It was the "shot heard 'round the world" — the beginning of America's war for independence from British rule on April 19, 1775. Led by General George Washington, some 217,000 American service members eventually fought in the Revolutionary War, each with their own unique tale of bravery, sacrifice and honor. Were your ancestors among them?
They gave so much for their country. Now it was payback time. Some walked away. Some didn't. But the soldiers who fought or the family left behind were entitled to something that recognized their contribution.
This new collection offers almost 80,000 records from officers and enlisted men who served in the Revolutionary War in all branches of the American military.
On August 26, 1776 the first disability pension legislation for the Colonies was enacted, followed by service pensions in 1778 and 1780. Ultimately widows of soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War for at least 14 days became eligible for lifetime pensions.
Bounty-land warrants assigned rights to land in the public domain to soldiers and their heirs who met eligibility requirements related to their service. Acts of Congress could increase the scope of benefits; for example, a September 1776 resolution granted up to 100 acres for noncommissioned soldiers, and up to 500 acres for colonels.
You'll find detailed applications with information that can include basics like name, rank, unit, time of service, date of birth, residence, birthplace or death location. Additionally, files might contain affidavits, service records, records of commissions and discharges, wills, receipts, diaries or pages from family Bible records, military orders or muster rolls, newspaper clippings, letters or marriage certificates.Search this collection
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A detail-rich collection of over 80,000 files from applications by officers and enlisted men who served in the Revolutionary War.
Records of regular soldiers, militia volunteers, Navy personnel and members of auxiliary service units.
A collection of more than 425,000 records documenting men who fought for the colonies in the American Revolutionary War.
Go step-by-step through a real application and learn how to search for your own ancestors in these files.
Follow the true story of Absalom Smith, a veteran and patriot, hidden in history and uncovered within our new records. Read more
There can be 200 or more pages of detailed documents in each application, giving you a true window on the past. Read more
Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective, proves that photos of people from the Revolutionary War era really do exist. Read more
Find out how many Americans have ancestors who experienced the Revolution as soldiers or civilians. Read more
By Juliana Smith
There's not much we won't do to coax a good story from the records of our ancestors. We excitedly draw bits and pieces of information from as many records and resources as we can find, trying to get a peek at the people behind those names and dates on our tree. Yet, the further we move back in time, the more challenging it can be. Early American census records become leaner in detail and the number of other surviving records is fewer. It can be harder to get a glimpse of the personalities behind the names.
The good news is that Revolutionary War Pension files offer some amazing exceptions to the sparse personal details we usually find in those earlier years. In these treasures, fascinating stories unfold before our eyes. In the case of Mark Adams, a private in the 4th Maryland Regiment, wonderful details are revealed in the nearly 100 documents that date from 1818 to 1851. And some of the testimonies within those pages include earlier dates. For example, as part of his petition, Mr. Adams testified in Gloucester County, New Jersey Court of Common Pleas that he was "a native of the County Derry in the North part of Ireland, aged 63 years and left Ireland when about 17 years old."
In March 1818, pensions were authorized to veterans who had served nine months or until the end of the war and were in need of assistance, regardless of whether or not they were disabled. In his testimony Mark Adams testifies "that from his reduced circumstances he needs the assistance of his country." The document goes on to detail that he had served in the militia and on various vessels "until [he] was taken prisoner and sent to England and there kept until peace was proclaimed."
Beyond proving his service, in 1820 more documentation was submitted to prove his need. An inventory lists "2 hogs $4.00, 2 tables $2.00, 1 desk $3.00, iron ware $3.50, crockery ware $2.00, 2 axes $3.00, 2 tubs & 2 water kettles $2.00, $200 and three dollars of debts are due and owing to me. I am indebted to sundry persons about seventy-two dollars." He also submits, "I am by occupation a labourer, but I am unable to labour on account of the loss of my eyesight and the rim of belly being broke." He then goes on to list his children by name along with all of their ages.
