Exploring Revolutionary War Soldiers Through Ancestry®

Family History
14 September 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Sinking ships. Tea poured into a harbor. Protests against taxes. When many people think of the American Revolutionary War, that’s what comes to mind. While the Boston Tea Party was undoubtedly one of the most memorable parts of the war, it’s just a fraction of the whole picture painting the story of the colonies’ secession from the British Crown and the birth of the United States of America.

If you can trace your family roots back to Europe, there’s a chance that a distant relative took part in this historic war, and there’s one way to find out. Ancestry has the tools to help you trace your lineage and discover whether your family fought in the war—and which side they fought for.

Understanding the Causes of the Revolutionary War

Death of General Warren, Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Death of General Warren, Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the passage of the Stamp Act, Britain imposed new taxes on numerous paper items, including legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards, and it was met with stark resistance. The colonies saw this tax as unfair and protested that only colonial representatives in the legislature could tax residents. With no sitting colonial representatives in the British Parliament, the colonists believed Britain had no right to tax them. Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves asserted this argument, commonly known now as “taxation without representation.” 

The colonists managed to repeal the tax, a glimmer of hope that future taxes could be avoided as well. But that hope was short-lived when Parliament issued the Declaratory Act, claiming it had the right to tax colonists.

The 1767 Townshend Acts, designed to help pay the expenses of governing the American colonies, were quickly passed. The Acts implemented further taxes on glass, lead, paint, tea, and, once again, paper. The colonies weren’t too fond of this and discouraged purchasing British imports to avoid the taxes.

With the understanding that the British Parliament would continue to act of its own accord despite colonists insisting forced taxation was a violation of their freedom, the idea of independence from the British spread and strengthened when Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773. This act removed the colonists’ ability to purchase non-British tea by granting the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales, a move that not only bailed out the failing company but forced the colonists to pay taxes on the British goods.

On November 28, 1773, the Dartmouth landed in Boston Harbor with 114 crates of tea. Colonists refused to let it unload, and they were given just 20 days to either unload and pay the taxes or forfeit the tea and ship. During this boycott, two more ships with tea landed and, despite insistence that the tea would not be brought into the colonies, the ships remained in place. 

December 16, 1773, the day before the deadline, the colonists, disguised as Mohawks to hide their identities and armed with axes, ran into the Old South Meeting House, where over 7,000 people had gathered. They ran to the ship and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor while the other colonists watched and declared the Mohawks had arrived to attack. 

Because of the heavy implications, many merchant communities were hesitant to participate without mutually agreed-upon terms, spurring the Continental Congress. This Congress met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, bringing together delegates from all colonies but Georgia. On October 20, the Congress wrote and agreed to the Articles of Association, asserting that if the Intolerable Acts weren’t repealed by December 1, 1774, it would proceed with a boycott of all British goods in the colonies. And if it continued to September 10, 1775, an embargo on exports would begin.

Despite attempts to handle their grievances diplomatically, the colonists made little headway, and on July 4, 1776, the Congress formally declared its independence from Great Britain, thus officially sparking the Revolutionary War.

Fascinating Facts About the Revolutionary War

4th July Parade, 1911, N.Y. (Source: Library of Congress)
4th July Parade, 1911, N.Y. (Source: Library of Congress)

There are other Revolutionary War stories you may not have learned in school. These stories add more context and personality to the war. 

  • There were actually two Boston tea parties, the first of which was on December 16, 1773, and the act was repeated on March 7, 1774.
  • Smallpox ran rampant during the 1700s. In 1777, George Washington mandated that all Continental soldiers must be inoculated. Although highly controversial at the time through the 1700’s, many believe this was a key component in the colonists’ victory.
  • Rations served to American soldiers were largely unappetizing and even borderline inedible—when they were accessible. During the winter of 1777, Valley Forge soldiers’ rations were reduced to include a pound of meat and a pound of flour plus beans or vegetables and milk if they were available per soldier per day.
  • Contrary to common belief, women were major contributors in the war. Many played key roles vital to the American victory, including serving as nurses, seamstresses, cooks, and laundresses. Some opted to fight in combat while wearing disguises to hide their gender, while others worked to gather information as spies.

Uncovering Revolutionary War Soldiers Through Ancestry

Ancestry has numerous Revolutionary War records, offering an opportunity to dive deep into history. From census record lists of names of the estimated 217,000 American service members who fought, numerous documents exist that can paint a picture of your family’s involvement. Try out the Revolutionary War Military Service Records from 1775 to 1783 by entering a name, date, event, keywords, locations, and military units to see what comes up. Search through pension and bounty-land warrant applications, the Battalions and Militia Index, and numerous other tools to peek into the past. 

If you believe your ancestors were Loyalists, you can also search through the collection of Loyalist Claims and sales of Loyalist lands. If you know your ancestor moved through the country, there are also records of Loyalist migrations to review.

Find Your Connection to the Revolutionary War

Without the Revolutionary War, it’s possible that what is now the United States of America never would have gained its independence. It shaped history, brought out previously unknown heroes, and helped found a nation based on the premise of freedom. 

You may have Revolutionary War soldiers in your own family tree, but the only way to know is to research. Start your free trial with Ancestry today to learn more and discover your family’s history.