The Revolutionary War started with the battle between British troops and local Massachusetts militia at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on 19 April 1775. It ended eight years later with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. If you have been able to trace your ancestry in America back to those years, you have an excellent chance of finding at least one ancestor who had some type of service related to the Revolutionary War effort.
In fact, your ancestor may have been a Patriot or a Loyalist. We don't celebrate the efforts of Loyalists very much in the United States, but go north to Canada and you will find that Loyalists are well documented and honored as heroes. They are especially honored for their contribution to the development of Canada. Perhaps one Canadian in ten has a Loyalist ancestor, and many people with English blood who live elsewhere – in the United States, in commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand, or in nearly any other country round the world – are also of Loyalist descent. Visit the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada web site at http://www.uelac.org/ for more information.
Those who didn't serve directly in a military capacity may have helped in other ways, such as providing goods, supplies, or non-military service to the cause. Women also participated in the American Revolution, sometimes as spies, and a few even fought in battles while disguised as male soldiers.
If your ancestor served as a Patriot and lived long enough after the war to apply for a pension, you can probably find a pension application for him. Almost all federal pension applications have survived, even the applications of those who were later turned down. In most cases, the veterans had to prove they were true veterans and therefore eligible for pensions. The "proof" often consisted of testimonials from relatives, neighbors, or from other military veterans with whom they served. Such testimonials often provide a wealth of genealogy information, frequently mentioning parents, spouses, siblings, and children. Even the applications that were eventually rejected can be valuable to today's genealogists.
Before 1818, national pension laws concerning veterans of the Revolution specified disability or death of a serviceman as the basis for a pension award (with the exception of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, granting half pay to officers for service alone). On March 18, 1818, the U. S. Congress granted pensions to Revolutionary War veterans for service from which no disabilities resulted. Officers and enlisted men in need of assistance were eligible under the terms of the 1818 act if they had served in a Continental military organization or in the U. S. naval service (including the Marines) for 9 months or until the end of the war. Pensions granted under this act were to continue for life.
Congress passed another service-pension act on May 15, 1823, which granted full pay for life to surviving officers and enlisted men of the Revolutionary War who were eligible for benefits under the terms of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, as amended.
The last and most liberal of the service-pension acts benefiting Revolutionary War veterans was passed on June 7, 1832, and extended the provisions of the law of May 15, 1828 to even more veterans. The act provided that every officer or enlisted man who had served at least 2 years in the Continental Line or State troops, volunteers or militia, was eligible for a pension of full pay for life. Naval and marine officers and enlisted men were also included. Veterans who had served less than 2 years, but not less than 6 months, were eligible for pensions of less than full pay. While thousands applied for pensions under the earlier acts of Congress, this final act of 1832 was the one that saw the most applications.
In 1832, all of the living veterans would have been at least 72 years old. Many had already died, either from war injuries or from unrelated causes. In many cases, widows of veterans applied for benefits based on a husband's service. In most cases, widows' applications provided even more family information than did the applications received from actual veterans.
On July 29, 1848, Congress provided life pensions for widows of veterans who were married before January 2, 1800. All restrictions pertaining to the date of marriage were removed by acts of February 3, 1853, and February 28, 1855. On March 9, 1878, widows of Revolutionary War soldiers who had served for as few as 14 days, or were in any engagement, were declared eligible for life pensions. This was still an issue in 1878 because many older veterans had married younger women, resulting in a large number of widows obtaining benefits 108 years or more after the birth of their husbands.
Follow the Money - Tracking Revolutionary War Army Pension Payments by Claire Prechtel-Kluskens is a great tutorial on researching Revolutionary War pension applications. The tutorial may be found at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2008/winter/follow-money.html.
Revolutionary War pension applications may be found in their entirety on Fold3.com at http://www.fold3.com along with many Revolutionary War service records, final payment vouchers for several states, many Revolutionary War rolls, and more.
The RootsWeb's WorldConnect Project is another good place for identifying Patriot ancestors, although the site is not easily searched. The site is also plagued with MANY ERRORS; but, you will find it easier to use other people's research and gather the documentation needed to validate the research than to try to research something entirely from scratch. As always with any genealogy claims, you need to independently verify each piece of information you obtain on the WorldConnect Project.
NOTE: When searching at this site, type ONLY the Surname and Given Name of the person you are searching AND one of the following in the Spouse box: 1) spouse's first name only, 2) spouse's maiden name only, or 3) spouse's first and maiden name. Do NOT fill in any other search boxes unless you are researching an extremely common name.
Another problem with searches on the WorldConnect Project is that you must specify the exact spelling of all names entered. This is especially difficult when spelling of names were not standardized at the time. Sarah might be spelled as Sara, or Philip could be spelled as Phillip. All you can do is conduct multiple searches, trying every combination you can think of.
Census Records for 1790 and the early 1800s also can be very helpful in identifying Revolutionary War ancestors. The census records may be found on Ancestry.com. FamilySearch.org also has many census records available online although not all of them.
If you are unsuccessful at proving connections via the above online resources, you will need to resort to printed books and microfilm images as many of the needed records are not yet online.
If you have identified an ancestor born between 1710 and 1765 who was living in 1775-1776, check the online DAR Patriot Index to see if your ancestor is listed. If the answer is yes, someone else has submitted an approved DAR application for your ancestor; you will want to see more details in that application. If the answer is no, your ancestor could still be a Revolutionary War patriot; however, no one has submitted an approved DAR application for him/her.
A DAR Patriot INDEX (not the full records) is available at http://services.dar.org/public/dar_research/search/?Tab_ID=1.
Other books to be searched include numerous compilations or source records from various states, land grants made years later as a result of Revolutionary War service, and even books about various generals and admirals that may mention some of the men who served under them. For example, I found a record of one Revolutionary War Marine in my family tree who served on board the Ranger in a book about John Paul Jones.
You can find many such books in your local library and at Google Books, as well as at Genealogical Publishing Company at http://www.genealogical.com/categories/Revolutionary%20War/4.html and at http://www.heritagebooks.com/.
As with any genealogy effort, a bit of perseverance may provide records you never knew about – and very possibly contribute facts about your ancestors that you never knew.