James Mitchell Varnum (1748-1789)

By John M. Hunt, Jr., PhD

James Mitchell Varnum oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale, 1804

On this website we have a list of distinguished people descended from Mayflower passengers, such as John Adams, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Grandma" Moses, Alan Shepherd, and George W. Bush. It is tempting to expand the list. Whom would you add? What qualities does your suggested descendant possess in common with his or her Pilgrim ancestor?

We feature in this issue "James Mitchell Varnum (1748-89). Many of us living near Valley Forge have seen or visited his headquarters there, the David Stephens farmhouse, the oldest structure in the encampment, overlooking the "Grand Parade."

Varnum, a brigadier general in the Continental Army, commanded the Rhode Island brigade, which for its part defended, by the "Satr Redoubt," the bank of the Schyllkill River. Washington called him the "light of the camp." Varnum reciprocated. "Next to God Almighty and my country," he said, "I revere General Washington, and nothing fills me with so much indignation as the villainy of some who dare speak disrespectfully of him."

When Varnum graduated from Rhode Island College (later Brown University) in 1769, the year of its first class, he had a reputation for eloquence. This served him well at the bar, to which he was admitted in 1771, and in his capacity as a member of the Continental Congress in 1780-82 and 1786. He was a superlative orator, a formidable debater, and he even spoke Latin, as French Commissary-General Blanchard attests they both did while at dinner in the Varnum homestead in East Greenich, Rhode Island, in 1782. (The fine house, recently restored, still stands, open to the public, at 57 Peirce Street.) In his brief life Varnum showed fortitude and perseverance. He participated in the siege of Boston, the New York campaign, the defense of Philadelphia (Valley Forge), the battle of Monmouth, and the Rhode Island campaign during the Revolutionary War. He stood by his principles in the practice of law, and was at the point of serving as judge of the U.S. court in the Northwest Territory (to which he travelled on horseback) when he died there, in Marietta, Ohio, apparently of consumption, in 1789.

Varnum's mental toughness was no doubt a part of his Pilgrim inheritance. Through his mother, Hannah Mitchell, he was a direct descendant of Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke (Hannah Mitchell6, W. James Mitchell5, Andrew Mitchell4, Thomas Mitchell3, Jane Cooke2, Francis Cooke1).

Though Varnum himself left no descendants, his brother Joseph, U.S. senator and Speaker of the House of Representatives, decidedly did. Among these is SMDPA member Elizabeth Rowland, noted for her eight proved Mayflower lines. Her descent from the Varnums provides her with an additional line, not yet mentioned in our Register, to Francis Cooke. Congratulations, Mrs. Rowland!