Colonel Stephen Olney

Inducted: 1999
Born: 1756
Died: 1832

Stephen Olney (1756-1832), of North Providence, was one of Rhode Island’s most distinguished and longest-serving officers during the War for Independence. He was a fifth-generation descendant of Thomas Olney, a joint proprietor with Roger Williams in the settlement of Providence. In 1774, at the age of eighteen, Stephen Olney became a private in a newly chartered militia company called the North Providence Rangers. From that time through the siege of Yorktown in 1781, he participated heroically in numerous military campaigns, rising to the rank of captain.

Olney’s early service was with the Second Rhode Island Regiment, and with this outfit, he participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775), the Brooklyn Heights campaign (1776), the Battle of Long Island (1776), the Battle of White Plains (1776), the Battle of Princeton, where Olney saved the life of future U.S. president James Monroe by carrying the wounded Virginian to safety (1777), the defense of Fort Mercer at Red Bank, New Jersey (1777), the Battle of Monmouth (1778), the Battle of Rhode Island (1778), the 1780 Battle of Springfield, New Jersey, where he was wounded in the arm by a rifle shot (1780), and the Siege of Yorktown (1781).

At Yorktown, the decisive battle of the Revolution, Olney led a company in the division commanded by General Lafayette, a detachment that attacked one of two advanced redoubts of the British. Olney received three bayonet wounds in this heroic charge, but he soon recuperated. In March 1782, he resigned his commission and returned home because he felt that his gallantry at Yorktown was not properly acknowledged.

Olney married just prior to the war and had eight children by his first wife, who died in 1813. After the war, he played a prominent role in the political life of North Providence as a longtime member of the General Assembly and as president of the town council. Captain Olney’s final years were spent in Johnston, to which he moved in 1826 after his marriage to a widow from that town.

One of his most emotional experiences in later life occurred in 1824 when General Lafayette visited Providence on the Frenchman’s triumphal tour of America. He met Captain Olney, his old comrade in arms, on the steps of the State House in Providence, and each embraced the other with such warmth and affection that, according to one observer, “among the many hundreds who witnessed this honest and patriotic effusion of tenderness, scarcely a dry eye was to be seen.”

Although Olney served for six years and ten months in the American army, fought in numerous pitched battles, and suffered severe wounds in two encounters, his angry resignation after the Yorktown victory excluded him from a Revolutionary War pension program later enacted by Congress that provided relief only to those who served until war’s end. Needing money to maintain a decent standard of living, in 1828, Olney petitioned Congress for inclusion in its pension system. Through the efforts of Rhode Island congressmen Dutee Pearce and Tristam Burges, Congress passed “An act for the relief of Stephen Olney” on May 28, 1830, a measure that made his final years more comfortable financially. However, they were not comfortable physically. He died on November 23, 1832, at the age of seventy-seven, from complications arising from the amputation of his arm because of a cancerous growth.

Olney was given a hero’s funeral, and the newly established Providence Journal eulogized that “He was in the best and highest sense of the words, a Patriot and a Republican, devotedly attached to our national institutions and interests, for which in his younger days, he had so often been ready to make the sacrifice of his life.” Olney’s home still stands at 138 Smithfield Road, North Providence, and his gravesite is nearby.

Captain Stephen Olney was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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