Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

Frederick Wingdorf's record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.
Frederick Wingdorf’s record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.

Patriots’ Day—the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—is fast approaching here in Massachusetts. This particular holiday makes many of us a little reflective. Was my ancestor involved in the American Revolution? If you have ever been curious about that, here are some great resources to jump-start your research.

One of the best places to start looking is Virgil D. White’s Index to Revolutionary War Service Records. Available in the NEHGS research library, this particular series is a transcription of the General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers, Sailors, and Members of Army Staff Departments, also known as M860, housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. White’s transcription lists the rank, regiment, or company of each soldier, and is a fantastic resource because it includes every state of service. Consider yourself lucky if your ancestor had a rare name, such as Frederick Wingdorf. Frederick was a drummer in the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, and—not surprisingly—was the only Frederick Wingdorf in the index. If you are not so lucky and your ancestors had very common names like Samuel Jones or William Moore or, worse, John Smith, you might need to consult secondary sources to help whittle down the long list of candidates.

Another great source is the National Archives’ Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, or M881. This collection consists of muster rolls, payrolls, rations, receipts, and correspondence. If you have an inkling that your ancestor served but was not listed in the General Index to Compiled Military Service Records, try searching these records. The records are at the National Archives, but a free, searchable index of the collection is located on FamilySearch.

Fold3 boasts a comprehensive collection of Revolutionary War records, including service records, muster rolls, and pensions. (There you can also find the above-mentioned records.) This subscription-based site allows you to search for your ancestor by name, or you can browse by record collection or by state and regiment. Browsing records in this fashion is particularly useful if your ancestor’s name was spelled different ways. Fold3 will also reveal if your ancestor was mentioned in the records of another soldier. This may be particularly helpful in regard to pension records, in which other soldiers testified to the applicant’s military service. Your ancestor’s affidavit of support may have chronicled his or her own service as well.

Fold3’s pension and bounty land warrants are fantastic resources because these records often include genealogical information regarding the veteran. I like to refer to these records once I have established that an individual did in fact serve in the Revolutionary War. Establishing the state, regiment, or company in which he served will help you distinguish your ancestor’s records from others with the same name. Of course, this does not apply if you are looking for Frederick Wingdorf!

The DAR Ancestor Database is another great resource to examine. This database is a list of the Revolutionary War soldiers who members of the Daughters of the American Revolution have joined under. In my opinion, this is a great resource because more often than not, biographical information concerning the soldier is included.

There are also some great state-based resources, too, such as Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors. NEHGS Chief Genealogist David Allen Lambert has compiled a list of these and other very helpful resources, which were featured in the Summer 2010 edition of American Ancestors, viewable by NEHGS members.

The aforementioned sources are just a few suggestions to help you get your research started. It also important to remember that there is not one, single source to indicate whether your ancestor was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, so you may have to examine several sources. There are so many great sources available that may determine if your ancestor was indeed a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Please feel free to share some sources that you have come across in your research in the comments. Good luck!

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

13 thoughts on “Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

  1. Don’t overlook the state militias. I have many ancestors who served, but their records are only in New York State records unless they obtained a pension for their service.

  2. And don’t forget a lot of men served in state militia, provided food, shelter and clothing for the armies, served on juries. Many more ways to be a Revolutionary ancestor than serve in the Continental armies.

    1. Thanks for the info. Solomon piper was at the battle in concord . I have a fife I believe is his. One day I will see David Wood. For show an tell. Solomon was a minuteman out of Acton. Been trying to get a mustar log of Hines . Anyway thanks I look through your research. I have Nathanael’s book. He came to America 1625

  3. And don’t forget the female patriots who paid supply taxes, provided supplies and equipment, and assisted in other ways. A number of those appear in the DAR Ancestor database as well! The DAR listing is not definitive–new Patriot Ancestors are identified regularly as the documentation is provided through the DAR membership process. Don’t stop with the database online–talk with DAR Volunteer Genealogists or, even better, a local DAR chapter Registrar.

  4. For soldiers with a foggy history before the Revolutionary War and who were born in Germany (especially Hesse-Kassel) between 1740-60, consider that they might have originally been a Hessian mercenary. German Landgraves were well-paid by the British to raise troops and ship them to America in 1776. Many young German men enlisted when told they were needed to help their British ally subdue the native peoples of America- they did not know they would be fighting colonists, including German immigrants. A great many Hessians were forced into service, even kidnapped, impressed- companies of Hessian soldiers had to be guarded as they marched through Germany to the ports, as so many tried to desert.

