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Overheard in GenForum: British Soldiers - War of 1812
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.

October 18, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone have an URL for information on British soldiers in the War of 1812? I am hunting for information on my ancestor Henry Willoughby/Willoby/Willaby who fought for the British in the 37th Regiment of Lord Selkirk. Henry Willoughby born Oxfordshire, England 3 Oct 1790 was discharged from the 37th Regiment in Canada on 21 Jan 1816. Henry was in Huron Co., Ohio soon after his discharge in Canada. By 1819 Henry is in Knox Co., Ohio where he lived until he died in 1881. -- Peggy

A: Military records can sometimes supply us with additional information on an ancestor. Unlike other countries, usually when working with British military records, it is necessary to know the regiment to which the ancestor belonged. You already have this information.

Of course, now that you have the information, you want to take your research to the next step. You would like to locate the military records and perhaps also learn a little history about the 37th Regiment. Learning what battles they were engaged in may give you a new perspective on your ancestor. It may also help explain why he elected to settle in Ohio.

Military records and history to expand your knowledge.

Record Arrangement

Most of us are not seeking an officer in our research. It is because of this that we need to know the regiment. There are few indexes available for the records of other ranks including privates and noncommissioned officers (corporals and sergeants). Instead you must know the regiment, as the records tend to be arranged by regiment.

The different types of records generated from life in the military have been arranged differently. Some are arranged by regiment and then by surname. Others may be arranged by surname regardless of regiment or unit. Some may be arranged by group and then by surname. When arranged by group, the records are usually arranged by the type of group the individual was attached to, including cavalry, artillery, infantry and so on.

Determining what arrangement you will be working in is often based on the time period in which your ancestor enlisted or was discharged from the military. Another determining factor is the type of record you are investigating. There are a number of different military records that may be of use to you in your research.

Types of Records

At the time of the War of 1812, the following records were kept:

  • Attestation papers
  • Discharge papers
  • Muster rolls and pay lists
  • Description books
  • Casualty lists and returns
  • Pension records
  • Records of deserters
  • Court martial records
  • Purchases of early discharges (actually a little late for your research)

The attestation and discharge papers for the time in question are arranged by regiment and then by surname within each regiment. These records will list the soldier's place of birth, age, date of enlistment, previous occupation, physical description and his army career. The good news is that these records are on microfilm through the Family History Library if you cannot easily access the WO 97 and 121 record classes in the Public Record Office in England.

For more information on these other records, you will want to read Chapter 19 "Records of the Army, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force" in Mark D. Herber's Ancestral Trails, The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History.

Lord Selkirk and the 37th Regiment of Foot

Lord Selkirk was Thomas Douglas the Fifth Earl of Selkirk. In 1812 he had established an agricultural colony where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, at what would become the city of Winnipeg. The settling of this colony was viewed by the nearby Northwest Fur Company as an attempt by the Hudson Bay Company to move in on their territory. As a result tensions mounted in the area and Lord Selkirk felt that the only way to calm the problems was to bring in military force.

In 1815, Selkirk petitioned the Governor General in Montreal for the needed soldiers. While the government did not want to get in between the two rival companies, they did give him one sergeant and six privates from the 37th Regiment of Foot. Lord Selkirk knew this wasn't enough, and added to his small group of soldiers by hiring two foreign regiments who were in the service of the British. This added five officers and eighty men from De Meuron's Swiss Regiment and twenty from De Watteville's Swiss Regiment.

In 1816, with his men, he was on his way back when he was diverted to Fort William after the incident at Seven Oaks that resulted in the death of 22 colonists including it's governor, Robert Semple. At Fort William, he arrested the senior partners of the Northwest Company and took control of the fort. It is likely that your ancestor was not involved in this aspect of the group if he indeed was discharged in January 1816 as you said.

In Conclusion

You can find out more about the 37th Regiment of Foot and those involved with Lord Selkirk by visiting The Forces of Selkirk, a site compiled by the Forces of Selkirk, a present-day reenactment group formed in 1990. You will find information in the different regiments involved and there is a mailing address and e-mail contact. They may have specific information about your ancestor.

While the Internet offers some valuable information about Lord Selkirk and those who were under his command, do not overlook the military records on microfilm. Remember, not everything is online, we must still venture into the microfilmed records themselves, and sometimes original documents that are not yet available on microfilm.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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