FREMONT — As fireworks echo in today’s Fourth of July celebrations, more than a hundred Wagoners, Wagners, and Waggoners from across the country will reunite at the Four Mile House Cemetery near Fremont.
Among the sea of tombs sits a headstone bearing the name of John Waggoner, “a Life Guard of George Washington.”
From generation to generation, the descendants of John Waggoner have preserved the memory of the German immigrant, who became a northwest Ohio pioneer after serving in the Revolutionary War.
Born in 1758 in the village of Wasselonne in Alsace, John Waggoner landed in Maryland in the early 1770s. Soon, according to family tradition, his destiny became intertwined with that of one of the Founding Fathers of the county.
Serving as a personal bodyguard to George Washington during the conflict between the 13 colonies and Britain, he followed the general “day and night,” according to Jay Wagoner of Toledo, one of his numerous descendants.
“He is said to have saved General Washington’s life on several occasions,” he said. “Rumor has it that Washington used to say that this man was not afraid of a thousand devils.”
No records have been preserved to validate the family’s claim; however, the name of John Waggoner appears in connection to General Washington’s personal guards in the records of the Sons of the American Revolution as well as in several early chronicles of northwest Ohio.
On Dec. 28, 1842, the former Norwalk Experiment ran an obituary announcing the death of John Waggoner at the age of 84.
According to the article, “This aged Patriot, the last member of George Washington’s Life Guards, ... suffered with that great and good man the perils and privations of that eventful period. In private life Mr. W. was a most exemplary citizen, beloved by all who knew him.”
Mr. Waggoner was buried in the Bowlus Cemetery outside Fremont, next to his first wife, Elizabeth, who preceded him in death around 1830.
In 1899, their remains were reinterred in the Four Mile House Cemetery nearby, where a granite headstone was erected. However, the name of John Waggoner’s wife was incorrectly inscribed as Mary Ricely.
For more than a century, the incorrect name of John Waggoner’s wife was, literally, set in stone — until today.
Earlier this year, Jay Wagoner joined forces with a group of descendants to repair the mistake on their ancestor’s tombstone.
In June, the granite headstone was removed and transported to Maumee, where stone carvers of Design Memorial Stone Service chiseled off the naming mistake and re-engraved “Elizabeth Leach” as John Waggoner’s wife. The newly corrected monument will be officially unveiled today at the cemetery.
“Behind every great man there’s a great woman,” Jay Wagoner said. “It was about time we gave Elizabeth her rightful place on the headstone, next to her husband, John.”
For years, a dark wood cane and a steel blade embellished with scroll-work have been passed down from one Waggoner generation to the next.
According to family lore, the two artifacts were donated to their ancestor by General Washington himself in recognition of his service.
“At the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington invited a dozen of his fiercest warriors to Mount Vernon and donated each one of them a cane and a sword,” Jay Wagoner said.
The two heirloom pieces — which were donated in 1997 to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont — have never been authenticated, Jay Wagoner said.
However, he added, the pair of heirlooms might as well represent one of the few vestiges of “the forgotten man who saved George Washington’s life.”
The soldier does not appear in the roster of “Washington’s Life Guards,” a Continental Army unit tasked with protecting General Washington.
However, an 1835 pension report from the U.S. secretary of war listed John Waggoner, then living in Sandusky County, as a dragoon in Capt. Bartholomew Von Heer’s troop, a military police regiment that occasionally provided bodyguard service to General Washington.
After the close of the war, John Waggoner returned to northern Maryland, where official records indicate he married Elizabeth Leach on July 18, 1785.
Father of seven sons and three daughters, he was around 45 when he and his family moved to Perry County, Ohio, in 1803, the year Ohio became the 17th state in the Union.
About 1830, he moved with his family to northwest Ohio and settled in Sandusky County, becoming one of the first pioneers in the region. As noted in the 1882 History of Sandusky County, he purchased 80 acres of land in Washington Township and 90 acres in Sandusky Township, where he established a family farm with his second wife, Sarah Minic.
“Nine generations later, we are only 30 miles way from that farm,” said former Ohio Sen. Mark Wagoner, one of Mr. Waggoner’s many descendants. Mr. Wagoner, an Ottawa Hills Republican who also served as a member of Ohio House of Representatives from 2005 to 2008, said the family lore surrounding his ancestor inspired his own commitment to public service.
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