Welcome to the History Corner!
Celebrating the rich history of Port Byron, New York, an old Erie Canal village in the Town of Mentz. This site is dedicated to the legacy and heritage of our community as well as a variety of regional historical tidbits. I hope you enjoy your visit and will stop by again.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Revolutionary War Records

It was my pleasure to serve as one of the volunteer genealogists for the Owasco Chapter NSDAR Lineage Workshop that was recently hosted at the Port Byron Library.  I'd like to thank the library for their continued support and for letting us use their facility.  The workshop drew a standing room only crowd in search of their families, many focusing on finding proof of service for their ancestor who served in the American Revolution. 

I thought I would share some details on the various pension acts and how to obtain those records.  If your ancestor drew a pension, the date they became eligible varies depending on their rank, regiment served, disability and need of financial support from the Government.

Pension applications assigned a unique letter in front of the application number which signifies the following:

S = soldier was pensioned.
W = widow was pensioned.
R = pension was rejected.

Having a pension application rejected does not mean the soldier did not serve.  It may only represent that the soldier did not meet the minimum standards of the particular pension act for which they applied.  Some acts had a minimum service requirement, or was limited to the Continental Line.  Soldiers were responsible to present their own proof of service at the time of such application.

Due to the lapse of time from service to when they applied for pensions, many soldiers had already lost their discharge papers.  In such cases, soldiers were expected to present written testimonies from fellow soldiers or anyone else that could support their claim. 

Soldiers who applied directly via open court did not fare as well as compared to those that hired a lawyer.  The main reason for this is simply because the lawyers knew to gather statements from others who could vouch the applicant did indeed serve.  This was accomplished by obtaining statements from any combination of fellow soldiers, commanders, family or neighbors who could provide details as to when the applicant enlisted or was discharged.  This was needed as many pension acts had a length of service requirement.  Soldiers who could not present satisfactory proof to duration of service were denied.

Keep in mind that many soldiers of this war came from other places and spoke limited English.  Perhaps language barriers kept them from understanding that their word alone was not considered proof.  It was not the role of the open court to then go obtain witness statements, their role was simply to evaluate what was submitted before them.  While some rejected pensions could indicate a false claim, more often it was a case of failure to submit the needed proofs to determine minimum service requirements as required by the pension act.

Here are some links that provide a nice explanation of the evolving changes to the pension act:


Pension Timeline




Today there is a growing number of sources where one can obtain portions or all of the pension files.  Heritage Quest, which requires membership but may be a benefit from your local library, offers what I like to call the mini pensions.  This is the same as the Federal Military Pension Applications - Pension Documents Packet (NATF 85B) at the National Archives, also known as M805.  This shorter file contains pages that have been preselected to be most relevant to family history.

When possible, I recommend obtaining the full file, which is called the Federal Military Pension Application - Civil War and Later Complete File (NATF 85D) at the National Archives, also known as M804.  This file contains up to 100 pages which many pensions far exceed the page count found in just the pension packet mentioned above.

You can also purchase membership to http://www.footnote.com/ to download revolutionary war pensions and many other documents.  Your annual membership would cost less than one full pension file from the archive, it just puts the burden on you as each page has to be downloaded individually.  However, if you enjoy browsing, this may be perfect for your needs.

If you simply need one file, you may prefer to order directly from the National Archives.


In addition to financial support in the form of a pension, qualifying soldiers could also apply for land, which is called a Bounty Land Warrant.  These files are separate from the pensions but can contain the same types of family details one would expect to find inside a pension file.

On September 16, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted legislation which provided land bounties to Continental Line officers and enlisted men who served for the duration of the war. Heirs and representatives of officers and men killed in action also were entitled to land under the Act. The amount of land to which claimants were entitled varied according to rank: enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were entitled to 100 acres; ensigns, 150 acres; lieutenants, 200 acres; colonels, 500 acres. By Act dated August 12, 1870, the provisions were extended to provide 850 acres for brigadier generals and 1,100 acres for major generals.

On March 3, 1855, Congress passed legislation which provided for a 160-acre grant to all veterans, regardless of rank, who served at least 14 days in the Revolution or who had participated in any engagement during the war. Widows and minor children of such veterans were eligible to claim any land not previously granted to their husband or father. Individuals who had claimed under the previous bounty laws could claim any deficiency in previously granted land up to a maximum of 160 acres. On May 14, 1856, the benefits of the 1855 law were extended to naval and marine veterans, their widows and minor children.

Bounty land warrant records are currently not available at footnote, but are available at the National Archives using Military Bounty-Land Warrant Application File (NATF 85C).

Not all soldiers who applied for pension benefits applied for bounty land and vise versa, so be sure to check both sources. 

Please note that if you order from the National Archives, they do not charge you if the file is not found, they only charge for successful searches.  If they find several soldiers of the same name or a file that seems similar to that being requested, they may contact you before proceeding. 


If your ancestor did not apply for a pension or bounty land, there is still a chance proof of service can be found in the muster rolls.  These records are also available from the National Archives as well as footnote.com.

Many of you may have already noticed some of these types of records are surfacing at Ancestry.com.  That is because Ancestry.com purchased Footnote last year.

The National Archives does not have muster rolls of every regiment, therefore you may need to look for other published materials for proof of service, such as books on soldiers serving the various State Militias.

Service records are called Compiled Military Service File (NATF 86) at the National Archives.  Muster rolls are also available with members to either Ancestry or Footnote.

Revolutionary War Bounty Land in "The Military Tract of Central New York"

New York Bounty Land

Military Records at the New York State Archives

New York Pensioners of 1813

Cayuga County Pension Roll of 1835