Revolutionary War Federal Pension Resources
By: Carolyn L. Barkley
How well do you know your Revolutionary ancestor? (Notice that I didn’t ask how much do you know about him – somehow I think that’s a different question.) If he had a federal pension (or his wife received a widow’s pension), the information included in the application for that pension may provide you with a great deal of information that will help you know him better. Please note that state level pensions were also awarded. The best source for state pension information can be found in Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck’s 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).
Pensions as incentives/rewards for military service were not a new concept to colonists at the time of the Revolutionary War. Previously during a conflict, Great Britain had used the promise of a pension to encourage enlistment and to reduce rates of desertion and resignation. After a peace treaty was signed, pensions were provided as rewards for service already rendered.
Three basic types of pensions were granted by the new federal government as a result of the Revolutionary War:
- Disability/invalid pensions given to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty.
- Service pensions given to veterans who served for specific periods of time.
- Widows’ pensions given to women whose husbands had been killed or who had been veterans for a specific period of time.
Pension benefits depended on a series of legislative acts outlining qualification requirements. It is important to know the specific date of the legislation authorizing your ancestor’s pension. Detailed information on military pension law can be found in Christine Rose’s Military Pension Laws 1776-1858 from the Journals of the Continental Congress and the United States Statute-at Large (Rose Family Association, 2001). Among the many pension acts relating to Revolutionary War service, four important acts should be noted:
- 22 August 1776. This act was the first to authorize pension payments for Revolutionary War service. It stated that “every commissioned officer, non-commissioned officer and private soldier, who shall lose a limb in any engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable afterwards of getting a livelihood, shall receive, during his life, or the continuance of such disability, the one half of his monthly pay from and after the time that his pay as an officer or soldier ceases.” (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. V, 700-706).
- 15 May 1778. This act authorized half-pay for a period of seven years after the war to all officers who remained in Continental service to the end of the war. Enlisted men who served for the duration received a bonus of $80.00. (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. XI, 502)
- 24 August 1780. This act was the first to authorize pensions for the widows of soldiers. It provided half-pay to widows and orphans of officers meeting the requirements of the act of 15 May 1778. It increased officers’ pensions to half-pay for life, but this amount was reduced again on 22 May 1873 to full pay for five years. (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. XVII, 773)
- 7 June 1832. This act stipulated the most liberal provisions. Every officer and enlisted man who served at least two years in the Continental line or state troops, volunteer or militia (including musicians and Indian spies) received full pay for life. The amount was reduced if service had been for less than two years (but a minimum service of six months was required for eligibility under this act). (4 (Stat.) 529 [&530], Twenty-Second Congress. Sess. I. 1832, Chap. CXXVI. An Act supplementary to the “Act for the relief of certain surviving officers and soldiers of the revolution.”)
Needless to say, as with any governmental process – particularly one involving a financial outlay to individuals – a substantial amount of paperwork was required to apply and to track payments once a pension was granted. That paperwork included:
- Pension applications. Originally, documents relating to an individual claim were folded and placed in annotated jackets. These documents were later flattened and filed in 10 x 14 envelopes. The original jackets were included in the envelope because of the useful annotations they often contained. The envelope and its contents became known as the pension application file.
- Single claim file: This file contained the application of the claimant (soldier) with supporting documents establishing identification and service, as well as any evidence of governmental action on the claim. Although the information could vary, the soldier’s application normally included his name, rank, military unit, period of service, residence, birth place, date of birth or age, and property if the application was based on need.
- Multiple claim file: This file contained all pertinent claims (soldier, widow, children or heir) for a single application. The widow’s pension normally included more genealogical information. If the wife remarried, the file continued to be filed under the name of the veteran with designations such as “former widow” or “remarried widow” indicated on cross-reference cards. The file also included the surname of the widow once she had remarried. The widow’s application normally included the same information as did the soldier’s, in addition to the name of the widow, her age, residence, maiden name, marriage date and place, and date and place of husband’s death. The children’s/heir’s application added to the information in the widow’s pension by providing the heir’s names, dates and places of birth, their residence, and the date of their mother’s death.
- Indexes. Indexes to the pension files are alphabetical under the name of the veteran and indicate the type of application by one of three symbols (S for soldier; W for widow; and R for rejected).
All of the various types of pension applications were amplified by supporting documents and might include copies of discharge papers, affidavits, depositions of witnesses, narratives of events during the soldier’s service, marriage certificates, death certificates, pages from family Bibles, and other items such as muster rolls, diaries, orders, and statements from other veterans who served with the claimant.
From these descriptions, it should be apparent that a great deal of useful genealogical and historical information is readily available in the application files. However, the path of genealogical research is seldom so straightforward. Two unfortunate events have transpired compelling genealogists to search in multiple locations to bring together the various pieces that might pertain to a specific pension claim.
