Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Patron's Perspective: Larry Kidder on the New Jersey Militia

Today's entry was contributed by Larry Kidder, a regular Library patron and teacher at the Hun School in Princeton. Larry details his experiences in recovering the experiences of New Jersey's militia during the Revolution and shows the role that research plays in public historical interpretation.


Researching New Jersey Militia: Lessons Learned and Avenues Opened

by Larry Kidder

Up until about six months ago my research interests had focused on the Continental Line and I was pretty comfortable with techniques to investigate both individual soldiers and units. Taking on a project involving the New Jersey militia to obtain background information for a new interpretive program being developed by Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell caused me to rethink how to use well-known tools in new ways. My first attempts to investigate the company commanded by Henry Phillips of Hopewell Township in the First Hunterdon Regiment led me to doubt that I was going to find very much. However, with Librarian Kathie Ludwig’s encouragement, help and advice I began to make some breakthroughs and consequently I have become very excited about this research project.

An old friend, pension application files, provided a major breakthrough. I was used to looking up a name in the printed indexes and then going to the microfilm but it was this method that seemed to be leading nowhere. Kathie told me about the website that is available via computer at the David Library. This online database goes beyond simple indexing and is searchable for names within documents. The major breakthrough came when I did a name search for Henry Phillips – even though he died in 1804 and never applied for a pension. I came up with a number of hits for men who had served in his company or mentioned him for some reason in their application declarations. After reading through the applications that came up this way, I then did searches for those soldiers to see if they were mentioned in other applications. This led to additional men who wrote supporting declarations for other soldiers. Sometimes these supporting declarations gave additional information they hadn’t included in their own applications.

These pension files directly led to an expansion of my project. I found that men who served with Capt Henry Phillips on one or more occasions stated they also served with other captains on other tours. The rotating nature of militia duty brought men together in a number of different groupings. So, I have now expanded the project to include the entire First Hunterdon Regiment, since men who lived close to Henry Phillips may have served under other captains and men from widely separate areas may have served under Phillips. This was a whole new paradigm compared with my previous research on the New York Continental Line and following a group of soldiers who served under one captain continuously for six and half years.

I found the pension applications for militiamen contained many more stories of their experiences, including naming others they served with, probably due to the fact there were many fewer opportunities for corroborating documentation. There were far fewer muster rolls, pay rolls, etc. available and the militiamen almost unanimously declared their discharges had been verbal and they received no written discharges. These men also mentioned other service besides the militia. They spoke of long term – five to nine month – tours as levies operating as state troops or supplements to Line regiments. Some enlisted in Line regiments for tours either before or after the time they served in the militia. For example, they may have served in a New Jersey Line regiment in the Canadian expedition the first year of the war and then done militia service the rest of the war. Some spoke of serving terms as wagon drivers for the quartermaster, commissary, or wagon master departments. Some had temporary deferments from militia duty to produce necessary items for the army if they had a particular civilian skill, such as saddle maker or shoemaker. Some went out on militia duty in between stints on privateers. Some men moved from one state to another or from one county to another and saw a variety of service as a result. The First Hunterdon developed an artillery company and a troop of light horse that men sometimes volunteered to serve one or more tours in. The light horse appealed to a particular social class since the volunteer had to supply his own horse as well as the other equipment. It became obvious that men who served in the militia needed to be understood in the total context of their contributions to the cause.

Other sources also helped to add names to the list of known First Hunterdon militiamen. Local histories, church histories, town records, tax records, etc. contributed names and often stories about some of the men. Going through Stryker’s Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War was also a major help. Then, with my growing number of names I went to the microfilm reels of the index to the New Jersey State Archives Revolutionary War manuscripts to find documents the men were mentioned in. As with all indexes I found some inaccuracies and it proved very helpful to look at documents before and after ones that contained information on one person. I often found other unexpected but pertinent names on a document and also nearby documents that related to other men in the regiment. This was especially true in a series of notes on fines levied for not marching when called.

These are just a few of the lessons I have learned in my new avenue of research and I have found that learning more about these militiamen is giving me an entirely new perspective on the Revolution. My understanding of what the role of the militia was and what motivated the individual men to become more or less active in it has greatly changed. I expect to be on this diversion into the militia for quite some time before I return to learning more about the New York Line and the lessons learned by researching militia will greatly enhance that process.

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


  1. Hello,
    My 5th gen. grandfather, Absolom Smith, served as a private 1st Regiment, Hunterdon County Militia serving under Captains Parker, Stout and Phillips serving tours from 1776 to 1781. He was a teamster, wagon with four-horse team in conductor Jonathan Higgins' Team Brigade in continental service at the post of Trenton March 1780. He was a resident of Amwell Twp. After the war, he moved to Clermont County, Ohio very near where I live today.
    Absalom's brother John was also a private in the Hunterdon Co. Militia under Captains Clunn, Phillips and Snook serving monthly tours from 1779 and 1780. Also served in the 3rd regiment in Capt. David Smalley's company State Troops an as a minute man.
    I am very interested to learn more about the Militia, what daily life was like for these soldiers - really anything that would enhance the history I have gathered of my Smith family.

    Any help or direction you could give me would be most welcome. Thank you!

    Linda Smith Walker
    Cincinnati, OH

  2. PS - I am also related to Col. Joab Houghton of Hopewell New Jersey.