Pension record insights

Before joining NEHGS as a researcher, I worked with the National Parks of Boston researching patriots of color from Massachusetts who served during the Revolutionary War. While doing this research, I spent time looking through pension records to gain an understanding of these soldiers’ experiences during and after the war. I did not initially know what to expect from these records, but I quickly realized that they can be a treasure trove of information.

Although Congress provided pensions for certain groups, such as those who had been disabled while serving, it wasn’t until 1818 that all men who served in the army or navy became eligible to receive a lifetime pension. To qualify, they had to prove that they needed financial assistance due to “reduced circumstances in life.”[1] In order to do this, they had to list all their property and wages in their applications. Some considered the process of describing their poverty humiliating. Still, these lists give us a glimpse of what life was like for many Revolutionary War veterans after the war.

One example is of Massachusetts veteran Luther Jotham, who later relocated to Maine. Though he worked as a yeoman—a man who farmed his own land—for several decades after he served, his ability to support himself and his family eventually dwindled over time. At 69 years of age, Jotham applied for a pension and listed his few belongings, which included a house, several tools and household items, and a few farm animals. When describing his yearly wages, he stated: “My income does not exceed five dollars a year. I am by occupation a labouring man but from age and infirmity unable to do but little.”[2] Jotham’s application was approved, and he received an annual pension until he died. (Congress rescinded the financial need requirement in 1832.)

Pension records can also tell us about a former soldier’s family and acquaintances.

Pension records can also tell us about a former soldier’s family and acquaintances. The applications generally mention wives and children, but will often include testimonies from friends or fellow veterans who vouched for the applicant’s service. For instance, the application of Private David Woolly of Boston included a statement from Revolutionary War veteran Primus Hall, who testified that Woolly “served with [him] one year in 1776, and six weeks in 1777 under Capt. Butler, Lieutenant Silas Walker, and Ensign Wheeler, in Colonel John Nixon’s Regiment. While we were in said service we went to New York and New Jersey and were at the Battle of Princeton…”[3] Testimonies such as this allow us to pinpoint those with whom these veterans were acquainted and provide a better understanding of their communities.

It is important to note that pension records vary in length. While some are up to 100 pages long, others are only a few pages and contain very basic information. Still, those on the longer side can help provide insight into the lives of America’s first veterans. What interesting information have you found while looking through pension records?

Notes

[1] Michael Barbieri, “Good and Sufficient Testimony: The Development of the Revolutionary War Pension Plan,” Journal of the American Revolution (26 August 2021), https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/08/good-and-sufficient-testimony-the-development-of-the-revolutionary-war-pension-plan/.

[2] Luther Jotham, Pension No. W. 9911, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files. NARA M804, page 18. Accessed via Fold3.com.

[3] David Woolly, Pension No. W. 15735, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files. NARA M804, page 12. Accessed via Fold3.com.

About Danielle Rose

Danielle Rose received a master's degree in public history with a concentration in digital humanities from Northeastern University in 2021. She also holds a B.A. in history from the University of Florida. Prior to joining NEHGS, she worked as a digital history intern at the National Parks of Boston and a museum educator in Miami, Florida.

9 thoughts on “Pension record insights

  1. Years ago I applied for information about a Great Grandmother who was widowed and wanted to gain help from her husband’s pension after he died, he served in the Civil War. Her paperwork added up to over 100 pages, because she moved several times and had to prove she was the same person at a different address each time. Testimony from her grown children, son-in-law and others appeared in that paperwork and also her birthdate of course, the fact that she had been orphaned in Canada, then was brought to an Aunt & Uncle’s home in the United States. She eventually gave her first son (my Grandfather) their surname as his middle name. Her marriage date, dates of all her children, so much was available in that paperwork, it set me up with places to begin more research. Well worth the money spent for it at the time.

  2. I found a potential lead in identifying a potential extant former slave quarters in Hanover, Massachusetts, via an affidavit in a Revolutionary War pension file.

  3. I obtained the pension record for a civil war soldier and it was a gold mine of information including his parents marriage and death dates, cause of death of his father (smallpox) and that his father was a “confirmed inebriate who abandoned his family”, names of siblings and even facts about the siblings of his sister’s spouse. It filled in many gaps in that family’s history and was fascinating reading.

  4. My exciting find in Revolutionary pension records was 5th great-grandfather Ezekiel Farrow of Bristol, Maine. After the War, Ezekiel became a Quaker and a strict pacifist, and when Congress granted pensions to those who served, he refused to apply, believing it to be immoral to receive any further compensation for bearing arms.
    He died in 1822, and, fortunately for me, his widow, Miriam Hooper, had no such religious scruples. She applied for the widow’s pension, and in support of her application submitted an affidavit, several pages long, from his brother John detailing their service, as both had enlisted together..
    Their regiment was sent to Fort Ticonderoga. When it was discovered that Ezekiel had sailing experience, he was transferred to the Navy, and promoted to 2d in command of a boat, and served in several naval skermishes on Lake George and Lake Champlain.

  5. the pension petition of Sabra Wilcox, who at her husband’s death, was charged with not having been married to her husband. Fortunately, two of her brothers, Wyatt Palmer and Jonathan Palmer, were still living. In their 80s, but sadly she died before receiving her payments.but a treasure trove of both family and local Chautauqua Co, NY information.

  6. I’ve always wondered how one traces the location of bounty land that was awarded. My 3rd great-grandmother was awarded bounty land after her Revolutionary pensioner husband died, but I have no idea where it was and what she did with it. (She and her husband had moved to Canada in about 1800, but I assume the bounty land was in the US.) Maybe I should do some research on the issue of bounty land…

    1. The physical description of the Bounty Land will be part of the award documents, but you’ll have to do some research to figure out the exact location (county, state, etc) the description refers to. I was lucky enough to discover one of my maternal GGFs settled on Bounty Land in Kansas Territory before it became a state, but it wasn’t awarded to him. It was awarded to a man he was acquainted with (not a relative) in Clinton County, Iowa, who wished to remain in Iowa. Gr-Grandpa’s sister and wife had recently died within a year of each other, so he wanted to leave. They basically traded deeds. I first learned about the trade in Great’s estate papers in KS., but it was also recorded on the Iowa end.

  7. Before Covid, I was a longtime volunteer at the New England branch of the National Archives in Waltham MA. One of my last assignments was indexing the Revolutionary War pension applications which included the financial information described here. I’m not sure if it’s been posted online yet, but eventually will be – names, location, notes, etc.

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