Celebrating Revolutionary-War-Era Ancestors

Fireworksby Paula Stuart-Warren, CG 

In the United States, the Fourth of July is a time for fireworks, beach trips, family vacations, and apple pie in commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the country’s struggle to reach that point.

For genealogists, this date also reminds us about researching our patriotic ancestors. If you have walked on a battlefield where a war was fought, you know that special feeling that comes over you. You can find many records related to families who lived at that time and who had some type of service related to the Revolutionary War effort. Recently someone asked me how to do research on an ancestor who may have served in the Revolutionary War. That is just the kind of question I like to get; the resources are phenomenal.

Pension and Other Records
Military research is fascinating. Hopefully you have learned that for some wars related to U.S. military efforts, there are pension records. Don’t forget to see if there are also enlistment, pay, muster roll, service, and bounty land records for a particular war. Chapter Eleven of the third edition of The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy is especially helpful for this era.

What is “Out There” for Research
Today’s column is not about all the available resources. Just try typing the words “Revolutionary War” into a search engine such as Google or into any online library catalog. Be prepared for thousands of results.

Among the things you will find are books, CDs, websites, indexes, articles, organizations, and references to pensions, bounty land, service, and other records. You will be able to learn more about the war in connection with battles, individuals, states, counties, towns, countries, the army and navy, Loyalists, ethnic groups, and burials–and those are just the beginning. A county history may list residents who served in the war. An ancestor may have had patriotic service that did not involve any actual military skirmishes.

Records related to the American Revolution were created at different levels including service unit, town, colony, state, and country. The Ancestry guidebook by James Neagles, U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present is one of many places to begin your quest.

Another way to learn about some records that exist at the federal level is to check the U.S. National Archives’ Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (3rd ed. 2000). There are two sets of pension records for Revolutionary War service and this often causes confusion for researchers. If you don’t know the difference, read on.

M804 and M805
M804 and M805 are National Archives publication numbers for the microfilmed records of the Revolutionary War pension, service, and bounty land records. When you check any indexes or abstracts of Revolutionary War records, be sure to read the introductory details to see which set of records is covered by the index. Determine if the index or abstract is of state- or federal-level records. When genealogists tell me that the pension record for an ancestor didn’t tell them anything, I usually ask if they went beyond the index or abstract and have the selected or complete record.

This is the set of records referred to as the “complete” records and includes about 80,000 files of applications for Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1906. These alphabetical files are based on the participation of Army, Navy, and Marine officers and enlisted men in the Revolutionary War. The files are part of National Archives Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, on 2,670 rolls of microfilm. An individual file may give a birth date and place and a list of minor children, and may include a Bible record, a testimony from neighbors or a fellow military man, or even a later letter from a descendant seeking info. If a widow was involved in the application, you are likely to find more genealogically significant details.

This National Archives microfilm publication is the Selected Records from Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application Files and is on 898 rolls of microfilm. It includes selected records from the 80,000 pension and bounty-land applications. If a complete file was more than ten pages long, only the supposedly most significant genealogical documents were included in the filming of M805. Some of the selected records files in this series do include more than ten pages. Don’t stop with just these selected records; check the full file to see if there are more helpful pages.

Finding M804 and M805
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City have both sets of microfilm. NARA regional branches should also have the complete set. Many libraries with genealogical research collections have M804, the selected records, because it has fewer rolls of film.

Your Ancestor is Not in the Pension Records?
Don’t despair. With so many other resources, you may still find some details on your family members. From women and spies in the war, to non-military patriotic service, histories of a specific unit, and maps of battles–your search is just beginning. Eligibility for pensions and bounty land changed over time, some veterans died before applying, others were rejected, and Revolutionary War pension records were lost in fires in 1800 and 1814.

Read guidebooks, check RootsWeb message boards, make use of online indexes and guides and county and militia histories, and attend lectures on the subject of the Revolutionary War. The quest has just begun, but in the meantime, remember to honor these patriotic men and women on the Fourth of July.

For More on Revolutionary War Research
Ancestry.com has many military databases from the era including:

The Connecticut State Library
Research Guide to Revolutionary War Sources at the Connecticut State Library

Daughters of the American Revolution

Delaware Public Archives, Revolutionary War Guide

Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files
Four volumes of abstracts from the selected records by Virgil D. White. Published by the National Historical Publishing Co.

Has an index and images from the M805, Selected Revolutionary War and Bounty Land Warrant Applications. Check with a major libraries to see if this database from ProQuest is available for patrons.

The New York State Archives
Guide to Records Relating to the Revolutionary War in the New York State Archives

Sons of the American Revolution

The St. Louis Public Library
Chronology of Military Pensions

About the author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer. She has lectured all across the United States and coordinates the Intermediate Course, American Records & Research at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She is a contributor to several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments will reach her at:
PSWResearch@comcast.net. Paula is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of e-mails received. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. She will not use your name but may use your place of residence (i.e., Davenport, IA).

Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG
(Paula enjoys meeting fellow genealogists at these events so please introduce yourself as an Ancestry Weekly Journal and 24/7 Family History Circle reader.)

August 30 to September 2, 2006, Boston, Massachusetts
Federation of Genealogical Societies/New England Historic Genealogical Society: Conference in the Birthplace of American Genealogy.

October 14, 2006, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Fall Seminar

October 27-28, 2006, Washington, D.C.
Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Conference on Early-American Records

A printer-friendly version of this article can be found in the Ancestry.com Library.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating Revolutionary-War-Era Ancestors

  1. I love to read the articles, however I think that Ancestry.com is way!!-too-expensive for the average person’s hobby. I wished that the price was cheaper considering the information sought by those doing genealogy is their own family’s records. I find that the articles are helpful but too vague at times.

  2. The War of 1812 was the final part of the Revolutionary War but I am having trouble finding records. Apparently the men fought under individual leaders – Rich’s Militia. Ancestery has listed my relative for a long time but NARA doesn’t have anything when I write as suggested. I am guessing they were from VT or NY. Where do we look for 1812 records?

    I generally find your articles very helpful and interesting. Keep up the good work!

    Thanks, Jane

  3. As grateful as I am for the patriots of this country, there are those of us whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War — as Loyalists. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to have done work on these ancestors of mine, but perhaps here are others who are unaware of the sources available to them to help with the research of their ancestors who fought on the “other” side of the war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *