Top 7 Websites for Revolutionary War Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena discusses—and provides links to—seven top online resources for researching your American Revolutionary War ancestors.

Do you have a Revolutionary War ancestor? Maybe you have always heard that your ancestor was a soldier or a patriot during the American Revolution. Perhaps you have a female ancestor who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Do you have copies of your ancestor’s military records but are not sure where to go next with your family history research? It’s time to make a genealogy research plan.

Painting: surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 to American General Horatio Gates, by John Trumbull

Painting: surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 to American General Horatio Gates, by John Trumbull. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When thinking about researching your Revolutionary ancestor, consider what records may be left behind that result from his military service, death, and even his legacy.* Also keep in mind where such records may be held. While it’s easy to assume that the majority of records will be found at the National Archives or a subscription-based website, there are various online repositories with historical Revolutionary-period records useful to your ancestry research.

Ask questions of each record you find and then look for documents that answer those questions. While some of the research you do will involve looking for documents that include his name, there will be general histories about events your ancestor was involved in—which don’t specifically mention him by name—that you will also want to consult to learn more about his day-to-day life in the battlefields and political developments of the time.

Not sure where to start? Begin first with an overall search of newspapers and digitized books.

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1) Newspaper Articles and Historical Books

In my previous article Tracing Your Colonial & Revolutionary Ancestry in Newspapers, I wrote about articles that can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for finding your Revolutionary War ancestor. Whether you are just starting your research or have been at it for years, you should begin with newspapers to see what more you can learn. Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding newspapers, searching just once is not enough—keep coming back, to search the new material. A helpful feature of GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives search page is that you can narrow your search to an “Added Since” date so that you are not going through the same results you viewed previously.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's Historical Newspaper Archives search page

Obviously, one of the newspaper article-types that you will hope to find is an obituary. An obituary may provide key information including family members’ names, military service, occupation, and the cemetery where he is buried.

One resource researchers might not be as familiar with is GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents & Records collection, which includes the American State Papers. These federal government documents can include mentions of Revolutionary War soldiers—and their widows—as they applied for things like pensions.

Search Tip: As you search the GenealogyBank collections, make sure to keep in mind name variations. Don’t just stop after searching one version of your ancestor’s name. Write out a list of various name combinations that take into account their initials, name abbreviations (Jno, Benj., Wm.), and nicknames—as well as possible misspellings of the first and last name.

2) Online Grave Listings

In addition to newspaper articles and historical books, there are several online resources available for lists of Revolutionary War soldiers’ graves. To read more about these resources, see the article Revolutionary War Cemetery Records on the FamilySearch Wiki.

screenshot of FamilySearch's page for American Revolutionary War records

Source: FamilySearch

3) Daughters of the American Revolution

Want to verify that your ancestor was a Revolutionary War patriot? Maybe you have a copy of a female family member’s DAR application. Looking to become a member of the DAR or the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution)? Even if you aren’t interested in joining these groups, they have a vast collection of resources that can help you with your research. According to DAR member and chapter registrar Sheri Beffort Fenley, there are two resources all non-DAR members should use.

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The first is the Genealogical Research System. According to their website, the Genealogical Research System (GRS) “is a collection of databases that provide access to the many materials amassed by the DAR since its founding in 1890.”

screenshot of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Genealogical Research System website

Source: Daughters of the American Revolution

The second resource Fenley recommends is the DAR Library.

screenshot of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Library website

Source: Daughters of the American Revolution

While you are looking at the DAR homepage, make sure to click on the Resources tab. Here you’ll find the Revolutionary Pension Card Index as well as a great eBook entitled Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources, and Studies.

4) Google Books

I would also recommend using Google Books to look through books and periodicals involving the DAR and their various chapters, as well as other genealogical information from the Revolutionary War. It’s a great place to find lineages and transcriptions.

screenshot of the Google Books website

Source: Google

5) Sons of the American Revolution

The Sons of the American Revolution Genealogical Research Library in Kentucky also may be of use to your research. To learn more about their collection and their SAR Patriot Index, see their website.

screenshot of the Sons of the American Revolution's Research Library website

Source: Sons of the American Revolution

6) National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)

