By permission and courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
From time to time, someone in the press questioned the range and quantity of David Kennison's exploits. The first systematic breakdown I found that challenged the Kennison legacy, was a paper that was read at The Borrowed Time Club, in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 30, 1914. This presentation of the paper by Dr. Charles Josiah Lewis, the vice president of the club, was reported on in the town's newspaper,
Oak Leaves, on August 1, 1914:

Strange Case of David Kennison – Dr. Lewis Tells of Remarkable Chicagoan – Lincoln Park Stone
The regular meeting of the Borrowed Time Club was held at Scoville institute on Thursday afternoon.
For the entertainment of the club Dr. Charles J. Lewis read a paper on “David Kennison, Last Survivor of the Boston Tea Party.”

Excerpts from the newspaper article:

If the first be correct (his birth year 1764), he was but nine years old at the time of the Boston tea party, and 12 at the commencement of the revolution in 1776, and his years would have precluded the possibility of his having participated in the tea party as well as his enlistment in the revolutionary war, …

It is true that after 1812 Kennison gave his age in 1814 as 42 years; that in 1818 he said he was 56, while in 1820 he claimed he was 79. Startling conclusions would emanate from these dates and they would have necessitated his being born at three different dates, 1772, 1762, and 1741, respectively. He also said, when making the statement that he was 79 in 1820, that he had a family of young children aged, respectively, 17, 14, 11, 7 and 5.

Setting aside as unanswered whether or not it is remarkable for a man of this age to have so young a family, would it not be possible that the last vestige of memory as to birth year might have been obliterated from the mental tablet of this soldier, who received a severe hand wound from a musket shot, who had both legs below the knee, his collar bone and two ribs broken; and, too, who was wholly illiterate, having learned to read after he was 62 years of age?

Another point involving the question as to correct birth data is evolved from anthropometry, or the science of measuring the body by regions, but in this case by stature. There is documentary evidence that Kennison was 4’9” tall in 1781, while 33 years later he was 5’6 1/2”. How was this done?

Up to about 15 years of age girls grow tall faster than boys. From this time on to 22 and 23, boys sprint up to about the stature they retain for the rest of their days. A boy can increase his stature by 9 1/2 inches between the ages of 17 to 23. These deductions are, with few exceptions, quite reliable. This would seem to be in favor of the birth year 1764. David Kennison died in 1852. Was he 115 years old, or but 88?

Altho there are several gaps in the story that is told of a certain soldier who died in Chicago at an age of 115 years, gaps a correct historian might wish were better bridged, nevertheless, after the late Fernando Jones, with others, had pointed out the spot of Kennison’s burial place, as best they could, the following organization set up a monument to him.

In conclusion, the doctor said: “Even though, metaphorically speaking, the accuracy of 1764 as birth year would take away one glittering pearl from the crown of our hero, his unusual longevity, we have left two orbs that shine with great brilliancy – these orbs are his services in the war of independence and in the war of 1812. For these services a grateful people clothe him with an armor that neither jealousy nor envy can tarnish, nor can the shafts of hate penetrate and efface the good work he did in helping to break asunder the throngs that were intended to bind a mighty people in servitude.”

There was no followup to Dr. Lewis' paper.

In 1921, the David Kennison chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was founded.

From that time, through the 1950s, there were gatherings held at the boulder for the commemoration of Memorial Day, Flag Day, George Washington's birthday and, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Throughout this period, David Kennison was consistently mentioned in various books about the Boston event, and Chicago's Lincoln Park.

After Kennison was cited in a 1959 Chicago Tribune article on the whereabouts of the remains of Illinois' Revolutionary War veterans, his name did not appear in that newspaper again until 1974. In an excerpt from a question to the Action Line column, someone wrote, "A special marker stone, complete with a bronze plaque, was placed near his grave near the Wisconsin Street entrance to the park. But look at it now! Vandals have stolen the plaque and spray painted the rock with obscene graffiti. Is this the way Kennison's grave should look for our nation's bicentennial?"

The Lincoln Park neighborhood was in a housing slump in the 1970s, and the area was run down. This timeframe coincides with the downfall of the David Kennison legacy. An item in the July 17, 1972 Chicago Daily News, reported that "three bronze plaques had been torn from the granite boulder marking the burial spot." The boulder stood bare in the park for two and a half years. The original bronze tablet was replaced with an aluminum replica on December 19, 1974.

In the Chicago History Museum's research center, there is an essay on file with the catalogued date of 1973. The essay, titled, "David Kennison and the Chicago Sting," was written by Albert G. Overton. In this paper, Overton systematically discounts David Kennison's Chicago exploits by explaining, through various primary source documents, that he assumed other Kennison/Kinnison men's identities to tell his own story. In five written pages, followed by four pages of cited sources, Albert Overton presented information that came to be accepted by historians as the real David Kennison story. Early in the essay, after describing Kennison's funeral procession, Overton writes:

"Muffled drums beat a slow marching pace for this magnificent parade was a funeral cortege to honor a well known Revolutionary War hero. Actually, they were escorting the mortal remains of one of the most colorful imposters ever to take the City of Chicago."

After listing the battles which Kennison asserted to have been a participant, and citing another Kennison claim, Overton writes:

"Apparently no one ever questioned his ability to attend the surrender in Yorktown, while at the same time he was a captive of the Indians in upper New York State."

The essay continues:

"The charm of his story has endured over 123 years for in all the articles printed about him, the claims he made have never before been challenged, and only a few have suggested he might have bent the truth a little.

Overton then proceeds to break down David Kennison's likely age and military history, citing many National Archives documents, including pension files, census records dating back to the first census of 1790, and Bounty Land files.

Albert Overton acknowleged that David Kennison spelled his family name Kinnison, and traces the authenticity of his signature by the distinctively written "K." Overton chooses to refer to Kennison through the Kennison spelling as it had been the accepted name in which the man had been known. After listing dates, supposed ages, and summarizing mathematically, Overton concludes:

"Actually, he was about 7 years old at the time of the tea party, saw no Revolutionary War service, and was about 85 years old not 115 when he died."

Overton continues his paper, parsing through the Kennison family genealogy. Acknowledging that although Kennison may have had four wives, he found documentary evidence for only four children. Of those four, only a daughter, Sarah B. Johnson, had certain documentation. The Overton paper concludes:

"Hopefully, this publication will sometime assist those who may be David Kennison's true descendants, be used as an example of what can be found through proper research efforts, and amuse those who will appreciate the humor of the little old man who conned his way into history and stung Chicago for a most valuable piece of real estate as his final resting place."


There is another Chicago historian working to further dispel the David Kennison legend. John F. Swenson, who always writes the name as Kinnison, is currently compiling more information he has found in the National Archives files. Digging even deeper than Overton in the 1970s, Swenson has found his evidence through searchable documents on the Internet.

Pamela Bannos © 2021