Is This Really My Ancestor?
The most difficult part of searching for an ancestor's Revolutionary War service is to establish a link between your specific ancestor and the names which appear on various lists, rolls and registers. Names are not unique, so how can you be sure that the Robert Owens who served from North Carolina is actually your Robert Owens? Before delving into Revolutionary War records, take the time to learn everything you can about your Revolutionary War ancestor, including their state and county of residence, approximate age, names of relatives, wife and neighbors, or any other identifying information. A check of the 1790 U.S. census, or earlier state censuses such as the 1787 state census of Virginia, can also help determine if there are other men with the same name living in the same area.
Revolutionary War Service Records
Most original Revolutionary War military service records no longer survive. To replace these missing records, the U.S. government used substitute records including muster rolls, records books and ledgers, personal accounts, hospital records, pay lists, clothing returns, receipts for pay or bounty, and other records to create a compiled service record for each individual (Record Group 93, National Archives). A card was created for each soldier and placed in an envelope along with any original documents found that related to his service. These files are arranged by state, military unit, then alphabetically by the soldier's name.
Compiled military service records seldom provide genealogical information about the solider or his family, but usually include his military unit, muster (attendance) rolls, and his date and place of enlistment. Some military service records are more complete than others, and may include details such as age, physical description, occupation, marital status, or place of birth. Compiled military service records from the Revolutionary War can be ordered online through the National Archives, or by mail using NATF Form 86 (which you can download online).
If your ancestor served in the state militia or volunteer regiment, records of his military service may be found at the state archives, state historical society or state adjutant general's office. Some of these state and local Revolutionary War collections are online, including Pennsylvania Revolutionary War Military Abstract Card File Indexes and the Kentucky Secretary of State Revolutionary War Warrants index. Do a search for “revolutionary war” +your state in your favorite search engine to find available records and documents.
Revolutionary War Service Records Online: Fold3.com, in cooperation with the National Archives, offers subscription-based online access to the Compiled Service Records of soldiers who served in the American Army during the Revolutionary War.
Revolutionary War Pension Records
Starting with the Revolutionary War, various acts of Congress authorized the granting of pensions for military service, disability, and to widows and surviving children. Revolutionary War pensions were granted based on service to the United States between 1776 and 1783. Pension application files are generally the most genealogically rich of any Revolutionary War records, often providing details such as date and place of birth and a list of minor children, along with supporting documents such as birth records, marriage certificates, pages from family Bibles, discharge papers and affidavits or depositions from neighbors, friends, fellow servicemen and family members.
Unfortunately, a fire in the War Department in 1800 destroyed almost all pension applications made prior to that time. There are, however, a few surviving pension lists prior to 1800 in published Congressional reports.
The National Archives has microfilmed surviving Revolutionary War pension records, and these are included in National Archives publications M804 and M805. M804 is the more complete of the two, and includes about 80,000 files of applications for Revolutionary War Pension and Bound Land Warrant Application files from 1800-1906. Publication M805 includes details from the same 80,000 files, but instead of the entire file it includes only the supposedly most significant genealogical documents. M805 is much more widely available due to its greatly decreased size , but if you find your ancestor listed, it is worth also checking the full file in M804.
NARA Publications M804 and M805 can be found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and in most regional branches. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City also has the complete set. Many libraries with genealogical collections will have M804. A search of Revolutionary War Pension Records can also be made through the National Archives either through their online order service or through postal mail on NATF Form 85. There is a fee associated with this service, and turn-around time can be weeks to months.
Revolutionary War Pension Records Online: Online, HeritageQuest offers an index as well as digitized copies of the original, hand-written records taken from NARA microfilm M805. Check with your local or state library to see if they offer remote access to the HeritageQuest database.
Alternatively, subscribers to Fold3.com can access digitized copies of the full Revolutionary War pension records found in NARA microfilm M804. Fold3 also has digitized an index and records of Final Payment Vouchers for Military Pensions, 1818-1864, final and last pension payments to over 65,000 veterans or their widows of the Revolutionary War and some later wars.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation — This special collection in the free online American Memory exhibit of the Library of Congress includes some very interesting Revolutionary War pension petitions and other sources for information on Revolutionary-era individuals. Follow the links to American State Papers and the U.S. Serial Set.
US GenWeb Revolutionary War Pensions Project
Browse volunteer-submitted transcripts, extracts and abstracts of pension files from the Revolutionary War.
Loyalists (Royalists, Tories)
A discussion of American Revolution research wouldn't be complete without referencing the other side of the war. You may have ancestors who were Loyalists, or Tories — colonists who remained loyal subjects of the British crown and actively worked to promote the interest of Great Britain during the American Revolution. After the war ended, many of these Loyalists were driven from their homes by local officials or neighbors, moving on to resettle in Canada, England, Jamaica and other British-held regions. Learn more in How to Research Loyalist Ancestors.