohio militia and gloried in leading local troops to rallies in the public square in the 1840s.
In the years following Blackburn’s death, Lima grew up around the old cemetery on East Wayne Street. Trains passed nearby, and trams and automobiles vied for space in the square where Blackburn had once trained troops.
William Rusler, in his History of Allen County in 1921, wrote that Blackburn “was accustomed to pomp and ceremony, and with his panache and spurs sat on a horse like a rider of old; he was as handsome a soldier as ever mounted on a steed. When General Blackburn led the procession in Lima and was followed by a military band, he was the center of everyone’s attention.
Seventy years after his death, in October 1928, the weeds had grown around his grave, and there were few traces of the Lima the general knew.
“His headstone desecrated by vandals, the body of Major General William J. Blackburn, one of Lima’s most illustrious pioneers, lies in a sunken and nearly forgotten grave in an abandoned cemetery known as the Old Cemetery at East Wayne and North Park Streets,” The Lima News wrote on October 7, 1928. The newspaper added that “the desolation seemed to have even spread outside the old cemetery itself. To the east, an abandoned brewery and to the west, a rambling, unoccupied structure once used for a paper mill.
It was an inglorious final resting place for a man the newspaper described as “one of the best-known pioneers of this part of Ohio…a quaint figure of Lima long ago.”
Blackburn was born in Maryland or Pennsylvania in June 1787. His father “moved to Ohio among the first pioneers of that state and settled in Columbiana County,” the Allen County Democrat wrote. in his obituary.
“In 1813, after (General William) Hull had returned the American army to Detroit (in August, 1812), and our frontier was opened to the tomahawk and savage’s scalpel, the call of his country found the young Blackburn ready to belt up for the pageant,” the Democrat wrote.
Blackburn quickly raised a company of volunteers in Columbiana County and began a miserable march north to rescue the survivors of Hull’s army.
“Through the mud and the rain, the snows and the storms of this terrible winter, he was always at his post and ready for service,” added the Democrat.
Blackburn arrived in Michigan in January 1813 after the defeat of James Winchester at Frenchtown (the present site of Monroe, Michigan) on the Raisin River, and Blackburn’s company of volunteers rescued some of the survivors of this defeated army. He then returned to Maumee, where his company assisted William Harrison in the construction of Fort Meigs. At the end of the War of 1812 he returned to Columbiana County and in 1817 was elected to the Ohio Legislative Assembly. He would serve five terms.
In 1835, President Andrew Jackson appointed him land agent for northwestern Ohio. The office was in Wapakoneta but moved to Lima the following year. Blackburn was reappointed to the post in 1839 by President Martin Van Buren and held the post until 1843.
“While in charge of the American land office at Lima,” wrote the News in 1928, “General Blackburn had a very great responsibility in the management and accounting of large sums of gold and silver, without the convenience of a modern safe. …when a considerable amount of gold had been accumulated through sales, General Blackburn would pack the coin in barrels of salt, load them onto the wagon, and journey to Columbus with oxen.
When the land office was moved to Upper Sandusky in 1843, Blackburn retired to Allentown with his second wife, Rebecca Cully, whom he had married in 1828 after the death of his first wife, Janie Armstrong. In 1851, he was again elected to the Ohio Legislative Assembly.
In 1850 Blackburn, who operated a mill in Allentown, built a large log house known as the Blackburn Mansion, which, Rusler wrote in his history of the county, was long a social center. The house burned down in 1904. “The seasoned black walnut finish would cost a fortune today,” Rusler noted.
By all accounts, Blackburn was primarily a “military enthusiast” and lived for militia rallies. Militias had been created by the United States Congress in 1792, which required all males between the ages of 18 and 45 to report for duty and be present for drill and parades at various times of the year. The system was in place until after the Civil War.
“Early in the history of Allen County,” Rusler noted, “days of assembly in Lima rivaled July 4th celebrations; since Allentown was the home of General William Blackburn who commanded the Northwest Division of Ohio and Brigadier General William Armstrong (the father of Mart Armstrong, Lima’s first Civil War casualty) of Lima commanded the Allen County brigade, day of muster in Lima meant more than in some other counties of Ohio….General Blackburn had a horse called Tam O’Shanter…with a terrific stride, and his horse seemed to share all the enthusiasm of the exercise.
The horse “was a chestnut sorrel and with a rider weighing 300 pounds it was a spectacular occasion when General Blackburn passed on horseback”, he added, noting that due to Blackburn’s “unusual weight” , he never walked on foot in the exercises.
Blackburn’s daughter Adeline would later recall in a letter to a friend that her father at rallies wore a three-cornered hat with a red and white plume. His coat, she writes, “was dark blue edged with chamois and also his waistcoat was chamois, the coat was buttoned up with frills…set by my mother’s dear hands, red sash from Morocco, with chains down the side for holding his sword, a red silk sash, tied in loops, with heavy silk tassels down the side, dark blue trousers with wide gold stripes down the side. The horse he rode, she noted, had to be blindfolded and held by three men until his father was in the saddle.
After his death in 1858, Blackburn was buried in the original cemetery in Lima, at the southeast corner of North Street and Central Avenue. Years later, the cemetery was moved to East Wayne Street near the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, and in 1968, by court order, the graves were moved to Woodlawn Cemetery to make way for Neon Product Inc.
The graves of Blackburn, his wives and other family members, in the southeastern part of Woodlawn Cemetery, again fell into disrepair but were restored in May 2012.
A portrait of General William Blackburn in the Allen County Museum gives little clue to his stature. The general was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds.
Contact Greg Hoersten at [email protected]