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Revolutionary War Pension Files
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This collection is taken from NARA microfilm publication M804, which includes an estimated 80,000 pension and bounty-land warrant application files based on the participation of American military, naval, and marine officers and enlisted men in the Revolutionary War. Most of the records in the files are dated between 1800 and 1900. The files are part of Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration.
The records in this collection include entire pension files for soldiers and sailors who served in the Revolutionary War. Unlike selected records, which were typically chosen subjectively for genealogical content, these records reveal more details about each veteran's history and service, as well as more information about his family, state of health, and life after the war.
If you know the state for which a man served, you can locate him through the alphabetical hierarchy in the browse menu. Select the state, the first letter of his last name, then locate his surname, followed by his given name in the next section of browse titles.
The descriptive pamphlet for publication M804, is available as an 82-page PDF file here. Excerpts from the descriptive pamphlet were used to explain the collection in the following sections of this finding aid.
Types of Pensions
For more than a century before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, British colonies in North America provided pensions for disabled soldiers and sailors. During and after the Revolutionary War, three principal types of pensions were provided by the US Government for servicemen and their dependents.
- Disability or Invalid Pensions - awarded to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty.
- Service Pensions - awarded to veterans who served for specified periods of time.
- Widows' Pensions - awarded to women whose husbands had been killed in the war or were veterans who had served for specified periods of time. The letter "W" is included with the file number for widow pension applications.
The letter "S" before a file number stands for "survivor" and usually indicates the file contains one or more post-1800 approved applications of a veteran for an invalid or service pension. See the timeline below to learn how different acts of Congress affected pension file applications.
"B. L. Wt." signifies a bounty-land warrant.
An "R" in the file number indicates it was rejected.
Full vs Selected Records
If you've previously located a pension file for a Revolutionary War veteran or widow, you may have noticed that some records are identified as "selected service records." This means they were selected from a pensioner's file as the most representative for genealogical purposes. They are usually no more than ten pages. If you check the same file on microfilm at a National Archives location, and online here at Fold3, you'll typically find significantly more information. Fold3 has scanned the full microfilm record for each soldier's file.
Examples of the size difference between full and selected service records include Jeremiah Adams of North Carolina whose selected service file is 18 pages, yet his full file is 66. Thomas Arbuckle of Virginia has 7 pages in his selected service file, while the full file consists of 35 pages. Review the case study below for William Alld of New Hampshire, and you'll see what a difference the combination of selected and nonselected service records can make. His selected service records include 9 pages of letters and affidavits, while his full file is 77 pages long and includes a great deal more information about the man and his widow.
According to the NARA descriptive pamphlet for the Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files (M804), records are unarranged within files. However, in each envelope file containing more than ten pages of records, the more significant genealogical documents were filmed first, preceded by a target headed "SELECTED RECORDS." The documents may include pension applications, jackets showing the act under which pension payments were made, bounty-land warrant applications, jackets showing the warrant numbers of warrants granted, property schedules, family-record pages from Bibles or other books, copies of marriage records, and final payment vouchers. All remaining documents in that file were filmed after a target headed "NONSELECTED RECORDS." No distinction was made between selected and nonselected records in filming the envelope files that contained ten or fewer pages of records.
Read more about these differences in the descriptive pamphlet.
Pension legislation evolved as the United States government determined the best system to reward soldiers and their families for military service. The following dates are helpful in understanding when and why a veteran, or his widow, filed one or more types of pension applications.
One of the most important acts was the service-pension act of 1818, in which the US Congress granted pensions to Revolutionary War veterans for service from which no disabilities resulted. A great number of applications were thus submitted and approved, and it explains why the stories of so many Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors can be discovered today.
August 26, 1776
The first pension legislation for the American colonies as a group was enacted. A resolution of the Continental Congress provided half pay for officers and enlisted men, including those on warships and armed vessels, who were disabled in the service of the United States and who were incapable of earning a living. The half pay was to continue for the duration of the disability.
May 15, 1778
Another resolution provided half pay for seven years after the conclusion of the war to all military officers who remained in the Continental service to the end of the war. Enlisted men who continued to serve for the duration of the conflict were each to receive a gratuity of $80 after the war under the terms of the same enactment.
August 24, 1780
The first national pension legislation for widows. It offered the prospect of half pay for seven years to widows and orphans of officers who met the requirements included in the terms of the resolution of May 15, 1778.
October 21, 1780
The Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, was amended to provide half pay for life to officers after the war.
