Finding Your Revolutionary War Soldier

by Kathleen Brandt | Nov 13, 2009

Finding your Revolutionary War soldier among 200,000 plus participants can be daunting. The eight year war began with shots in Lexington, MA, April 19, 1775, and continued until the Second Treaty of Paris in 1783 when Great Britain's former thirteen colonies were recognized as free, independent states. Anyone sixteen to fifty-three years old during this time living in the original thirteen colonies, may have participated in the Revolutionary War in some capacity; albeit, not all for the American cause. Your ancestor may have been a Loyalist or a German mercenary. He may have been one of the five thousand African Americans who served in the Continental Army. Although some enlisted as free-coloreds, others served in exchange for their freedom.

Women also took part in war efforts. Although history has hailed Betsy Ross for making the first flag, we rarely hear of women like Deborah Sampson who donned men's clothing, fought in the war, and received a pension. Women not only fought in battles, but they spied, followed the troops doing laundry and cooking chores, and supplied goods from the home-front. Finding your Revolutionary War soldier amongst the thousands of participants can be aided by knowing a few good places to begin your search. Let's begin with census records, service records, pension and bounty land records, and lineage society records.

Clues in the Census Records

Few things are more frustrating than investing hours tracing the wrong person. Take the time to analyze early census records, 1790-1840, to distinguish head of households with the same name in your state. Be sure to compare each person's age and sex in the household with later census records.

The 1840 census records have a "Names and ages of all Revolutionary War Pensioners" entry. If your soldier was deceased by 1840, a living widow pensioner was noted. This 1840 notation can be vital in confirming your ancestor's participation in an early war, and may guide you to the correct pension application.

Service Records

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the main repository for Federal and Regular Enlistment Revolutionary War service records. Reference Information Paper 109, Military Service Records at the National Archives describes NARA Record Group (RG) numbers and microfilms. This free overview of war records may be ordered or viewed at http://archives.gov/publications/ref-info-papers/109/index.html.

Since Revolutionary War service records were destroyed by fires in 1800 and 1814, data from muster rolls, personal accounts, medical, and other records have been compiled for each soldier. These Compiled Military Service Records (RG93) are indexed in publication M860 - General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers, and may be viewed on microfilm publication M881 - Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War. Order these online or by mail using NATF Form 85, http://www.archives.gov/contact/inquire-form.html or on Footnote.com a subscription based service.

In addition to the Compiled Military Service Record, you will want to review Record Group 94 (RG94), Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780-1917. RG 94 contains post-Revolutionary War papers which document service, pay, and medical records of the regular, volunteer armies, and state militias.

Even if your ancestor was located in the Compiled Military Service Record or RG94, you will want to research at your State Archives, which is the repository for militia and volunteer veteran records. Many soldiers served in a volunteer army and state militia, as well as the Regular Army.

Pension and Bounty-Land Records

Whereas Compiled Military Service Records assist in verifying veterans' place and dates of service, pension records provide us with coveted genealogical data. Pension benefits, established in 1789, originally were limited to invalid veterans of the war. In 1818 benefits were extended to those who had served for a minimum of nine months and to indigent persons who had served to the war's close.

Birth records, marriage certificates and depositions from family, friends and fellow servicemen may be discovered with a patriot's pension application. Microfilm M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, contains complete copies of soldiers' files; whereas, M805, Selected Records From Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, contains documents selected for limited research. Order both publications by mail using NATF Form 85 or online through the National Archives. HeritageQuest also offers free digitized copies.

The records of the Continental Congress, accessible through NARA RG360 or footnote.com, have additional information on pensioners. Reference index to the Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, using Family History Library (FHL), Vol. 1-3, film #1035704; and Vol. 4-5, film #1035705.

The exorbitant costs of the war prevented the government from offering money for service, but land was set aside for veterans. Bounty Land was offered by both federal and state governments. Federal Bounty Land applications and warrants are found in publication M804 or through ancestry.com and footnote.com. Many soldiers sold their warrants and never actually lived on the land. A good source for state land grant information is Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments, by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck.

Lineage Societies

Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) searches are helpful when researching a veteran with a common name. You may be able to find a familiar family group already linked to your ancestor. Member applications provide birth, marriage dates, patriot's service, and descendants' names. If an application lacks proof of evidence, it is recommended you verify all sources. DAR and SAR charge $6.00/day for non-members to search applications online and a $10.00 fee to print each.

Supporters of the Crown

If you have yet to find any federal or state war service, perhaps your ancestor was one of 30,000 German mercenaries who fought with the British military. Muster rolls and prisoner of war lists in American archival collections pertaining to the German mercenary troops who served with the British forces during the American Revolution, by Clifford Neal Smith, provides more information.

One third of the colony's population, Loyalists and Tories, was sympathetic to Great Britain and continued to support the crown. Although some Loyalists were pacifists and did not support the war, others enlisted in the British military, or a Loyalist militia. Loyalists' property was often confiscated, plus they faced charges of treason by the colonies. Due to the severity of their persecution, many switched sides during the war or left the states. Reference Research Guide to Loyalist Ancestors: A Directory to Archives, Manuscripts, Published and Electronic Sources by Paul J. Bunnell.

An "Oath of Allegiance" was implemented to prove fidelity to the new nation. Often Tories refused to take the "Oath of Allegiance." State Archives or State Historical Societies will have more information on Tories and indexes of those who took the "Oath of Allegiance." Reference The American Tory, by William H. Nelson.

Additional Resources

  • Revolutionary War Genealogy by Dr. George K. Schweitzer
  • Black courage, 1775-1783: documentation of Black participation in the American Revolution by Robert E. Green
  • Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Fries Ellet

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