The National Archives holds the records of our federal government, including military records. For the Revolutionary War you can find everything from Compiled Military Service Records to pensions and bounty land records. (Please note that NARA is the caretaker for federal records; they do not have state records such as state militia records. For those records, you need to contact the appropriate state archives.) Click here to see a list of NARA Revolutionary War records. A good tutorial for learning more about obtaining military records from NARA is on their web page: Genealogy Research in Military Records.

screenshot of the National Archives and Records Administration's American Revolutionary War records website

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

7) FamilySearch Resources

There are also several Revolutionary War databases available from the free website FamilySearch, including the searchable United States Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900. Most people automatically think of service records and pensions when they think of military service—but what is often missed are bounty land grants. Military Bounty Land was offered to men in return for their military service. This served as both an enticement and a reward for longer service. Your ancestor may have received much more from his service than just monetary compensation. To learn more about bounty land and how to research it, see Christine Rose’s book Military Bounty Land 1776-1855.

The United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 from FamilySearch “contains images of muster rolls, payrolls, strength returns, and other personnel, pay, and supply records of the American Army during the Revolutionary War.” This collection is not searchable; you have to browse it, and you need to know the state your soldier fought for. Make sure to utilize the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki to learn more about other Revolutionary War documents available from FamilySearch.

screenshot of FamilySearch's Family History Research Wiki website

Source: FamilySearch

Wherever you are in your search for your Revolutionary War ancestor, make sure to have a plan and a list of genealogy resources—and then go through each one. Using a combination of sources including newspapers, digitized books, and military records, you can start to put together the story of your Revolutionary War ancestor soldier’s life.

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* Because the majority of soldiers in the Revolutionary War were men, I’m going to refer to them as “he.” However, women did fight alongside their male relatives on the battlegrounds. To learn more about the women of the Revolutionary War, see the book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin.

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Lineage, Hereditary, Heritage & Patriotic Societies Have Genealogy Resources

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn about lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies, lists a number of these societies, and provides their website links in case you want to find out more.

The listings and records kept by various genealogical societies can be a gold mine for family historians.

But there are so many American lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies, you’d be hard pressed to find them all. And if you attempt to search on the keywords “genealogy” or “lineage society” on the Web, you’ll find the results overwhelming!

This blog article makes searching these societies a more manageable task, by discussing several key categories and providing links to make your genealogy record searches more efficient. It also shows how articles from an online newspaper archive can provide more information about these types of societies.

Societies & American History

Many societies have a long history in America, with some of the oldest going back to the early days of our nation’s founding.

This article from a 1985 Louisiana newspaper lists heritage societies active in New Orleans that year. It reports that the oldest society in the area is the St. Andrew’s Society, founded in 1729 with membership open to men of Scottish ancestry.

A Master List of Heritage Societies, Times-Picayune newspaper article 20 January 1985

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 20 January 1985, page 73

Lineage societies restrict membership to lineal descendants. Some have “good character” requirements, or are by invitation only. Hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies have similar restrictions, or their groups may be open to those of shared interests.

Most of these societies ask for documentary evidence, establishing the birth and death of each generation, to link to the applicable ancestor. Marriages may or may not be required, as some societies recognize that making out-of-wedlock births ineligible is a deterrent to recruiting members. Certificates are generally preferred, but alternate proofs, such as genealogy books, biographies, family letters, and state or local histories, may be acceptable. To learn specifics about what is required to join, contact the registrar of a society and he/she may even assist you in acquiring the necessary documents.

The Oldest Society in America

The society thought to be America’s earliest is the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, founded around 1637. As noted in this 1916 South Carolina newspaper article, the society’s origins date to an earlier organization incorporated by King Henry VIII in 1537 (see www.ahac.us.com).

The Oldest Military Organization in America, Charleston News and Courier newspaper article 25 September 1916

Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 25 September 1916, page 4

Newer Society Organizations

Some of the newest society organizations in America include the:

  • National Society of Saints and Sinners (founded in 2010)
  • Sons and Daughters of World War II Veterans (2011)
  • Order of Descendants of the Justicians (2011)

(In case you are wondering, the Medieval Chief Justiciar (hence the term “Justicians”) was the modern-day equivalent of an English Prime Minister.)

Society Categories & Lists

Comprehensive lists of heritage and lineage societies can be found at these websites:

Most lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies can be lumped into broad categories pertaining to:

  • Ethnic or Religious Affiliations (associations with countries of origin, i.e., ancestral locations; customs; etc.)
  • Military (specific war, such as the American Civil War or American Revolutionary War)
  • Pioneers and Settlements (first families or early arrivals to areas)
  • Prestigious or Unusual Connections (descent from presidents, rulers, military officers, even those who owned taverns—or were accused of being a witch)

Here are some of the groups that caught my attention.