March 22, 1783
The half-pay-for-life provision enacted on May 15, 1778, was changed to five years' full pay.
September 29, 1789
The First Congress of the United States passed an act (1 Stat. 95), which provided that invalid pensions previously paid by the States, pursuant to resolutions of the Continental Congress, should be continued and paid for one year by the newly-established Federal Government. Subsequent legislation often extended the time limit.March 23, 1792
An act of Congress (1 Stat. 243) permitted veterans not already receiving invalid pensions under resolutions of the Continental Congress to apply for them directly to the Federal Government.
April 10, 1806
The scope of earlier invalid-pension laws pertaining to Revolutionary War servicemen was extended to make veterans of State troops and militia service eligible for Federal pensions. The act (2 Stat. 376) superseded all previous Revolutionary War invalid-pension legislation.
March 18, 1818
Before 1818, national pension laws concerning veterans of the Revolution specified disability or death of a serviceman as the basis for a pension award (with the exception of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, granting half-pay to officers for service alone).
Not until March 18, 1818 (3 Stat. 410), did the US Congress grant pensions to Revolutionary War veterans for service from which no disabilities resulted. Officers and enlisted men in need of assistance were eligible under the terms of the 1818 act if they had served in a Continental military organization or in the US naval service (including the Marines) for nine months or until the end of the war. Pensions granted under this act were to continue for life.
May 1, 1820
The service-pension act of 1818 resulted in a great number of applications, many of which were approved. Congress had to appropriate greater sums than ever before for Revolutionary War pension payments. Financial difficulties and charges that applicants were feigning poverty to obtain benefits under the terms of the act caused Congress to enact remedial legislation on May 1, 1820 (3 Stat. 569). The new law required every pensioner receiving payments under the 1818 act, and every would-be pensioner, to submit a certified schedule of his estate and income to the Secretary of War. The Secretary was authorized to remove from the pension list the names of those persons who, in his opinion, were not in need of assistance. Within a few years the total of Revolutionary War service pensioners was reduced by several thousand.
March 1, 1823
An act of Congress (3 Stat. 782) resulted in the restoration of pensions to many whose names had been removed under the terms of the 1820 legislation, but who subsequently proved their need for aid.
May 15. 1828
Congress passed another service-pension act (4 Stat. 269), which granted full pay for life to surviving officers and enlisted men of the Revolutionary War who were eligible for benefits under the terms of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, as amended.
June 7, 1832
The last, and most liberal of the service-pension acts benefiting Revolutionary War veterans, this act (4 Stat. 529) extended to more persons the provisions of the law of May 15, 1828. The act provided that every officer or enlisted man who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or State troops, volunteers or militia, was eligible for a pension of full pay for life. Naval and marine officers and enlisted men were also included. Veterans who had served less than two years, but not less than six months, were eligible for pensions of less than full pay. Neither the act of 1832 nor the one of 1828 required applicants to demonstrate need. Under the act of 1832 money due from the last payment until the date of death of a pensioner could be collected by his widow or by his children.
July 4, 1836
The time limit for making claims under the Continental Congress resolution of August 24, 1780, which promised half-pay pensions to widows and orphans of some officers, expired in 1794. For many years thereafter, unless a private act of Congress was introduced on her behalf, a widow of a veteran was limited to receiving only that part of a pension that remained unpaid at the time of her husband's death.
By an act of Congress approved July 4, 1836 (5 Stat. 128), some widows of Revolutionary War veterans were again permitted, as a class under public law, to apply for pensions. The act provided that the widow of any veteran who had performed service as specified in the pension act of June 7, 1832, was eligible to receive the pension that might have been allowed the veteran under the terms of that act, if the widow had married the veteran before the expiration of his last period of service.
July 7, 1838
This act (5 Stat. 303) granted five-year pensions to widows whose marriages had taken place before January 1, 1794. These pensions were continued by acts of March 3, 1843 (5 Stat. 647); June 17, 1844 (5 Stat. 680); and February 2, 1848 (9 Stat. 210).
July 29, 1848
Congress provided life pensions for widows of veterans who were married before January 2, 1800 (9 Stat. 265). All restrictions pertaining to the date of marriage were removed by acts of February 3, 1853 (10 Stat. 154), and February 28, 1855 (10 Stat. 616).
March 9, 1878
Widows of Revolutionary War soldiers who had served for as few as fourteen days, or were in any engagement, were declared eligible for life pensions (20 Stat. 29).