    Once in America, the Hessian mercenaries were enticed to desert by a strong propaganda campaign mounted by the Patriots, and many did. Those Hessians who were captured, such as Heinrich Wilhelm Horn by Washington’s forces at the Battle of Trenton, often took an Oath of Allegiance and then enlisted in the American army; they became valuable spies, translators, etc., and were highly skilled soldiers for the revolutionary cause due to their strict Hessian training. Many, like Heinrich Horn, served honorably, received a pension, and became upstanding Americans- Heinrich even became a minister and founded a church in Pennsylvania.

    Understandably, many tried to hide their Hessian beginnings, due to the hatred the colonists had for Hessian mercenaries. This was a brick wall for me for many years of pre-internet searching for Heinrich’s beginnings. It had been whispered in the family that he had been a Hessian, but others firmly believed his patriotic American service proved he was not.

    Take a close look at the timetable of battles and locations of your ancestor during the Revolutionary War period. Heinrich Horn, for instance, has the Battle of Trenton listed on his military marker. His enlistment in the patriot cause, however, was not until 1777- AFTER Trenton. Also, that enlistment took place at Lancaster, PA- where the Trenton POWs were taken in 1777. He is not found in the documentation of prisoners at the Lancaster Barracks, however, because he changed sides.

    HETRINA (Hessische Truppen im Amerikanischen Unabhängigkeitskrieg) is the German record that lists Hessian soldiers, and a searchable index may be found at http://www.lagis-hessen.de/en/subjects/index/sn/hetrina. Use Google translate as needed as it is in German, but actually pretty easy to understand.

    The Johannes Schwalm Historical Association (www.jsha.org) and its publications are also good resources for Hessian ancestors.

    The old Rootsweb list for Hessians is still active, and there is excellent information in the list’s searchable archives: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/index/AMREV-HESSIANS

    Many good books are now available on life as a Hessian, as well.

  5. The full pension record of my ancestor who served in the SC militia as a teenager, and didn’t file until the 1830s, is very extensive. He had moved to NC, then to IL, and had to prove he was poverty-stricken in order to receive a very small pension. His complete file gave me the date of death of his wife and some of his children, and which ones moved to IL, plus who he served with. He was in and out of the service, sometimes for only a few weeks at a time. Apparently they were mustered out when not needed, to save the cost of paying them. He only served a few months total, ending up a Pvt, as he began. It doesn’t look like he actually saw any action. The documents are very interesting, and they were easily found on FamilySearch. Another ancestor from NH served with Washington at Valley Forge, and in the midst of the terrible winter, was sent with some others to collect maple syrup for the troops. On the way, they went through a town that appealed to him, and he settled there after the war. This story may be apocryphal, as it’s recounted in a later town history. His children, however, were born there, and he and his wife were buried there, so it seems fairly likely to be true. I don’t yet have his pension records, but your long list of resources should help me find them.

  6. Another resource is the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution), the DAR originally being the SAR’s ladies’ auxiliary. I have seen many digitized applications on Ancestry.com, dating back to the late 19th century.

    1. I have 2 members of my Doolittle side that were members of SAR Abraham Doolittle SAR membership # 59953 & his son Daniel Doolittle # 28020, Could you help find out more on their link ? I am on facebook…

    2. I do not speak for the organization of the Daughters of the American Revolution, only as a member. The DAR was not originally the SAR Ladies Auxiliary. This is the Wikipedia info on the D.A.R. In 1889 the centennial of President George Washington’s inauguration was celebrated, and Americans looked for ways to recognize their past. Out of the renewed interest in United States history, numerous patriotic and preservation societies were founded. On July 13, 1890, after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to allow women to join their group, Mary Smith Lockwood published the story of patriot Hannah White Arnett in the Washington Post, ending her piece with the question, “Where will the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution place Hannah Arnett?” [3] On July 21 of that year, William O. McDowell, a great-grandson of Hannah White Arnett, published an article in the Washington Post offering to help form a society to be known as the Daughters of the American Revolution.[3] The first meeting of the society was held August 9, 1890.[3] The four founders of the D.A.R. were Mary Desha (KY), Mary Smith Lockwood, Ellen Hardin Walworth and Eugenia Washington. Since inception there have been 860,000 members, with male and female Patriots. Check for your Patriot on the DAR website and visit their huge Library in Washington, DC for research.

  7. I have an old, undocumented note that John Sherwood died on a British prison ship, and that he was buried at Gospel Hill cemetery in Oxford, NY. His son Asa was buried there, also a veteran. The family were founders of Fairfield, Conn. Why would anyone think a family would re-inter a man’s body, 20 years after his death, in another state? He was probably buried ashore, or even worse, thrown overboard. I don’t know how to find his death records, or how to delete the errors. His name is not on the monument to those who died on the ships, would also like to correct that! One problem is the common name, John, but I have his widow Mary Gorham, and his line going back to 1634. She remarried; would that mean she could not apply for his pension? 5 of the children removed to NY; possibly bounty lands? I could join the DAR thru several other family ties, but I really want this to be my first.

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