By Carolyn L. Barkley
This article, originally published on 7/4/2008, has been revised and updated.
While you’re enjoying your backyard barbeque and fireworks this Fourth of July, take a few moments to reflect on the remarkable courage and sheer tenacity of those who participated in the Revolutionary War. Without their willingness to risk their lives, the lives of their families and friends, and their livelihoods, this nation would not have succeeded as a “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Do you have a Revolutionary soldier in your family tree? If you have an ancestor born between 1720 and 1763, there is a good possibility that he may have served in the revolutionary effort. Here are a series of steps and resources to use in establishing if your ancestor served or received bounty land or a pension, as well as background information to help you fill in the picture about the world in which your ancestor lived. Many of you will have used many other resources too numerous to mention here. Send us a comment about sources that you’ve found helpful.
1. Did your ancestor serve?
There are many resources, both print and online, to help you answer this question. Your ancestor may have had service in the Continental Army, authorized by the Continental Congresses, or may have served in state militia, so you may find records in both national and in state archives. While fires at the War Department in November 1800 and at the Treasury Department in August 1814 destroyed many of the early Revolutionary War service and pension records, many have now been reconstructed from other sources.
There are several printed compilations including Virgil White’s four-volume Index to Revolutionary War Service Records (National Historical Publ. Co., 1995), which abstracts the service records and provides soldier’s name, unit, and rank; Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution (Clearfield, 2008); and Pierce’s Register (Clearfield, 2002; currently sale priced), which approximates a complete roster of the Continental Army with 93,000 names. These sources can help focus your research on a specific individual, after which you will want to access the original records. If you will be using microfilm, refer to the National Archive’s Military Service Records publication which lists, among other titles, the microfilm holdings in Record Group 93 including general indices to the compiled military service records of Revolutionary War soldiers (M860) and the compiled service records themselves (M881). In addition, the Revolutionary War Rolls (M246) provide access by unit to muster rolls, payrolls, and other miscellaneous records. Even better access and images are provided online by footnote.com (requires subscription access by individuals or may be used for free at the National Archives).
If you are researching a soldier in a state militia unit, check with your local library to see if a print source concerning military service from that state is available. Examples include such titles as Penelope Johnson Allen’s Tennessee Soldiers in the Revolution (Clearfield 2008); Anderson Chenault Quisenberry’s Revolutionary Soldiers in Kentucky (Clearfield; currently out-of-print); or Joseph Lee Boyle’s Death Seem’d to Stare: The New Hampshire and Rhode Island Regiments at Valley Forge (Clearfield Co., 2005). You will also want to consult the website of the state archives of the state from which your ancestor served. Good examples of Revolutionary War state websites include the Maryland State Archives Guide to Revolutionary War Research in Maryland and the Connecticut State Library’s Research Guide to Revolutionary War Sources at the Connecticut State Library.
Resources other than military service records may also provide you with the information to verify your ancestor’s military service, including the D. A. R.. Patriot Index (DAR, 1994); Patricia Law Hatcher’s four-volume Abstracts of Graves of Revolutionary Patriots (Pioneer Heritage Press, 1987-88); Clarence Stewart Peterson’s Known Military Dead During the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (Clearfield Co., 2005; currently out of print); and Joseph Lee Boyle’s two volume set, “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum:” Military Desertions During the American Revolution. Volume 1 covers 1775-June 30, 1777, while volume 2 covers June 30, 1777-1783. Published by Clearfield in 2009, these two volumes are expected to be back in print in within days. (Please check the genealogical.com for availability.)
If you are in Washington, D.C., in addition to the National Archives, be sure to access the supplemental genealogical information contained in the application papers pertaining to Revolutionary War patriots housed at the DAR Library.
2. Did Your Ancestor Receive Bounty Land and/or a Pension?
After you have established that your ancestor did have military service, you will want to determine whether or not he received bounty land and whether or not he or his widow received a pension. Many resources provide access to pension information including the National Genealogical Society’s Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives (NGS, 1976). A variety of more specialized titles include the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Rejected or Suspended Applications for Revolutionary War Pensions (Clearfield, 2003; currently out of print), and the U. S. War Department’s Pensioners of the Revolutionary War – Struck Off the Roll (Clearfield Co., 2008; currently out of print). Once again, you will want to check the state archives web site for the state in which you are interested. Many have provided digital online access to pension records. The Library of Virginia, for example, provides online access to state pensions as well as rejected claims. Heritagequest.com, accessible only through your local library, provides online access to the original pension records. Please note however, that these latter records are the “selected” records, not the full file. You can access the full file on microfilm through the National Archives.
You will also need to check for bounty land warrants. The best description of the bounty land process that I have found is in E. Wade Hone’s Land and Property Research in the United States (Ancestry, 1997), and I recommend reading that chapter prior to doing your bounty land research. A major resource is Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck’s Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2006). State archive websites may include detailed information and/or digital images of such records.
3. Background Information.
A variety of resources are available to assist you in understanding your ancestor, the military world in which he may have served, and the historical background of the war, as well as in improving your research skills.
Locating Your Revolutionary War Ancestor: A Guide to Military Records by James C. and Lila L. Neagles (Everton, 1983).
The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution by Benson Lossing (Harper, 1850; available on CD from Heritage Books).
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution by Mary Mayo Boatner (Atheneum, 1994).
Resolutions, Laws, and Ordinances Relating to the Officers and Soldiers of the Revolution. (Genealogical Publ. Co., 1998; currently on sale)
Americans of 1776. Daily Life in Revolutionary America by James Schouler (Clearfield Co., 2007; currently out of print)
4. Teachers’ Guides.
An online fifth grade curriculum guide includes interactive tools for teachers to use with students, including a webquest simulation, writing assignments, battle site tours, and more. This guide can be found online. A revolutionary war site provided by Historycentral bills itself as the “most complete site on the web on the Revolutionary War.” It includes first hand battle accounts, biographies, stories and legends, and documents as well as both student and teacher guides.
A lot to think about as you enjoy your hamburgers and fireworks!