John Patton was a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous Philadelphia merchant and civic leader, who moved to Centre County in 1789 to build the region’s first charcoal-fired iron furnace, Centre Furnace. The operation’s success sparked the founding of additional furnaces and forges in what would become Centre County.
Born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1745, Patton immigrated to Philadelphia in 1761, at the age of 16, working his way into wealth and societal stature. Because he apparently left no personal records, his life’s story before his move to Centre County is murky. He has sometimes been confused with the ironmaster of Berks Furnace in Berks County, also named John Patton. But Centre County historians have demonstrated there is no relationship between the two.
Patton’s role in the Revolutionary War is well documented, however. In 1775, he was appointed to the Philadelphia Committee on Inspection and Observation. In March 1776, he became a major in the 1st Battalion of Colonel Samuel Miles’s Regiment of 1,000 Pennsylvania riflemen. In the disastrous Battle of Long Island in August 1776, Patton escaped capture.
He married Jane Davis of Philadelphia in March 1777. That same year, he became a colonel in one of sixteen new regiments authorized by the Continental Congress, receiving his appointment from General Washington. In January 1778, during the bitter-cold, starving encampment at Valley Forge, Congress appointed him to supervise the purchase of flour and meat for the army. In 1778, he became a colonel serving in Washington’s bodyguard.
Patton was elected to the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry, in 1779, serving as cornet of the troop (roughly equivalent to today’s second lieutenant) throughout his active membership and placed on its honor roll in 1787. He was inducted into the Society of the Cincinnati—the nation’s first patriotic organization composed of American and French military officers—in 1783.
In conjunction with prominent merchants, including Robert Morris, Patton helped to raise substantial funds to support the Patriot cause. Unfortunately, no painting or likeness of John Patton exists. But an archives account describes him thus: “Colonel Patton was six feet in height, of noble appearance and carriage, his hair red and eyes hazel. He had a fine address, and a very polished manner.”
His military service did not end with the Revolution. After coming to Centre Furnace, Patton accepted a commission from Governor Thomas Mifflin in 1793 to serve for seven years as a major general in command of the 8th Division of Pennsylvania militia in Bedford, Huntingdon, and Mifflin counties. He mobilized, equipped, and drilled his troops to take part in the 1794 campaign to quash the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. When Centre County was formed in 1800, he was appointed major general of the 19th Division of state militia for Centre, Mifflin, and Huntingdon counties.
Centre Furnace was an informal partnership between John Patton, Samuel Miles, and Miles’s son John. Samuel Miles, also a Revolutionary War colonel, purchased 9,000 acres of what later became Centre County land in 1772. After the war, he began selling or leasing the land to farmers coming into the area from eastern Pennsylvania. Patton and Miles, who had served together as officers for a time, took up warrants for thousands more acres of land, including 8,000 acres in the vicinity of the planned iron works. Patton became owner of even more land in present-day Harris, College, and Patton townships.
Miles was an absentee partner, making occasional visits. Patton arrived in 1789 to build their furnace. He attracted a skilled workforce from eastern Pennsylvania, where many furnaces were shutting down. Blacks composed a small part of the labor force. Two or three were slaves; another was paid for his work. In 1791, Patton and his workmen built the cold-blast furnace, which went into operation in May 1792.
Patton attracted at least one famous visitor: the French statesman and diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who held high office during the French Revolution, later under Napoleon, and then after the restoration of Bourbon monarchy. Talleyrand was exiled from France from 1794 to 1796. He came to Pennsylvania, seeking to engage in land speculation, and stayed with John and Jane Patton at Centre Furnace during the winter of 1795.
Initially, Centre Furnace flourished. The transportation of the raw product to distant markets in Pittsburgh and Baltimore by pack horse or canal boat posed great expense and difficulty, however. The problem was solved somewhat by the construction of nearby forges to process the iron into finished products, including nails, wheel rims, tools, cooking and kitchen utensils.
Finances became a challenge, as many of the forges could not afford to pay what it cost Centre Furnace to produce the pig iron, and the operation began to gradually decline. Miles bought out Patton’s interest in 1798, when Patton’s health began to decline.
Patton remained in the area, building a cabin on his vast holdings near the intersection of present-day West Branch Road and Shingletown Road in Harris Township. He died in 1804. According to his wish, he was buried on his land, on the portion that later became the Samuel B. Wasson farm.
Patton’s eternal rest on his farm property did not last an eternity, however. In 1938, in a controversial legal battle, his remains were exhumed by the Huntingdon Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and reburied next to his wife, Jane, in Riverview Cemetery in Huntingdon. The post wanted to honor his memory in ceremonious fashion, as he had been major general of the Huntingdon County militia.
The exhumation came with the permission of landowner Samuel B. Wasson and a grandson, Alexander Anderson, also of Huntingdon. Patton’s wife Jane had moved to Huntingdon shortly after his death to live close to her children. Jane died in 1832. The two are reunited under a single headstone.
Patton Township, founded in 1794, is named for him.
Klein, Philip S. “Will Co. John Patton Please Identify Himself? Centre County Heritage, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring 1984.
Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1883.
Stevens, Sylvester (Revised and Expanded by Philip S. Klein). The Centre Furnace Story: A Return to Our Roots. State College: Centre County Historical Society, 1985.
Williams, Roger. “The Contested Exhumation and Reburial of John Patton,” Mansion Notes: Newsletter of the Centre County Historical Society. Spring 2022.
Wunderly, Kitty (Wolsiffer). “A Tale of Two Pattons.” Centre County Heritage, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1981
First Published: March 25, 2023
Last Modified: June 25, 2023