Revisiting Revolutionary War Resources

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I frequently hear myself say that the Revolutionary War period is not my favorite time period in which to research. I’m unsure precisely why that might be, but perhaps it is due to my continuing feeling that I don’t know enough about this period in American history, or perhaps it is because this war has not caught my attention the way the Civil War has. That latter reason is probably inexplicable. The first however represents an ongoing invitation to increase my knowledge, and I continually take advantage of opportunities to learn about the historical events of the late eighteenth century as well as the resources which make the events and the people involved in them more accessible and understandable. Ironically, as I look back on four years of weekly blog articles (over 200 and counting), I find that I have written five articles about topics related to Revolutionary War records and resources, perhaps more articles than on any other single topic. So, in the midst of our Civil War commemoration and the bicentennial observance of the War of 1812, I turn again to the Revolutionary War and share with you some of the information from previous articles, including updated information and resources where available. For a more detailed discussion of Revolutionary War topics, please refer to the original article postings on this blog site.

I believe that it is important to learn about the resources and records that are available before beginning to research a specific topic. Several sources will prove helpful in providing that all-important background information. One of the most concise research aids (presented in a format that is easy to take with you on research trips) is Craig Robert Scott’s Revolutionary War Genealogy Research, one of the newer additions to Genealogical Publishing Company’s Genealogy at a Glance series. Scott provides very useful information on locating and using lineage society records, pension records, compiled military service records, muster rolls, settled accounts, bounty land records, loyalist records, census records, and information contained in manuscript collections. For more in-depth historical treatments of the conflict, you may want to consider David McCullough’s 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Samuel B. Griffith’s The War for American Independence from 1760 to the Surrender at Yorktown in 1781 (University of Illinois Press, 2002), or, if you are more visually oriented, the 2004 PBS series, Liberty! The American Revolution, available on DVD. Meanwhile, here are the salient issues that will help guide your research:

  1. Did my ancestor serve?

Your ancestor may have served in the Continental Army, authorized by the Continental Congress, or may have served in a state militia unit. Records may be available at both the federal and state levels. 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 records, many have now been reconstructed from other sources.

Print compilations include Virgil White’s four-volume Index to Revolutionary War Service Records (National Historical Publ. Co., 1995), which provides service record abstracts containing soldier’s name, unit and rank; Frank 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), which approximates a complete roster of the Continental Army with 93,000 names. These sources will help focus your research about 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 Fold3 in such collections of digitized images as Revolutionary War Pensions, Revolutionary War Service Records, Revolutionary War Rolls, Service Records of Volunteers, and Final Vouchers Index for Military Pension Payments. (Fold3 requires subscription access by individuals, but may be used for free at the National Archives or at subscribing public libraries). State militia records may be contained in the collections of state archives and historical societies. A good strategy is to check for further information and digital collections on the web sites for these types of institutions. Others state-level records, such as Penelope Johnson Allen’s Tennessee Soldiers in the Revolution (Clearfield 2008), have been published.

If you do not find your ancestor serving with the American patriots, you must consider whether or not he may have been a Loyalist. Loyalists were those North American colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution. The greatest concentration of Loyalists lived in New York, a bastion of British influence for most of the Revolutionary period. These individuals tended to be Anglican, better-educated, and more well-to-do. Loyalists were also quite numerous in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. In the more southern states, particularly in South Carolina, they were more often back-country farmers. While Loyalists were found in other colonies as well, they were in the distinct minority in areas such as New England and Virginia. Many had their land and property confiscated, suffered the indignity of being tarred and feathered, or in some cases lost their lives. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Loyalists left the colonies, about half of them going to Canada, beginning in 1783. Some families would return to the newly-independent United States soon after the war, others would remain in Canada through several generations before finally returning. Resources to assist you in locating a Loyalist ancestor include materials found online at The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies and in such printed materials as the two-volume United Empire Loyalists: Enquiry into the Losses and Services in Consequence of Their Loyalty by Alexander Fraser (Clearfield, 1994), and Lorenzo Sabine’s Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution, 2nd ed. (1864, reprinted by Clearfield, 2005).

