OAKWOOD CHRONICLES: Celebrating the selfless, Julia Averill Griffen

Julia Averill Griffen helped bring about two firsts – advancements in the fields of medicine and civil rights.

The world we know today evolved slowly, and for every advancement – be it in science or nature or society, there was a first.

One of our neighbors resting in Oakwood Cemetery helped bring about two firsts – advancements in the fields of medicine and civil rights. Her name was Julia Averill Griffen.

Born in Hudson, NY, her family resided for a time in Stamford, Ont., near Griffen’s aunt and uncle. The aunt relocated to the States when her husband, Clifton House-owner Cornelius, decided to join the Gold Rush and met with decidedly unexpected results: he died.

She moved to Suspension Bridge.

The relatives followed.

Now area residents, the dark dawn of the Civil War saw Griffen’s brother enlist, as did so many men of the Niagara Frontier. Griffen decided she had something to offer the Union effort as well.

After training in New York City she traveled to Washington, D.C. It was here Griffen met and worked for activist Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army, whose pioneering approach to medicine changed nursing. Dix was a champion of marginalized communities such as the mentally ill, indigenous people, and the economically challenged.

Under Dix’s authority, Griffen, who, in civilian life was a well-heeled woman, worked as a nurse on the front lines. She served at the battle of Winchester in Virginia, and was taken prisoner by the victorious Confederate Army. Upon her parole, she returned to the front, serving the Army of the Potomac.  

They say no matter where you travel you run into people from Western New York and it seems that has always been true, for among those Griffen tended to were the men of Col. Peter Porter’s 8th NY Heavy Artillery.

Upon the conclusion of the bloody chapter, Griffen returned home chronically ill with asthma, her reward for her humanitarian efforts; no good deed goes unpunished.

The nation’s gratitude was evident in its denial of her application for a military pension. So while the soldiers recovered and reclaimed their lives, she fought on. And on.

Finally in 1888, 23 years after the war ended, she was awarded the pension she had earned.  It literally took an act of Congress.

But in Niagara Falls her service was appreciated. During Memorial Day celebrations, veterans honored her by lowering their flags upon passing in front of her home. 

This lady who could have stayed home by a roaring fire in a well-appointed room, but chose instead to minister to the sick, dying, diseased, and traumatized, died in December 1891 at 60 years-of-age.

She took her place at Oakwood Cemetery, not far from Col. Porter and the other veterans who preserved the Union.

Remember them all.


Oakwood Chronicles is a monthly feature about some of the more famous residents of Oakwood Cemetery. For more information, visit www.oakwoodniagara.org.

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