Many Revolutionary War soldiers, both militia and regular, filed pensions for their service in the Revolution. Today, these pensions can be obtained from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., and, sometimes, from state archives. These pensions, designed to spur enlistment and limit desertions, were first authorized during the course of the war.
After the Revolution, Congress passed a series of pension laws. At first, these laws gave pensions to those who suffered debilitating injuries in the Revolution and to those immediate survivors of soldiers killed in battle. Over the years, Congress passed additional laws, extending rewards to other family members. Congress also extended provisions to militia veterans when it passed laws saying militia were eligible for rewards after two years of service, even though it were non-continuous.
As part of these laws, the federal government offered free land as a reward for military service. If the pension were approved, land was given to the west of settled areas – land known as the early American frontier. These lands were surveyed in lots of sometimes 100 acres or more. Congress granted acreage based on rank and length of service. Some people made the trek west and settled their lands, while others sold their land to people known as speculators who, in turn, resold the land for higher prices. Surveyors and attorneys received benefits from this speculation. Well-known people such as George Washington became land speculators. Often, people who settled these lands clashed with Native-4 Americans who still claimed the land as their own. Land was granted to the Mississippi River, and, further, as the frontier advanced.
Continental armies kept good records, making it easy for its soldiers to get bounties. Militia, on the other hand, had to answer a number of questions in order to receive pension rewards. Usually attorneys would let them know that pensions were available. The militia veteran appeared before a judge in a local court to answer these questions. They were asked to prove their birth date and place of birth, battles they participated in, their commanders and other relevant questions. Latter applicants were old and often feeble and their memory failed them. They could get their minister or those in battle with them to testify in their behalf. Anyone could be present in the courtroom, and each had an opportunity to challenge a petition.
Judges rejected pensions when petitioners did not follow these procedures. It seems that few pensions were rejected because of outright fraud. The Federal Justice Department later weeded out false claims. A number of militia would not apply for pensions; they stressed that they fought for higher reasons than rewards – that they didn’t defend their country for money. But, as many got older they needed the reward, and applied for pensions. There are instances where young women married the pensioner to share in the bounty.
State governments also provided rewards, often in land or money. More and more, state governments gave money as a reward. This became a campaign issue as candidates courted the veteran vote and supported rewards.
Since state boundaries extended west indefinitely, land grants were given in the west, advancing as the early American frontier advanced. For example, Carolinians might have received grants just beyond the settled areas, then in Tennessee, all the way to the Mississippi River; and, later, beyond.
Have students abstract the following pension application by answering the following questions:
Kelly, James – 28 April 1835 –
“… he returned to Camden county – in a very short time he volunteered under Col. Washington. They did not rendizvous (sic) at any particular place – there Was but one horse at that time – Declarant was a horseman & found his own Horse he can not recollect the name of his captains where were with Washington Col Howard and Col Pickens – all the men he thinks amounted to 300. We Marched to a garrison called Rugeleys occupied by tories and some British – We got a pine log and Hacked it to look as much like a cannon as possible & put It on an old pair of Waggon wheels & run it up near the fort and sent in a Flag & Col Rugeley (a Tory) surrendered the garrison. …marched on to the (sic) join Genl. Morgan and did join him at the place where the battle of the Cowpens was fought & but a few days before said battle – Declarant fought under Col Washington in said battle The battle ground was part in the woods and part an old Field – the militia were in front & the regulars in the rear Washington and his men on the wing – They barely got formed before Tarleton made his charge – the militia soon run – the British began to cut down the militia very fast and Washington and Howards men charged & with the regulars of Morgan soon routed the British – Col. Washington & two or three men pursued Tarlton 18 or 15 miles & he understood that during this chace Washington would have been killed by one of the British but that one of Washingtons men shot the fellows arm off & Washington made a hack at Tarlton & disabled tarltons fingers & glanced his head With his sword and took a good many prisoners. Morgan took the prisoners on towards virginia…”
Cartright, Betty G. and Lillian J. Gardiner. North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee, 1778-1991. Memphis, Tennessee: Division of Archives, 1958.
Eller, Elizabeth F. Women of the Revolution. New York: Haskett House, 1969.
Hoyt, Max, et. al. Index of Revolutionary Pension Applications in the National Archives. Washington, D.C., 1976.
Moss, Bobby Gilmer. The Patriots at the Cowpens. Blacksburg, South Carolina: Scotia Press, 1985.
Moss, Bobby G. South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982.
Neagles, James C and Lila L. Neagles. Locating Your Revolutionary War Ancestor: A Guide to the Military Records. Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, Inc. Records.
Revill, Janie. Revolutionary Claims Filed in South Carolina. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969.