  1. 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). More specialized titles are the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Rejected or Suspended Applications for Revolutionary War Pensions (Clearfield, 2003), and the U. S. War Department’s Pensioners of the Revolutionary War – Struck Off the Roll (Clearfield, 2008). Of particular interest are two titles by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck: Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996) and Revolutionary War Pensions Awarded by State Governments 1775-1874, the General and Federal Governments Prior to 1814, and by Private Acts of Congress to 1905 (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011).

  1. Does your ancestor appear in lineage society application information?

Both the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) provide access to information submitted on membership applications.

The DAR’s Patriot Index has long been a seminal work in identifying Revolutionary War patriots. The organization’s web site provides access to the Ancestor Database, containing “the names of Revolutionary War Patriots whose service and identity have been established by the DAR. Included is information on the dates and places of birth and death, names of spouses, residence during the Revolution, rank and type of service, and the state where the patriot served.” When searching for my Revolutionary ancestor, Oliver Lanfare, I was directed to an alternative spelling (Lamphear). I was then able to locate his information including the fact that he was a private in Capt. Hall’s (Colonel Webb’s) 7th Connecticut regiment. It also provided his birth (1749) and death (7 May 1812) dates, his residence (Branford, Connecticut), and his wife’s name (Phoebe). A long list of associated applications and supplemental files are also provided including his son, Oliver, and his wife Lois Willard, from whom I descend. For those unable to travel to the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., record copies may be purchased directly through the web site.

SAR application records are available on Ancestry.com. Online access to this resource is particularly helpful as since 1978, the SAR Genealogical Research Library has been located in Louisville, Kentucky. By using application information from both the DAR and the SAR, much information can be added to your research (although you will need to document the information independently).

  1. How can I add detail to the Revolutionary War experiences of my ancestor?

Craig Scott’s blog, As Craig Sees It, includes a wonderful sentence, which states in part: “…the journey [of genealogy] is not about being a hatch, match and dispatch kind of person, but a genealogist with fat ancestors on the ground with garlands of citations around them and the aura of sources about them.”

Even as we collect the specifics of our ancestor’s Revolutionary War service and establish timelines through analysis of the various records, we need to “fatten up” our ancestor with anecdotal, background information. While this type of information will probably not mention him by name, it will provide a richer understanding of the place and time in which he lived and events in which he participated, or would at least may have known about. I am always on the lookout for such resources. They can range from formal titles such as Resolutions, Laws, and Ordinances Relating to the Officers and Soldiers of the Revolution (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998), to more general titles such as James Schouler’s Americans of 1776, Daily Life in Revolutionary America (Clearfield, 2007).

Often friends are the best source of interesting titles. One of my friends recently told me about Edwin G. Burrows’ Forgotten Patriots: the Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (Basic Books, 2010). This book tells the story of the approximately 25,000 Americans who became British prisoners of war, many of them on prison ships in New York harbor. The inhuman conditions they endured would lead to the deaths of perhaps as many as 18,000, a rate more than twice that of battlefield deaths. This book is now on the top of my list of upcoming reading.

First-hand accounts are significant in enhancing our knowledge. Several interesting diaries include the Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: the Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (Dover, 2006), Uzal Johnson, Loyalist Journal: a Revolutionary War Diary (Scotia Hibernia Press, 2000), and for ages 9 and up, The Winter of Red Snow: the Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777 (Live Oak Media, 2005).

Finally, one of the most interesting books that I’ve used in the past year is Maureen Taylor’s The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation (Kent State University Press, 2010). The 1780s seem shrouded in the distant past. Yet looking at the illustrations included in this book offers an unprecedented immediacy to those years, whether it is through a daguerreotype of Caesar, a slave (1737-1852); or the definitely skeptical looking Conrad Heyer, of Maine (1753-1856); or the aged dignity of Tirzah (Whitney) Palmer, of Massachusetts (1769-1852).

I hope that this review of Revolutionary War resources has whetted your appetite to learn more about your Revolutionary War ancestor and to read about this important historical time period in more depth.

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