In September of 1840, Mark's widow, Hannah, appeared in the Court of Common Pleas of Atlantic County, New Jersey, petitioning for his pension following his death on October 10, 1829. Her testimony includes her maiden name and the fact that they were married by Reverend Duffy of the Presbyterian Congregation of Philadelphia on 19 January 1784.
Hannah unfortunately wasn't able to produce a certificate of marriage because it was lost when, according to another page in the file, "...the Dwelling House in which Mark Addams [sic] and his Family lived was unfortunately destroyed by fire and burned to ashes and That all and every article of House and Kitchen furniture was burned up by said fire and only such clothing was saved which the Family had on their bodies..." She instead asked for the testimony of Charles Shinn, who was well acquainted with her and her husband, as proof of her marriage.
In just the first 15 pages of the file we get a good look at the family, but copies of an 1814 almanac that was in the file give us even more information. The family apparently used the almanac to keep track of births, marriages and deaths in the family and the contents extend before and after that year. Below is one of the pages from that almanac.
Interestingly, in 1820, Joseph Mingin testified that Mark Adams had told him he had served with the British at the end of the war. Adams's pension was subsequently suspended, although in another document Adams refutes this claim and promises to send proof. Hannah died in 1841, and in 1851 her son William was still petitioning the government for back pension funds owed to her.
Tips for Using Pension Files
As we celebrate Independence Day, the Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 give us a unique view into the lives of the brave men and women who fought and sacrificed for the founding of this country. They also help us to ensure that their stories won't be forgotten.
By Jeanie Croasmun
Growing up, Linda Smith-Walker was always told her father's family was German. "With the name Smith?" says Linda today. "I didn't think so."
She proved her father's family story wrong, however, when she found the pension record for her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Absalom Smith. The pension he received was from the Revolutionary War. That's about as American as a person can get.
More than 20 pages in Absalom Smith's pension record told his story — some of those pages were even written by Absalom himself.
"Absalom was a teamster and a private at Yorktown," says Linda. "He was asked to haul the bags of a French general who was going back to Boston. That meant Absalom wasn't at Yorktown to get a formal discharge."
The lack of a military discharge left Absalom with problems later down the road, Linda learned. It also left Linda with a much greater story about the family line she once thought was German.
"He had to go to court to tell his story — it's all there in his own words. He even talks about what battles he was in," says Linda. All told, Absalom's pension record, part of the new Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 at Ancestry.com contains the following details:
*Note that Susan Smith and others testifying in the pension application for Absalom Smith referred to Hunterdon County as Huntington County
By Paul Rawlins
A century and a half before the Veterans Administration or the G.I. Bill, Congress was providing for — and recruiting — soldiers who fought to establish the soon-to-be United States of America with pensions and promises of land in the new republic. One thing about military benefits remained the same, however: they required plenty of paperwork.
The Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files contain an estimated 80,000 applications for pension and land grants from officers and enlisted men who served in the Revolutionary War in all branches of the American military: Army, Navy and Marines. The records are multifaceted and varied: one file might contain more than 100 documents; another may consist of only a 10" x 14" card of annotations. To understand what you might find in the files, it helps to know how they came to be.
In the years during and following the Revolutionary War, the federal government provided three main types of pensions for servicemen:
The first pension legislation enacted by the Continental Congress provided for disability benefits and was enacted on August 26, 1776. Service pensions were approved in 1778, and 1780 saw the first pensions for widows and dependents. Subsequent legislation altered terms of eligibility and benefits up until 1878, when widows of soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War for at least 14 days or in any engagement became eligible for lifetime pensions.
While application procedures varied, they usually involved the applicant appearing before a court of record and describing his service. A widow would need information about the date and place of marriage. These "declarations" could include supporting documents related to property or marriage and affidavits from witnesses.
