John Osborn French

Although he left home at an early age, and enlisted from another state, John French’s name appears on the town G.A.R.  Memorial because of  town empathy  for the  fatherless lad, and because his large family and his mother  reported on his military exploits.   John was born in Newmarket  on Halloween, 31 October 1842.  His parents were Edwin and Mary (Brackett) French.  Edwin died in 1852.  In 1859, sixteen year old John left for Minnesota with his uncle, A B Brackett.  From May 1859, until the war broke out, John lived and boarded with his uncle George A Brackett.  John attended one of the first schools in the area for about three terms.

In the spring of 1860 he helped run the Willow Telegraph Company’s wire from Winona to St Paul to inaugurate Minnesota’s 1st transmission of telegrams.  Later that year, he moved to Minneapolis, where, he worked for George and his brother, Hartwell, in their butcher shop in Minneapolis, which greatly benefitted him during his service career.

In 1861, when he was 18,  he enlisted and mustered in the same day on 29 April  and was placed with the First Minnesota Infantry, Company D.  His stated occupation that the time was that of  ”Butcher”.   John stood 5’ 8” tall. He has light hair with black eyes and hair.  At some time during his service, John was promoted to corporal.   In 1861 and 1862, his uncle George Brackett won a government contract to supply beef for General Stone’s Division. When Brackett would be out east he arranged to have John detailed to him for assistance.  John never went hungry.

French is mentioned in a history of  Becker County and he proudly stated that while he served in the First Minnesota he never missed a battle or a meal.  He participated in 32 battles and had his uniform pierced by bullets three different times. Fortunately he was never wounded.

However, at the battle of Gettysburg, he suffered from the heavy cannonading during the battle. It affected his ears and rendered him deaf. Despite this problem, John continued to serve and was mustered out with the regiment at Fort Snelling, on May 5, 1864.

The deafness that occurred during the war bothered him for the rest of his life. During the war there were times when he felt he was getting better. However, with time his hearing got progressively worse until people had to shout at him for him to be able to hear what they were saying.

(photo of Minnesota Historical Society:  This picture was probably taken between 1887 and 1890. John is wearing a coat similar to one he wore in the army. On his coat is the white trefoil designating the 2nd Army Corps, to which the First Minnesota belonged.)

French joined the first Northern Pacific Railroad exploring expedition as assistant guide and was an assistant in the party of engineers that located the line through Becker County northwestern Minnesota where  Detroit Township was organized on July 29, 1871.   He opened a hotel and meat market at Oak Lake in 1872; and filed a homestead claim at Floyd Lake and was elected the first town constable of Detroit Township. In 1877, he was also working as a butcher.

  He married a Mary A. Hawkins (also called Mary Sweatland). The marriage was dissolved on Sept 21, 1888, and the divorce finalized in Aug, 1890.

(photo by Wayne Jorgenson: Four NCOs from Company D.  Sgt William Irvine seated next to Corporal Thomas Nason.  Standing on the left is Corporal Jacob Kouts. John French stands on the right.)


In 1889 French began living with a divorcee by the name of Mary (Viznor) Barril.  Their daughter, Rose was born in 1890. Sarah was born in 1891. John & Mary were married on Jan 24, 1892. The 1895 census lists Mary as being 30 years old. He was 52. At the time, they had four children; Edward (10) by her previous marriage, Rose (6), Sarah (5) and George (2). They eventually had 12 children, 9 of whom survived.

 In 1920, French retired from his farmstead and moved into Detroit City.  He died in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, on Nov 29, 1924. He was 82 years old. In 1926, Detroit City’s name was changed to Detroit Lakes.

 Sources:  History of Becker County, Roster of the First Minnesota Infantry, 1910.

Roster of the Survivors, First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, 1917.

Military pension and widow’s pension files, John O French, National Archives, Washington D. C.

Soldiers of Becker County: in Commemoration the 150th Anniversary of the Start of the Civil War 1861 - 1865.