Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Understanding Rev War Pension Applications

Patron's Perspective

Sue Winter and Bill Schleicher, two longtime patrons of the David Library, recently shared some of their insight into searching the Revolutionary War pension records we have here. The Pension Records are one of the richest resources we have - and that is saying a lot since we have over 700 collections and 10,000 reels of microfilm. The Pension Records contain data on every soldier who filed a pension with the federal government. Many include narratives of their time in the war. Previously, Kimberly Hess shared the fascinating story of Elizabeth Poole, which she had found in the records.

Patrick Spero

It pays to cast your nets widely in the Revolutionary War pension files.
Happy is the family historian who finds an ancestor's pension file record. But even if your ancestor never applied for a pension, you may not be completely out of luck. And, if you're fortunate enough to have found a pension file, there may still be more to discover.

Applicants for a pension often sought the testimony of those still living with whom they had served in order to substantiate their claim. If you were the descendant of Christy Little, imagine how happy you would be to find this statement of your ancestor in the pension file of Hezekiah Jones: "Once a returning when the Americans retreated from Stony Point, there was such a hurry or bustle in getting the baggage loaded and off, a going down a steep hill Hezekiah Jones wagon run one wheel over a rock and upset, and drug Jones some distance under it. (Little) expected he would be killed, but hearing Jones hallow stoped his team and went to him and helped him up and put to right again. Jones happened not to be much hurt, save one finger. He and Jones had often slept together when empty in one of their wagons and when loaded under their wagon. They carted from the Commissary Store at Pittstown to Trenton and Germantown Pa and other places where the army lay or was stationed." (Christy Little testifying for Hezekiah Jones R 5702)

One veteran in testifying for another may mention other names. Peter Pettey of the Sussex County NJ Militia recollected that while serving at Woodbridge in the fall of 1777, "he and Joe Mountain ran a foot race for a barrel of cider. Joe accused David Vliet of helping Pettey and Mountain and Pettey were about to fight over it when the company Capt. John Pettey came up and stopped the fight and told Vliet that it would not do for him to fight as he was an officer" (Ensign). (Peter Pettey testifying for David Vliet W4369)

Officers, especially as the rank gets higher, tended to be older than the average age of the men, and so fewer of them lived long enough to apply for a pension. Nevertheless, the names of officers are frequently mentioned in the files of those who served under them. In recalling his own service, Jacob Johnson stated that "He shot a Hessian that was in the act of stabbing Major Stout and saved his life. The Major offered him (illegible) as a bounty next morning but he declined taking it." (Jacob Johnson W796) In his pension file application, Robert Carhart reported that at the Battle of Monmouth, "Major Growendyke then commanded us and we marched backward and forward until near 11 o'clock, when Major Growendyke climbed a chestnut tree to see where the army was." (Robert Carhart W 3941)

Sometimes we learn about places. Lamington New Jersey was considered far enough from the theater of war that many refugees made it their home. Nevertheless, Edmond Arrowsmith recalled "Twice he was driven from his home ("at the North Branch," "at Lambinton") by the British marching through the place." (Edmond Arrowsmith S12006)

Sometimes people recalled things that happened after the revolution. The descendants of Elizabeth Handler would love to find her statement that "She does not recollect the year that they removed to Pennsylvania but that she recollects distinctly as she and her father's family were on the way from New Jersey, they met a company of soldiers who had been to western Pennsylvania to put down the Whisky Insurrection. They met them at a town called Strawsburgh. At that time she was 15 years old." (Elizabeth Handler for William Hunt R542)

Unfortunately there is no index to all the names mentioned in the pension files. In lieu of that, you can compile a list of men who served in the same company as your ancestor, and check to see which ones may have had pension applications. Even if you don't find your ancestor mentioned, you may learn little known facts about the skirmishes and events, which they experienced. Start with the National Archives files of Muster Rolls on microfilm.

Submitted by Sue Winter and Bill Schleicher

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

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