The Colonial and U.S. governments also awarded bounty-land warrants to soldiers as an inducement to, or reward for, service. Bounty-land warrants assigned rights to land in the public domain to soldiers and their heirs who met eligibility requirements. For example, a September 1776 resolution provided the following land grants to men who served until the end of the war: noncomissioned officers and soldiers, 100 acres; ensigns, 150; lieutenants, 200; other officers amounts up to 500 acres for a colonel. (Generals were added in 1780.) Again, later acts of Congress increased the scope of benefits, and applications could include supporting documents and affidavits from witnesses.
The "files" that make up these records consist of 10" x 14" cards or 10" x 14" envelopes that can contain up to 200 or more pages of documents relating to an application for a pension or bounty-land warrant by a Revolutionary War veteran, his widow or his heirs. (Typically, files contain around 30 pages, and some relate to post-Revolutionary War service.)
These files were assembled between 1910 and 1912. Before then, pension applications of survivors (as veterans were called), widows and rejected claims were filed separately. Between 1910 and 1912, all applications obviously relating to one soldier were combined. A November 1800 fire apparently destroyed papers related to Revolutionary War pensions and bounty-land-warrant applications submitted before that date. So some files contain cards noting some particulars about the soldier and his claim and that further papers are not available. These cards were created by the National Archives.
Occasionally, items were removed from files and sent to other government departments, such as the War Department or Department of the Navy; in this instance, the files contain cards describing the documents that were sent.
By Maureen Taylor
Have you ever thought, "I wish I had a picture of my Revolutionary War generation ancestor?" Of course, you won't find actual photographs of them during that time, but it's quite possible that other types of images exist. Many individuals posed for silhouettes (paper cut-out profiles), paintings or engravings. If you're lucky enough to have a Revolutionary ancestor who lived after the 1839 introduction of photography in this country, then you might be able to locate a photographic portrait of him.
A Pension Office report published in the December 10, 1852, New York Times outlined the number of men and women who received support under various acts and how many were still on the rolls. The Pension Office mentioned that the total number soldiers who received pensions under the Acts of 1818, 1828 and 1832 originally numbered more than 5,500. By 1852 there were reportedly 1,876 veterans still on the rolls. The report also stated that 6,258 Revolutionary War widows and orphans who applied under the Acts of 1836, 1838 and 1848 were still collecting in 1852. These numbers don't include those who served in the Navy, individuals who received bounty or donation land, and those men who applied and were rejected.
Both the Census of 1840 and this Pension office report provide evidence that large numbers of men and women from the Revolutionary era lived into the age of photography. So how many of them posed for pictures, and if so where are they?
In the mid-nineteenth century Benson J. Lossing and a Congregational minister from Connecticut, Reverend Elias Hillard, retold the history of the American Revolution through stories, images and sketches. Lossing in his Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860 CD Heritage Books, 2004) traveled about the countryside documenting the war-time sites and visiting living veterans.
Lossing wrote in his preface, "The story of the American Revolution has been well and often told, and yet the most careless observer of the popular mind may perceive that a large proportion of our people are but little instructed in many of the essential details of that event, so important for every intelligent citizen to learn." These words could have been written today, as polls show that many residents of the United States are unaware of the early history of their country, despite the fact that bookstore shelves are full of new interpretations of the founding fathers and mothers and their time and place.
In 1864, the Reverend Elias B. Hillard, aware that every newspaper mortuary notice contained the names of deceased Revolutionary War veterans, set out to photograph and interview what he thought were the final seven living veterans — Samuel Downing, Daniel Waldo, Lemuel Cook, Alexander Milliner, William Hutchings, Adam Link and James Barham — in his Last Men of the Revolution (N.A. and R.S. Moore, 1864) reprint. (Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1968)
He arrived too late to speak with Waldo and could not verify whether Barham was still alive, but each of the others entertained him with stories of his exploits during the War of Independence and the details of their everyday lives in the early years of the nation. Hillard described his task as an act of preservation, stating, "Our own are the last eyes that will look on men who looked on Washington; our ears the last that will hear the living voices of those who heard his words. Henceforth the American Revolution will be known among men by the silent record of history alone."
