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Overheard in GenForum: War of 1812 Enlistment Papers
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 15, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am wanting to know if there is anything concerning enlistment papers regarding next of kin (if they died)!! I have an ancestor who fought in the War of 1812 and I ordered the Pension File from the Archives. They sent the "complete file" and it has nothing regarding next of kin when he enlisted. It does have his widow's name for pension but he wasn't married until 1824. Is there something I can ask for regarding his enlistment? I am trying to find out parents names, siblings, anything on this ancestor when he enlisted in 1812. Any input on this would be greatly appreciated. -- Deloris

A: Like many of the records that genealogists rely on, military records have improved over the years. We tend to forget that back in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, the federal government was not as organized when it came to amassing data on the inhabitants.

Also, many researchers are often confused by the type of information they expect to find when working with the service records and the pension records. They hope to find what you are looking for and, like you, may be disappointed in what they do get.

Many researchers are often confused by the type of information they expect to find when working with the service records and the pension records.

Understanding the Pension Records

In most cases our ancestors did not get the chance to request a pension until some time after the war in which they were involved. This often had to do with the time it took to qualify or even potentially qualify. Pension requirements were established through Congressional Acts. And sometimes an ancestor wouldn't qualify until the second or third act had been passed.

Other times it wouldn't be apparent until the soldier was older that he was in need of support. He would then contact the government in the hopes of qualifying for a pension. However the information found in the pension records seldom has anything to do with the soldier's parents and siblings. Only if the parent applied for the pension, due to the soldier having been the sole support for the family, are you likely to find any indication of a soldier's parents or siblings. Most of the time the pension records will list the spouse and the names of children of the soldier.

Understanding Service Records

The service records were a look at the life of a soldier at the time he was actually enlisted in the military. The compiled military service record would include information in regard to the soldier's rank, his military unit, the date he entered the service, the date he left the service (whether by discharge, death, desertion or dismissal). Sometimes the service record will also include the age of the soldier, possibly his place of birth and his residence at the time of enlistment.

Again nothing about his parentage or next of kin. However, if the service record includes his place of residence at the time of his enlistment then you can begin to concentrate on a specific town and see who in the town shares his surname and begin to research those people. You will want to look at land and probate records. It is always possible that the parent sold land to the son or that the son appears in the will (assuming he outlived the parent).

Bounty Land

Another resource available to genealogists for those with ancestors involved in the War of 1812 are bounty land records. Again, these records unfortunately are unlikely to include information on the parentage of the soldier. However, once in awhile you may get lucky.

While the soldier was the individual who was entitled to the land, it was often an heir who would claim the land. To claim land by inheritance, it was necessary to submit documents showing proof that the individual was indeed descended from the soldier. In some cases bounty land records will sometimes include records taken from the family bible. I have even heard of original bible pages being submitted. Such a record may include not only the information on the soldier but also about his parents.

In Conclusion

Military records, whether they are service records, pension records or bounty land records are more apt to supply you with information about the soldier and his descendants rather than about his ancestors. However, some of the clues picked up in those records can help to place your soldier ancestor in given towns that can help you to narrow your search for possible parents.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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