Revolutionary War Research
By Carolyn L. Barkley
While we’re enjoying our backyard barbeque and fireworks this Fourth of July, we should also 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 very 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 that you will want to use to establish whether or not 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 other resources which you have used that cannot be mentioned given the space constraints of this posting. Please send us a comment including information about sources which have helped you.
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 both in national and in state archives. A series of 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. Records, however, have 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 (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2006) and Pierce’s Register (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2002) which approximates a complete roster of the Continental Army with 93,000 names. These sources can help you 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 indexes 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 or use is free at the National Archives).
If you are researching a soldier in a state militia unit, check with your local library to see if there is a print source concerning military service from that state. Examples include such titles as Penelope Johnson Allen’s Tennessee Soldiers in the Revolution (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2004), Anderson Chenault Quisenberry’s Revolutionary Soldiers in Kentucky (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2006) 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), and Clarence Stewart Peterson’s Known Military Dead During the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (Clearfield Co., 2005).
If you are in Washington, D.C., in addition to the National Archives, be sure to visit the DAR Library to access the application papers of Revolutionary War patriots and their supplemental genealogical information.
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 (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2003), and the U. S. War Department’s Pensioners of the Revolutionary War – Struck Off the Roll (Clearfield Co., 2005). Again, you will want to check the state archives web site of 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 through your local library, provides online access to the original pension records. Please note however, that these 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). Again, state archive websites may include detailed information and/or digital images.
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, the historical background of the war, and to enhance 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)
- Americans of 1776. Daily Life in Revolutionary America by James Schouler (Clearfield Co., 2007)
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 at http://www.kent.k12.wa.us/KSD/GR/curriculum/5th/rev_war/index.htm. The revolutionary war site at http://www.multied.com/revolt/ is provided by Historycentral and 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. Another educational site on the Revolutionary War should be used with a great deal of caution. http://members.aol.com/TeacherNet/Revolutionarywar.html includes many broken links and there are inexplicable inclusions such as “The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” which while it sounds like it should be about the Revolutionary War, clearly is a major original source for the Civil War!
A lot to think about amidst your hamburgers and the fireworks!