Neither Hillard nor Lossing were aware that large numbers of veterans and their widows were still alive. They didn't have the vast digital databases available to them that we do today. If your Revolutionary War ancestors lived into the age of photography, it is possible that they left a visual record of their lives. Historical and image research techniques to find pictures of your revolutionary war ancestor require patience and perseverance, but it's worth the search.
I've spent more than eight years tracking down images of the men, women and a few significant children who lived during the American Revolution. Seventy images and stories appear in The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation (Kent State University Press, 2010). The tally includes one Loyalist, a Native American who fought on the side of the British, a number of children who accompanied fathers into battle, and several women whose role was passed down in oral traditions. Since these individuals lived after 1839 and were born either before or during the Revolution, these are aged faces. Finding these individuals required resourceful searches, reaching out to genealogists and just plain serendipity.
I've found that genealogical databases, historical society collections, private family collections, and local histories are excellent sources of information and images. My search and yours go more smoothly if you have a specific name of an individual, a year of death and the last place of residence.
While you won't find images in the paper or in pension reports, there are clues useful to tracking down these Revolutionary War survivors. Both Lossing's and Hillard's contributions are tremendous, but both missed talking with other men who served in the United States' first military conflict.
Newspaper articles in the 1850s and early 1860s regularly ran reports from the Pension Office that enumerated the men collecting pensions and their surviving wives, and then as those numbers dwindled, these features included their specific names and ages. A death notice will usually contain a name, age and place of residence.
A very useful set of records are the pension files for veterans and their widows. These individuals applied for eligibility under a series of acts passed by Congress. These files contain descriptions of military service and depositions by friends, fellow veterans and community leaders. The documents were often written by the applicants offering insights into their education.
Search the Ancestry.com Card Catalog for military records by clicking the "military" filter choice and then selecting the 1770s to narrow down the list of hits to records from that era. You'll find a wide variety of material including published roster books and rolls of honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Check the websites of state, county or local historical societies for image databases and contact information. Armed with a name, contact the historical society and ask if they have any type of image associated with that person. In the case of multiple images of a person with the same name, a death date will narrow the possibilities. Check the Ancestry.com Wiki for Red Book to see what resources are available for your ancestor's state. (Look for the Archives, Libraries and Societies section.)
Your ancestor's photo may have been passed down through a collateral line. Type the name of the individual into a genealogical database such as Ancestry.com and see if anyone is currently searching that individual. Send an email to any likely descendants, asking if they have a picture of that person. Use surname message boards through Ancestry.com to post a query about images.
Use online image search engines through sites such as Google.com or Flickr.com to see if anyone has posted a image of that individual on the web. You might get lucky and find them on a family website or in an auction catalog. There are lots of places to look for pictures including reunion sites such as DeadFred.com and Ancient Faces.
The fact is you never know exactly where a picture will turn up and the fun is in the search. Let's work together to uncover the visual history of America's Revolutionary War by locating photographs of those brave men and women who lived during a turning point in history.
Maureen Taylor spent the last decade tracking down the 70 pictures and stories featured in The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation (Kent State University Press, 2010). She is currently working on volume 2. You can contact her through www.photodetective.com.
What are the odds that you have a Revolutionary War ancestor? We ran some numbers based on U.S. census data to find out.*
The number of U.S. citizens today with an ancestor who lived in the soon-to-be United States during the Revolutionary War would be approximately 183 million, giving you a 6 in 10 chance of being in that group.
The chances that you are among the 7,274,437 who have an ancestor who fought in the Revolution are about 1 in 40.
But was your Revolutionary forebear on the winning side? About 6,335,800 Americans today, or about 1 in 50, can claim a Patriot ancestor.
* The figures cited in this article are based on statistical analysis of census data, not direct research.