Ethnic and Religious Societies

Persons with shared countries of origin or religious affiliations might contact groups such as the:

  • Huguenot Society of America (www.huguenotsocietyofamerica.org/), whose members left France to escape religious persecution
  • Daughters of Norway (www.daughtersofnorway.org)
  • Any of the “Saint Societies” which mostly relate to ancestry from Great Britain (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales)

A few of the latter category, which may have branches in your area, include:

  • Saint Andrew’s Societies (open to lineal descendants of Scotland)
  • St. David’s Societies (Welsh descent)
  • St. George’s Societies (service in the Britannic Majesty’s Armed Forces)
  • Saint Nicholas Societies (Irish ancestry)

Military Societies

There are too many to list them all, but some better-known military societies include the:

  • Baronial Order of Magna Charta (formerly the Baronial Order of Runnemede) is also known as the Military Order of the Crusades (www.magnacharta.com/)
  • Order of Daedalians is the Fraternal and Professional Order of American Military Pilots. It was named after Daedalus, who achieved heavier-than-air flight (www.daedalians.org/)
  • Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War 1861-1865 (www.duvcw.org/) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (http://hqudc.org/)
  • General Society of Colonial Wars (www.gscw.org/)
  • Hereditary Order of the Descendants of Loyalists and Patriots of the American Revolution (http://loyalistsandpatriots.org/)
  • Society of Descendants of Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, for descendants of the Knights of the Garter, a prestigious honor bestowed upon knights as early as 1348 (http://www.brookfieldpublishingmedia.com/KG/KG.aspx)
  • Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts (http://societyofthecincinnati.org/), reports that it is the nation’s oldest patriotic organization
  • Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in 1890 (www.dar.org), and their counterpart, Sons of the American Revolution, founded in 1876 (www.sar.org)

The illustration below, from an 1898 Alabama newspaper, portrays the prominent officers of the DAR.

illustrations of prominent officers of the Daughters of the American Revolution society, Age-Herald newspaper article 21 February 1898

Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama), 21 February 1898, page 6

You can discover much of the history and learn about former members of these societies in the newspaper archives. Just search the society name in the “Include Keywords” field.

American Pioneer and Settlers’ Societies

These organizations celebrate arrivals at, or settlements in, particular areas prior to a certain date. In addition to the list below, search newspapers and the Web for “Pioneer” or “First Family of” in connection with a location, such as “California” or “Indiana.”

Some examples of pioneer and settlers’ societies are the:

Occupational & Unusual Societies

Although they range from the ridiculous to the macabre, these are some of the most noteworthy societies.

Presidents

Prisoners & Outlaws

Royal Bastards

  • Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain (http://royalbastards.org/) grants membership to individuals who can prove descent from an illegitimate son or daughter of a king, an illegitimate son or daughter of the child of a king, or an illegitimate son or daughter of the grandchild of a king of England, Scotland, Wales, Great Britain or the United Kingdom.

Saints and Sinners

Tavern Keepers

  • One of the more unusual organizations, Flagon and Trencher Society (www.flagonandtrencher.org/) resulted from a speech on genealogy in which Walter Lee Sheppard, Jr. commented that there was a lineage society for every group except Colonial tavern keepers. Shortly thereafter, the society was formed by Sheppard and Dr. Kenn Stryker-Rodda. Membership is open to anyone (even children) who “can prove direct descent from a person conducting a tavern, inn, ordinary, or other type of hostelry prior to 4 July 1776 (within the area which became the first 13 states).” Brewers do not qualify. The society’s name is derived from the terms “flagon” (a drink container) and “trencher” (a wooden plate or platter used to serve food in a tavern). The annual meeting is a luncheon held in a Colonial tavern.

Whalers

Witch Societies (Accused)

  • If you think you are descended from an unfortunate person imprisoned, persecuted or placed on trial for witchcraft, then consider contacting the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches (hwww.adeaw.us/).

If you have an interest in any of these societies and want to learn more, contact them directly via the website links provided. The process of documenting your eligibility, plus interactions with other members and officials of the society, may well help you with your own family history research.