In 1800, a fire in the War Department destroyed the Revolutionary War pension applications and related papers that had been submitted prior to that date. In the absence of those records, files now show only name, state, and organization. In place of the missing papers, a card indicates rank, unit, date of enlistment, nature of the disability, residence and the amount of the pension. Then, to make matters worse, an additional fire in 1814 destroyed further records.
To further compound the matter, between 1894 and 1913, several types of records were withdrawn from the files for the time period 1775 to 1783. These records included muster rolls, payrolls, returns, orders, and personnel lists which were sent to the War Department; lists of seamen that were sent to the Navy Department; and diaries, journals, orderly books, account books, and other bound items which were sent to the Library of Congress.
What remained in the application file can be found on microfilm at the National Archives, with 80,000 pension and bounty warrant application files (the latter, perhaps, a topic for a future blog article), dated between 1800 and 1900. They exist both in their entirety and in a “selected” version. The latter contain only “significant genealogical” documents chosen from the complete files. The selected files are available on HeritageQuest (online at your local library’s website, accessible from home with a library card). These files are alphabetical by surname, then by given name, then alphabetically by state or by Continental or Navy service, and then “unarranged” within each file.
Several sources help identify Revolutionary War soldiers, including the DAR Patriot Index; Patricia Law Hatcher’s four-volume Abstracts of Graves of Revolutionary Patriots (Heritage Books, 2007-2009); Clarence Stewart Peterson’s Known Military Dead During the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (Clearfield, 2009); Joseph Lee Boyle’s two-volume “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum:” Military Desertions During the American Revolution (Clearfield, 2009).
Of particular use with regard to pension research is the National Genealogical Society’s Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives (NGS, 1976). In addition, there are records of Rejected or Suspended Applications for Revolutionary War Pensions, published by Clearfield in 2003 (also available on Ancestry.com), as well as the U. S. War Department’s Pensioners of the Revolutionary War – Struck Off the Roll (Clearfield, 2008).
One Samuel Allen provides an example of the information that can be gleaned from pension application files. The DAR Patriot Index identifies Samuel Allen as a sergeant who served from New York. He was born in 1751, died on 4 February 1810 (in Chittenden, Vermont), and was married to Pamelia Lowrey. The Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications provides the pension number, W23428. The Treasury Department’s Ledgers of Payments for 1812-1872 (specifically Widows Pensions, 1843-1862), indicates that Pamelia, widow of Samuel (Private/Sergeant), was receiving a half-pay allowance equivalent to $16.66½ per month beginning as of 4 March 1831, and that Pamelia died on 5 May 1842. (Although Ancestry.com provides access to a database entitled U. S. Pensioners 1818-1872, I was unable to find the same information in that database). A jacket annotation indicates that Pamela Allen was the deceased widow of Samuel Allen, a private and sergeant in the Revolution, who died in 1810. She was then living in Chittenden, Vermont. Further, it noted that her widow’s pension was inscribed in the roll of Montpelier (originally written as Burlington, but lined out) to commence on the 4th day of March 1831 and end on the 5th of May 1843. A certificate of pension was issued on 24 July 1849 and sent to William W. T. Jackson under the Revolutionary Claim Act of 4 July 1836, section 3, with pension payments payable to Phoebe Dart, Sarah Howe, John Allen, Margaret Owen, and Henry Allen (children of Samuel and Pamelia).
The widow’s pension application includes Pamelia’s recollection of Samuel’s service detailing his participation in a battle at White Plains and additional actions during 1777. Depositions attesting to this service were provided by Herman Lowry, Pamelia’s brother; Peter Allen, her son; Phebe Dart, her daughter, who attested to the authenticity of the family Bible pages (microfilm very difficult to read) included in the application; Susan Benedict, a neighbor; and Edward Fay, her minister. Taken as a whole, the application documents the marriage date for Samuel and Pamelia; Samuel’s military chronology as presented by Pamelia; the birth dates of their children, Phebe, Peter, Sarah (Sally), Violeta, Samuel Jr., Henry, and Eliza; and marriage and death dates of children Peggy, Phebe and Samuel Jr., John, William, Violeta, and Peter. In addition, it notes that in 1849, thirty-nine years after Samuel’s death and seven years after Pamelia’s death, $20.00 per year was granted to their children then living in St. Lawrence County, New York.
By carefully reading the complete pension file for Samuel Allen and his widow Pamelia, it is possible to learn a great deal about their extended family, his military service, and the residence of Pamelia and their children following his death.
Revolutionary War research is a huge topic within American genealogy; however, you will discover a helpful, concise overview of in Craig Robert Scott’s Genealogy at a Glance: Revolutionary War Genealogy Research (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011). Pension records are gold mines of genealogical information. While much information can be found through Ancestry.com databases and published indexes, do not stop with such sources. Close reading of original documents (even if they are on microfilm) will prove well worth your time and effort (and strained eye-sight).