Researching in military records comes to mind around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. In the genealogical community, one of the more frequently researched series of records are the Revolutionary War Pension Application Files from the National Archives Record Group 15, M804, roughly 80,000 pension applications, 2670 microfilm reels, lots and lots of pages. These files are a good beginning point for research strategies for Revoutionary War ancestors and have been for a century. Series M804 or its smaller less viable twin M805, is available at the National Archives (NARA) in Washington, D.C., all regional branches, and presidential libraries. Sequestration has changed the hours, so check each website for hours open. Other public and private libraries have the film series, so use individual libraries’ catalogs online or FirstSearch at your local public library. Series M805 was created when someone at the National Archives identified “Selected Records” and created another shorter set of files (898 reels of microfilm). The abbreviated series was purchased by libraries with smaller budgets with the decision to rely on the Selected Records available in M805 vs. the Selected and NonSelected Records available in M804. I would not choose this set of film, as I have found valid genealogical data in the “NonSelected Records” available only in series M804. A large part of the NonSelected Records are letters from potential descendants asking about pension records. Certain files have been written about and posted on the NARA website, it worth a check to see if your ancestor’s is one of those. Like other military files from the National Archives, series M804 has been digitized and indexed by fold3 and is available on a subscription basis online. An index is available on FamilySearch and the files have also been digitized and are available on a subscription basis online on Ancestry. Over Memorial weekend, Ancestry has free access to military records. This could be a good time to avail yourself of the free 7 day trial offer from fold3 to compare and contrast what you get from each service. At one time HeritageQuest, available for free from many local public libraries, would print and send an entire file for about ten dollars. I don’t know what their pricing is now. In addition, transcriptions of many southern applications are available at Southern Campaign Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters – William King is the example I have chosen.
There was an index published in 1976 by the National Genealogical Society of the Revolutionary War Pension Applications and a revised edition published under the title: Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrant application files, 1800-1900, however the indexes of the digitized files are better as names and places mentioned in the files are retrievable.
- Revolutionary War Pensions
- Final Payment Vouchers Index for Military Pensions
- Revolutionary War Rolls
- Revolutionary War Service Records
- Revolutionary War Service Records Navy
- Revolutionary War Prize Cases – Captured Vessels
- Continental Congress – Misc
- Revolutionary War Service and Imprisonment Cards
- Navy Casualty Reports, 1776-1941
- Numbered Record Books
- Service Records of Volunteers, 1784-1811
The pension files have a lot of genealogical strength since they are taken in context of where the soldier enlisted, where he claimed the pension, age, sometimes including a migration path with stops delineated, sometimes including birthdates, sometimes wife, children or parents.
Reading a Revolutionary Pension Application File can be a treat or an ordeal or both. The applicant can’t remember exactly when he served or how long, but was pretty sure it was a 90 day enlistment probably in the fall, of either 1780 or 1781, or maybe it was winter. That may be vague but he had the geography right or as right as he knew it at the time and he knew with whom he served. Before putting aside the file in frustration, do the math. If your ancestor was born around 1757, he was in the vicinity of 22 to 25 in 1780 and 1781. If he applied after the 7 June 1832 Pension Act, he was in his seventies remembering actions that happened 50 years prior. If he applied after 1840 he was in his eighties remembering or trying to remember events 60 years prior. Cut him some slack. He may not have exact dates or even the right month, but the men, the battles and the weather will probably be spot on. Review every march, skirmish or battle mentioned and get outside corroboration for dates. Research every man and unit mentioned in the application. He remembered the Lieutenant and the Captain’s surnames, but not their first names. That makes sense, he didn’t call them by their first names, he called them Lieutenant and Captain. The men with whom he bivouacked may not be in the area or even still be alive at the time of his application, so the men mentioned in the application may be those he knew slightly, only just able to corroborate his service. Every single mention of a soldier, battle, or commanding officer is a clue to more information about your soldier. Names of other men in the unit can be supplied by various sources, including the pension applications of men listed in the application or pension applications by others in the units mentioned in his application or applications of others in the vicinity of his enlistment, service or residence. Search them all.
Start any military pension research with the National Archives (NARA), as it was federal money that paid pensions. The amount of information available for the military in the Revolutionary War that has not yet been microfilmed or digitized is still plentiful. All the soldiers in the war have not been identified. Sure many of them have by descendants in the DAR or NSSAR, but others have not. Until all those rosters are located, digitized and researched, it is still possible to identify new soldiers. Some estimates are that 75% of the young men of the time served one way or another.
William King Pension application file S21335 (parts of which are referred to as 27588 or 31806). The card file has S21335 on it, the outside cover page from the Jonesboro Agency is numbered 27,588 and the next page entitled original declaration of William King has 31,806 on it.
Reviewing the highlighted section of the third page of the William King Pension File Application, the first word is patently Pennsylvania. Checking this third page of the original against the same page of a transcription will show you exactly why it is important to read the originals.
A transcription from Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters; Pension application of William King S21335 fn35NC; Transcribed by Will Graves 10/30/09 follows:
This typescript clearly states Pittsylvania, the largest of the Virginia counties, instead of Pennsylvania which is where Edward King and his wife Elizabeth (Nichols) King were.
John King of Pennsylvania and Sullivan Co., Tennessee pension application S2701.
John King of Pennsylvania and Sullivan Co., Tennessee File S2701 discharge papers in the Non Selected records.
Thomas King from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Sullivan Co. Tennessee Pension application, list of enlistments.
Careful reading of Thomas King’s pension application file S45883 including Non Selected records gives the following personal data:
- Thomas King was a substitute for William King [his older brother].
- Various individuals, relatives, descendants or spouses of desendants requesting information on his file including Karl King who also requested information on John King [a younger brother], James B. Searcy, E. S. King, Virgil H. Lockwood, Mrs. Jennie King McGrew, J. C. Fryerson.
- Thomas King was born 17 March 1754 in Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania.
- William Rutledge and William Groseclose are two credible citizens of Sullivan Co., Tennessee instead of a clergyman who is not available in the vicinity.
- Thomas King was 78 years old when he applied for a pension on the 21st of August 1832.
- Abraham McClellanan and Geo. Gammon swear to Thomas King being known in the neighborhood reputed to be a soldier.
- Nativity was listed as Paxton Cty., Pennsylvania. (Paxton Township was established in Lancaster Co. in 1729. The township borders became the Dauphin Co. borders in 1785. The township subsequently split into Upper, Middle and Lower Paxton Townships among other divisions.)
These three men, William King, Thomas King and John King were three of the six sons of Edward King and Elizabeth (Nichols) King of Paxton Twp., Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania. All three fought in the Revolutionary War, sometimes in the same service, while the youngest son David was not old enough to serve. It is likely the other three sons, Isaac, James and Samuel also fought in the war, however they did not live long enough to claim pensions or in Samuel’s case as he died in 1836 in Mississippi, perhaps he didn’t need the pension. None of these men mentioned his brothers as kin in the application files, although Thomas served as a substitute for William and submitted a supporting affadavit for John, but in neither situation does he claim kinship. I am sure he tried to find another non related affiant, but it wasn’t easy.
Memory is a tricky thing. This month I unearthed a 42 year old team photograph, taken by either Robbie Murphy or Andy Padian, very probably in September of 1971 at William Annin Jr. High in Bernards Township, Somerset Co., New Jersey. I identified 28 of 44 subjects. I can place it, date it and recollect two probable photographers, but I can not come up with all the names, however, if I had been on that team, I’ll bet I could.