There is something emotionally significant about discovering a Revolutionary War patriot in your family tree. The idea that your own ancestor somehow contributed to the birth of a new nation may set off an explosion of patriotic anthems in your mind and unearth a desire to know how they helped secure American independence.
Once you know where your ancestors lived during the time of the American Revolution, you can better pinpoint the types of records available in that region and what insight they may offer into the life of your ancestor in the late 18th century.
While researching Bill Paxton’s tree, we found that his ancestor Benjamin Sharp lived in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. This led us to various documents regarding his service in the war as a spy as well as his involvement at the Battle of Kings Mountain at age 18. One of the most powerful was an article Sharp wrote in his twilight years about his war experience that was published in the American Pioneer magazine in 1842.
By Sharp’s late 30s and early 40s, he had started a family, settled a farm, and owned a significant amount of land. Land ownership is often a key to finding other records that can fill in the blanks about your ancestor. Because Sharp owned quite a bit of land, it was likely that he would be found in county court records for land purchases and the like. When we looked into the county court minutes, we quickly found him there.
Court records in Virginia and Missouri (where Benjamin later lived) showed that Benjamin Sharp worked as a surveyor, a justice of the peace, and other bureaucratic positions at the county level. This bread crumb of information gave us direction to find Sharp’s political history. Because he was politically active at the local level, it is likely that he was working his way up through the bureaucratic ranks and that his local involvement had national implications.
We found that during the U.S. presidential election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Sharp served as one of the commissioners overseeing the election. Commissioners were responsible for making sure the election went smoothly and verifying the ballot counts. The record of Sharp’s political service is in the executive papers of the Virginia governor, who was James Monroe (who later became president himself).
Sharp continued to expand his political involvement. In 1804, he served as a representative to the House of Delegates in the Virginia General Assembly. In that role he would have been involved in making laws that affected all Virginians. Sharp’s earlier service in the military had primed the political pump to get him involved with his community and his country by administering the government that he earlier had fought to create. And his public service left behind public records that provided a look into Benjamin Sharp’s life from two centuries away.
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists:
- As genealogists, we also use records to identify people closely associated with the ancestor we’re looking for. A soldier would often enlist with people in his community, and friendships forged in the military often lasted a lifetime. Political activism meant associating with other politicians and developing relationships. These relationships can give clues to how a married couple originally met, or they might help document a cross-country migration when multiple families moved together. Records that might not seem to have obvious genealogical value to the person you are looking for quite often provide the clues we need to document a family.
- Did your ancestor participate in political activities? Maybe they were a state representative, or went to local political party meetings. Some of the people in those circles very well could be in-laws.
- Many people have served in military conflicts. To document your ancestors’ experience during wars, look for draft, enlistment, service, and pension records. Those types of records can document many facets of their lives.