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Service to the Cause

by Michael John Neill
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Tracing Your Civilian Patriot Ancestors
If you can trace your ancestry to the American Revolution, odds are you have ancestors who were civilian patriots. Most people know to search for records of military service but many don't think to look for records of service that was "behind the scenes." Michael John Neill discusses how you can locate these civilian records and what you might find.

Genealogists who can trace their American ancestry to the Revolutionary era frequently hope to locate a record of an ancestor's military service. Not every researcher will encounter ancestors with active military service during this time. This does not mean the individuals played no role in the Revolution. Many individuals took active roles in committees or the Revolutionary government. Others provided support behind the scenes and behind the lines.

History texts frequently focus on military battles and the importance of generals and other high-ranking politicians in the war effort. There is no doubt of the importance of these efforts. However, others supported the Revolution by donating money or supplies (some were repaid after the war), or by signing oaths of allegiance to the new government. Some individuals risked their personal fortunes and others risked possible retribution had the Revolution failed. These men (and women, too) were patriots in a very real sense. Some of these individuals were unable to physically support the cause, yet felt compelled to show their sympathy in some fashion. While not as utilized, records for this service exist as well.

How Can You Learn About Non-Military Service?

Few of my own ancestors actively served in the Revolution, even though I had many ancestors living in Virginia and Maryland during that era. None of my eight ancestors of the correct age had a record of military service. Remember that some service records are no longer extant, so the lack of a record does not necessarily imply the individual did not answer a call to arms. However, there are in many cases records of non-military support. As I researched each of these individuals more completely, I learned that four of them had evidence of support of the Revolution. One provided wheat to soldiers in Virginia, another signed the "Maryland Association of Freemen."

Perhaps the easiest way to learn of such patriotic service is through the Patriot Index of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR has long allowed individuals to join whose ancestors provided "patriotic service" in support of the Revolution. Their Patriot Index includes many men (and a few women) who gave such service. While the Index only includes those individuals for whom a descendant has proven the service (and their lineage), it is an excellent starting place for learning more about an ancestor's possible involvement in the Revolution.

In some cases, you can obtain copies of DAR applications. Note that more recent applications are more thorough and contain more documentation. You can find more information at the DAR web site, including the Dar's online genealogy library catalog which includes some published records of patriotic service.

Records of patriotic service are frequently at the state and county level. Some of these records have been published, but many have not. State archives or libraries in any of those states involved in the Revolution may have such records. There may be local records of such service as well. The bulk of these records are claims for reimbursement for goods provided to the military. Researchers should be cautioned that these records frequently do not contain extensive genealogical information. Many of these original records from the colonial era have been microfilmed. Some have also been abstracted and published. Larger genealogical libraries may have such materials in their collection. Reference the card catalog of the Family History Library for similar materials.

You may also find published compiled materials focusing on this time period, created from a multitude of sources. Revolutionary Patriots of Baltimore Town and Baltimore County, Maryland 1775-1783, by Henry C. Peden, Jr. was particularly useful in my own research. The introduction provided me with a brief history of the Revolution in that area, complete with sources that might provide more detailed historical background. The author's foreword provided excellent information about who signed various oaths (and who did not) along with probable reasons.

Be sure to read the prefatory materials in published works. There may be terms used in the book with which you are not familiar, and reading the introduction may prevent you from misinterpreting a key word or phrase. As an example, in the Baltimore County book, the term "non-juror of the 1778 Oath of Allegiance" appears in many entries. The introduction indicates that members of certain religious groups refused to take any oath (regardless of the reason) and that soldiers were not required to take it either. This and other information was crucial to not misinterpreting various entries in the book.

The introduction also made a passing reference to the residents of "My Lady's Manor" who were concerned about the sale of manor lands that had been confiscated during the Revolution. I already knew from other records that an ancestor had leased property on this manor. The introduction footnoted two sources for more information about the manor and the land confiscation. Further research determined that the ancestor signed a petition opposing the sale. Such a situation might have affected whether or not the individual signed an oath of allegiance or similar action.

Virginia has a statewide index to these public service claims which is available at its Web site. If you use this web site, read the pages on the site containing information on these claims. In my case, the statewide claims index helped me to determine that there were several individuals with my ancestor's name scattered throughout the state.

How to Use These Records

Frequently, these records are merely lists of names and this presents difficulties in using the records. The most frequent difficulty is in tying the individual named on the record with one known to be an ancestor. However, this does not render the records useless. For example, original records may contain a signature or mark which could be compared with other records of the known ancestor. Also, in some areas, all men over eighteen were required to sign an oath of allegiance and such records may assist your in approximating the age of some individuals.

Relationships are infrequently given on these records. However, upon occasion an individual is referred to as "John Smith of Harold" and this can be extremely useful in sorting out various individuals. However, in many cases this identifying information is not included and you may need to consult additional records, such as land, court, and probate records. For example, contemporary tax and census records may help in determining if there were other individuals with the same name living in the same location. Once you have established that it is your ancestor who is mentioned in the records, you can use them to document your ancestor's involvement in the Revolutionary War effort.

When you are remembering those who bore arms in the American Revolution, don't forget those whose service was "behind the scenes." If your ancestry can be traced to the American Revolutionary era, chances are you descend from a few of them.

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