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National Life's First Claims: Claim #1

The vast bulk of the first 100 death claims received in the earliest months and years of National Life’s existence were on men who perished on the opposite side of the continent - in California.

The first claim ever received by the infant company came very early and was both a shock and surprise to the marginally funded company. Being only a few months old, and with no time to accumulate any true assets, the company immediately questioned how it was going to be able to pay the promised benefit.

In the first weeks of National Life’s existence, young Rowland Allen (born March 15, 1827) of the tiny town of Ferrisburg, Vermont applied for and was issued policies #77 and #78 for face amounts of $500 each. Seemingly small by today’s standards, these were considered to be relatively large in 1850.

Shortly after Allen’s policies were issued, he departed for California and the great Gold Rush. Allen was but one of many fortune seekers known as “Forty Niners.” Without doubt, he hoped to find fabulous riches and return to a comfortable life with his young wife who remained behind.

Allen made his way to an eastern seaport, probably Boston, and boarded the Pacific Mail Steamer “Oregon.” As the “Oregon” slowly made its way around the tip of South America, Allen became increasingly ill. On May 17, 1850 he died of dysentery still on board the ship at San Diego.

It wasn’t until early summer when word of Allen’s death finally arrived back in Vermont at National Life’s home office in Montpelier. Suddenly, the company was faced with a claim for $1,000 long before the company expected to face any such payment.

National Life simply didn’t have the assets to pay the claim but the directors immediately determined that if they failed on this policy, the company would be doomed. Equally as important, the directors were unwilling to have their own names associated with a “scheme” wherein a young widow wasn’t paid her claim in a timely manner.

The situation was solved with the cooperation of a local bank and Sarah Allen was paid the full $1,000 in a matter of days. Julius Dewey, MD, President of National Life, personally delivered the payment. Shortly thereafter on July 26, 1850, the company was surprised to see the following as published in The Vermont Patriot newspaper:


The subscribers take this method of expressing their thanks to the Directors of the National Life Insurance Company in this State for their promptness in remitting the amount of insurance upon the life of the late Rowland Allen, of Ferrisburg. Although by the terms of the policy the Directors were under no obligation to pay sooner than three months after notice and proof of death, yet the claim was allowed and ordered to be paid on the very day of such notice and proof. Such promptness deserves commendation and we cannot help recommending this institution, managed with so much skill and energy to the favorable notice and patronage of the public.

Administrator and father-in-law of Rowland Allen
Widow of Rowland Allen

Allen was buried in a new (300 sq. ft) cemetery then known as the American Burying Ground in San Diego. It was located south of Old Town and identified on period maps as Lot 540. Although the remains of military veterans were later exhumed from this cemetery and moved to Ft. Rosecrans, the California Department of Transportation eventually acquired the land and left the remaining graves as found. This small cemetery and Allen’s grave are now located underneath Highway 5.

Three months after his death in California, Allen’s widow gave birth to a son on September 1, 1850. Unfortunately, no official documents exist that help to trace what happened to Mrs. Allen or her newborn son. With the very significant sum of $1,000 in hand from her husband’s National Life policy, we can assume that they were probably financially secure.


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