How to Find a Revolutionary War Patriot

After earlier skirmishes, the American 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.

If you have already documented your U.S. ancestry to 1760 or earlier, you already have an excellent chance of finding either a Patriot or a Loyalist in the family tree. Boys as young as 16 were allowed to serve, so any male ancestors born in 1760 or earlier are possible veterans. You can even find a few younger boys who served as drummers or assistants in the Revolutionary War and later were credited as veterans, even though they were not considered soldiers during the war itself.

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 very 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.

RootsWeb at http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com is another good place for identifying Patriot ancestors, although the site is not easily searched. The information there is submitted by other RootsWeb users so accuracy is not guaranteed. In fact, the site is plagued with many errors but you will find it easier to start with other people’s research and then gather the required documentation yourself from other sources that is 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 RootsWeb.

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 MyHeritage.com, 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.

You can find many such books in your local library and at Google Books. For example, I looked in Google Books and found a biography of Revolutionary War Captain John Paul Jones that mentioned one of my ancestors, a Marine who served on board the Ranger under the command of Jones. You never know what you will find until you look!

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.

14 Comments

So far I have documented at least 14 patriot ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. Two were at Valley Forge, both my immediate paternal ancestor, Thomas Ogan, who served in the 7th, 11th, and 15th Virginia Continental Line of General Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen, and my immediate maternal ancestor, Israel Hilton Buker who was an Orderly Sergeant in the Massachusetts Continental Line and who was awarded a sword by General Marquis de Lafayette. Others fought in the frontiers of Kentucky and Ohio, at Ticonderoga, in the swamps of North Carolina, and at sea in the Continental Navy. I have found one Loyalist who retreated to Canada and one Scotsman Lt William McFarland who fought for the King in the French and Indian War, stayed in this country, but remained neutral during the Revolutionary War. Except for my father’s mother’s line (1840’s arrivals), all my ancestors were in America by 1725, some 13 generations here in Virginia (1611) and Massachusetts (1620).

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Mr. Ogan, I sincerely hope you have put you research and results on one of the on-line sites so that your many relatives and other researchers can benefit from your dedication.

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The Spanish in the along the Gulf also played a very important part during the Revolution under Bernardo de Galvez by providing supplies to the American forces and in the capture of the British Forts at Manchac, Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola. Descendants of the members of the Spanish Army and Navy and militias in Louisiana and St. Louis plus those involved in supplying and driving cattle from Texas to Louisiana also can recognize their ancestors by joining the SAR or the DAR.

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Although the DAR online Patriot Index is an Index, it provides substantial information about patriots who are listed, including (if applicable) birth and death dates and places, state(s) from which the person served, unit(s), rank, US pension number, residences, name(s) of spouse(s), name(s) of child(ren) on whom applications have been submitted, name(s) of spouse(s) of those children, and names of people who have submitted approved DAR applications or supplementals on the person (names of living DAR members are suppressed). One can also click on links to see the complete pedigree from a DAR member back to a Patriot, and other relationship information. One caveat: in the early years of the DAR, standards of proof weren’t as stringent as they are now, so there is some erroneous information in the database, and earlier applications have fewer sources listed. However, the DAR is working to correct these problems, and recent applications are well-vetted. Also, names may be spelled in ways other than the searcher expects: members of the Pennsylvania Fiscus family are entered under the spelling “Fiskes,” which the family never used, but was used in some official document. However, in this case, and I’m sure in many others where the name has been spelled phonetically, if I search for “Fiscus,” I get a messages telling me to try a search for “Fiskes.” Unfortunately, the DAR doesn’t seem to be open to efforts to correct the spelling of misspelled names once they are in the system.

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    The names aren’t misspelled in the DAR’s database. DAR uses phonetic spellings to standardize the various spellings that can be encountered in this era. When a women is accepted, she can have the Patriot’s name spelled any way she likes on her certificate as well as her Patriot bar on her insignia.

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Re. Spanish…Other nationalities fought in the American Revolution, as well. At the DAR national conference this summer, I spoke with a French woman who descended from a French soldier who served the the Revolution.

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Don’t forget to search records at the National Archives. If you don’t subscribe to fold3.com, you can still search the National Archives on location. They have research and records centers in Washington, D.C.; Ohio; Maryland; Colorado; Illinois; Texas; Missouri; Kansas. Google National Archives to find a location near you.

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The 1840 US Census has a column for “Pensioners for Revolutionary or military services” included in the household. That’s how I discovered the name of one of the members of the Robert Jones household who I later figured out was his mother-in-law. Her Rev. War pension record provided a wealth of details about her husband and his military record, their marriage and family, and where they lived.

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    I don’t seem to find this column on one of my revolutionary soldiers. Was this column on the preprinted forms for the US 1840 Federal Census?

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    The column is on page 2 of the preprinted 1840 census form. I didn’t realize there was a page 2 the first time I found the Robert Jones household. I discovered it later when I clicked on ‘next page’ while browsing the census records for names of others in the neighborhood. Page 2 also includes tallies of slaves, agricultural workers, etc.

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Remember Vets had almost to have nothing and no one to help them, like a healthy family. So many did not apply if owned anything of value

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My husbands (suspected ancestor James Coleman-PA) has a file folder for the Revolutionary war records but it is empty. He was in the militia and paid taxes but disappeared sometime after the 1800 census never to be seen or paid taxes again. Can not find his wife or children. His two brothers are well documented but not James.

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Was just approved for SAR membership in July. My ancestor, Cpl. William Waller (5x GGF), served from 1776-1779, and re-enlisted in Oct. 1781 for the Yorktown campaign. He witnessed the fall of Ft. Washington, crossed the Delaware, participated in the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Monmouth, was at Brandywine, but was sick with dysentery. Was also at Valley Forge. He was with the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, but was then attached to the 11th Virginia Regiment, led by Daniel Morgan, who was away at the time taking Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Getting ready to trace another 5x GGF, James C. Callaway, who was captured with my uncles, Micajah Callaway and Daniel Boone, at the Blue Licks, Kentucky, by the Shawnee. He was marched to Detroit and sold to the British, and was a prisoner for two years.
I was born in Peoria, grew up in Washington, Illinois. My family has lived in the Peoria area for over 150 years.

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Nancy Elizabeth Thomas December 1, 2015 at 9:50 am

Any advice for possible Loyalist research? So far the sites I have looked at, including the one you mentioned, have not been very helpful. I have limited info, though, so that is also a problem. Female ancestor born in St. John, New Brunswick around 1800 and married and lived in Brooklyn, NY by 1828. No maiden name and not sure if her family came from NY or from Canada.
Thanks

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