Genealogical Research and Military Records
Now His Pension File
Don't be too disappointed if the Compiled Military Service Record is brief. At least you can now document that your ancestor did serve. There are a multitude of additional records. One of the richest for genealogical information and interest are the soldiers' pension files containing facts we value—birth date and birthplace, marriages, and other similarly helpful details. After you discover that your ancestor served in the Revolution, the pension file indexes will reveal whether he or his heirs ever applied for a pension.
In spite of the ease in using the alphabetized micropublication M804, you may find it handy to consult the Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives in book form if microfilm is not readily available. After you determine from it that your ancestor has a file, you can then search for a repository with the microfilm.
The Act of 1818, based on financial need, is the first major pension act for which the application papers are preserved. It was quickly followed by an act in 1820 tightening the requirements. As the government became more lenient, restrictions were lessened. In 1832, a general act awarded pensions based solely on six months or more of service. In 1836, widows received benefits. (Up to that time, generally only the widows of officers were eligible.) For more on the various pension acts passed by our government, see Christine Rose's Military Pension Acts 1776-1858.
The complete pension file for each soldier has been filmed. Micropublication M804 of the National Archives consists of 2,670 rolls of alphabetically arranged records titled Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1906. (The dates shown are correct; applications were made by heirs as late as 1906.)
An affidavit is a written declaration made under oath before a notary public or another authorized official.
Micropublication M804 reproduces every paper available in each pension file. Each soldier's file contains two groups: the “selected papers” (those papers that the National Archives considered the most important and which they used to use to fill mail orders), and the remainder of the file, marked as “nonselected.” Examine every paper in your ancestor's file. The nonselected papers often include additional affidavits and forms; they might also include letters from descendants around the 1920s and 1930s, when many (wishing to apply to lineage societies) sought information on their ancestors. These letters can lead to descendants. Though the Archives used to provide only the “selected” papers for their minimum file, now they offer the complete file for a flat fee. Go to www.archives.gov for current pricing. If you have access to the microfilm, you can copy the papers yourself and read them at your leisure.
In another micropublication, M805, the Archives again reproduced the Revolutionary pension files, but in this one only the “selected” portion of the files were filmed. This shorter series was purchased by many libraries that could not afford the more extensive M804 series or didn't have space to store those voluminous rolls. If you find your ancestor on M805, make it a point to reexamine the file in its entirety when you can access M804.
Besides the availability on microfilm, the contents of the selected papers on M805 is also available on a CD-ROM “Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Index,” available from Heritage Quest. If you locate the name of your soldier on this index, a CD-ROM corresponding to the roll number is available though this company. A listing of all the rolls of M805 are at www2.heritagequest.com/qsearch/sr.asp?s=M805.
The publication by Virgil D. White is particularly useful because these published abstracts are indexed in their entirety. Your ancestor may have made an affidavit in the application file of another soldier. You would not find that affidavit without this index because only the applicants' names are included in the previously mentioned Index of Revolutionary War Pensions.
Now in Print
Another resource for your search of the Revolutionary War pension files is Virgil D. White's Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files. The abstracts are in three volumes, with an every-name index in a fourth volume. These abstracts do not include every paper in the files and are not a substitute for examining the complete file. Nonetheless, they are invaluable in helping to determine if your ancestor did indeed serve.
Why Check Further?
Why bother to proceed to the pension file, if you already know from the Compiled Military Service File that your ancestor served? In short, because you will learn a lot more from the pension file. You will experience a connection to your ancestors as you read the words they spoke in detailing the battles in which they were engaged and the resultant disabilities and hardships.
You will read about some sad situations, such as that of the widow Rebecca Rose, who at the age of 91 was found in the poorhouse, blind, “nearly naked, entirely helpless,” defrauded by two unscrupulous men who filed her pension for her and gave her little of the funds. A man of conscience in the county came to her aid, demanding federal government assistance for this aged widow.
James Rose, the husband of Rebecca, a Virginian, had his share of difficulties, too. He tells that he was at Mill Creek when “the picket guard came in great haste, scared nearly to death,” bringing a report that thousands of British were coming, just on the other side of Mill Creek Island. “Col. Mazzard having no horses at that time to manage the cannon, commanded the army to hasten to Mill Creek, and draw with them three of the cannons. This soldier [Rose] was one of the number that managed the cannon in the stead of horses, and produced a rupture in his body of which he never has and never will recover by his great exertions in drawing ….” Later, he was discharged, and returned to King George County. He left his discharge at the home of a friend and, on a borrowed horse, went to see his relatives in King William County. On the way he was taken up as a deserter “by a company of drunkards” and retained in custody three days before he could get his discharge, “which he procured by giving a man a regimental coat to take the horse back and bring the discharge.”
James' troubles weren't over; all are recited in the voluminous file. Fortunately for the unlucky James, his service was substantiated, and later a special Act was passed by Congress on his behalf. Similar stories abound. The files are fascinating and give you a rare opportunity to know your ancestors.
Here is a bonus: your ancestor may be one of those soldiers who either tore out the pages from the family Bible and offered them in support of the statements, or had the Bible entries extracted and notarized. Those papers may be your only proof of dates and relationships in the family.
The compiled military service record file and the pension file you find are not the only records available for Revolutionary War service. There are many others, but these will get you started.
More on: Family History and Genealogy
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.