Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Patron's Perspective: Larry Kidder on the Reliability of Pension Records

In this installment of Patron's Perspective, regular Library Patron Larry Kidder provides further insights from his research on the New Jersey Militia through the Revolutionary War pension records. Larry points out that the value of these pension files does not lie solely with the details they shed on battles and engagements: in many respects, the pensions show us those aspects of the Revolution and the experience of warfare during the period that do not often appear in conventional histories.


True Confessions: How Reliable are Pension File Depositions?

By Larry Kidder

American Revolution veteran pension files are a vast resource that can aid any research project focusing on individual soldiers or seeking answers to exactly what units at the company level did in specific situations. Since the depositions of veterans were made many years after the war and when the deponents were of an advanced age, one naturally wonders just how accurate any information in them can be. Alfred F. Young in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party discusses human memory and his experience in using pension files. In general, he believes that the human memory is not all that bad. Joseph Plumb Martin wrote an entire book of his memoirs of the Revolution at the same stage in life as the pension applicants and his account has proven very useful to historians to the point where it is almost ubiquitous in works on the revolution. So, the pension depositions are likely to have useful information.

My research on the First Hunterdon County New Jersey militia regiment has given me a new appreciation for these documents. Lacking documentary evidence of their service, the militiamen applying for pensions had to prove service through giving rather detailed descriptions of their service with as much detail as possible. They named officers, fellow militiamen, where they went, when they went, and what they did. The depositions were court documents and sworn before a judge to be accurate. It is rather touching to read an old veteran give accounts of several months service in some detail and then say he knows there were other times he served, but he can’t recall the times or details now. It is evident that most of the men only recounted things they were pretty sure about. However, they did make mistakes. Sometimes they gave more than one deposition and the second one often contains slightly different information. This sometimes happened because they remembered more the second time through the story or they corrected partial or poorly recalled information. It is obvious that they were struggling with their memories – and trying hard to be accurate. One of the most frequent mistakes I find in New Jersey militia depositions is recalling the wrong captain of the company. Frequently, men served under a number of different captains and recalling which one was associated with which event was challenging. Sometimes they recalled a lieutenant as a captain; often because the actual captain did not go out on an alarm and they were led by the lieutenant or the lieutenant later became the captain and they remember him that way.

These formal depositions can be quite revealing concerning the life of these militiamen and it is surprising that they sometimes confessed to missed service time. This is pretty remarkable since they were trying to make the case for as much service time as possible. I have encountered several soldiers who became ill and had to go home before their monthly tour of service was up, said so in their deposition. Several others admitted that when called out they missed the first few days in order to get things in order on the farm for their families. Others were very clear that some months they got discharged early, while in other months they stayed on late for various reasons. I have also come across several men who admit to missing important actions, including one who missed the battle of Princeton because he stopped off at the local farm of an acquaintance, stayed the night, and awoke too late to participate in the battle. In one widow’s application the woman was very clear that the alternating one month of service required of the New Jersey militia was pretty much a myth since it didn’t count the time it took to get to where her husband was stationed nor the time it took to return home. She felt she only saw him for about two weeks between the monthly tours. Depositions given in support of other applicants can also contain embarrassing information, if not actual confessions. One such militiaman from the First Hunterdon was stationed near Yardley, Pennsylvania on the Delaware River in December 1776 before the Battle of Trenton. He became ill and his brother came over from New Jersey to substitute for him. The soldier who became ill made a deposition for another member of his company to substantiate that he had been on duty in December. He deposed that his brother, the substitute, later told him that the man in question was definitely there, because he had seen him take a cask of rum the deponent had secured for the company and sell it. Apparently, all was forgiven long after the war.

I know that many people seeking information on an ancestor look at the pension file. I would suggest that they also come to the David Library and log onto, even if they know there is no pension file for their ancestor. Using they can do searches for their ancestor (as a pension applicant or as giving a supporting deposition) as well as company commanders and other names found in the pension file or other records of the person they are researching. Using this tactic can reveal much more information about the ancestor and what the ancestor’s unit did. It can also provide opportunities to check on his memory and corroborate information given by the ancestor. You may also uncover some interesting true confessions not available in other records.

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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