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  • Genealogy and Technology: Searching for American Revolution Ancestors and History Online

    Rhonda R. McClure

    Getting Started

    While the Internet offers many ways to search for sites of interest, it is important to remember that the general search engines, such as Google.com, cannot always find results contained within databases. Many of the compiled datasets that find their way onto the Internet are contained so that the researcher must visit the individual website, often becoming a member of some sort, to access the database in question.  This does not mean that everything available requires some monetary subscription for access. What it does mean is that when a search is done using a general search engine, the researcher is not necessarily seeing all that is available.

    It is good to run searches through the general search engine, but the researcher should not assume that if an ancestor is not found that there is nothing that exists on the Internet about that individual.

    Clues from Compiled Databases

    One of the first places that a researcher is likely to establish a connection to the American Revolution is through a compiled pedigree database.  Sites such as WorldConnect at RootsWeb offer a place for those willing to share their databases.  Unlike earlier lineage-linked databases such as Ancestral File at FamilySearch.org, the newer breed includes more than just the names, dates, and places.  The newer lineage-linked databases often include notes and elaborate biographies on some of the individuals included in the database.

    These biographies are sometimes the first clue that an ancestor was involved in the American Revolution. Once a researcher has made such a discovery though, it is vital to conduct additional research to verify the information.  If the biography was thorough, then it should indicate when the individual was in the American Revolution, perhaps even supplying regiment information.

    Another freely available compiled site that includes information on those early soldiers and volunteers is the Military Records/Rosters database at the RootsWeb site. This database is a compilation of information abstracted from many different military records including some records from the American Revolution.

    Understanding the History

    If the research to date has not revealed a soldier from the Revolutionary War, it is possible that additional research is necessary on those lines that have as yet not been taken back into the 1700s.  In conducting such research, it is a good idea to incorporate a study of the history of the area where the families lived. This could help to explain why a given individual did not appear to be a soldier. The town or region in question may have consisted primarily of Quakers who did not fight, but offered aid in other ways. As such they would not appear in databases of military rosters and may have not been included in lists of those who fought from a given area.

    Actually, the USGenWeb pages are a good place to look for both history and soldiers. A volunteer project (which means not every site is created equal) the USGenWeb Project pages contain some state, county, and for New England, town pages. Some of their pages offer links to useful sites on the Internet but many also have databases of their own.  Such databases seldom show up when searching for an ancestor in a general search engine.  Instead it becomes necessary for the researcher to visit the individual USGenWeb Project pages and use whatever search options they make available.

    What a general search engine will offer is the chance to search for general history about a region, state, or county during the American Revolution.  It may also be possible to find a cousin or someone else who is willing to share information on those who fought during this war.

    One such site is the American Revolution War Soldiers & Their Descendants site, which contains an alphabetical listing of soldiers and contact information for the submitter of the name. Each individual in the list is identified by surname and given name, and the state where the individual enlisted or fought is also included. The name of the submitter appears next to the name of the soldier along with either a link to the submitter’s e-mail address or to a web page devoted to the activities of the soldier.

    Thinking Beyond the Basics

    One of the ways in which researchers hinder their own research is to apply a rigid standard to what is expected on the Internet. Searches done at general search engines are often stymied by the very limitations placed on the search by the researcher.  Once the list of possible hits is displayed the researcher may not always stop to look closely at the results. While the page that fit the search criteria may not offer exactly what is wanted, useful information might be found elsewhere on the site.

    One perfect example of this is the following search.  At Google.com a search was done for the phrase American Revolution, plus the additional term soldiers. The subsequent list of hits was not exactly what was hoped for, but the first few sites were examined.  One interesting page was "The Revolution's Black Soldiers" by Robert A. Selig. While this site did not supply lists of soldiers to aid in identifying a possible Revolutionary War soldier, the article offers other valuable things. First, it is an informative article about the services that African Americans offered during the Revolutionary War, a subject that many do not even begin to consider, assuming that the only patriots to fight were white.

    Second, at the end of the article, there are many additional links to more information about the African American involvement. There is a link to an abstracted pension file for Jeffery Brace, an African American soldier in the 6th Connecticut Regiment.  Further investigation on a link from this page revealed a digitized version of William C. Nell's Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), which has been made available on the University of North Carolina website.

    Third, the researcher should recognize that the URL might offer more than just information about African American soldiers. The main page welcomes visitors to AmericanRevolution.org, the self-proclaimed “Internet Gateway to the American War of Independence.” Once inside, there is information about all aspects of the war with many links to pages all over the Internet.  Of particular interest at this site are the links to sites that contain information relevant to genealogy.  One that may surprise some researchers is a link to the Revolutionary War Soldiers in Alabama. Of course these individuals have ties to those original thirteen colonies and the information found for each soldier may include the soldier's name, years of birth and death, biography of service (including identification of units), and pension information.

    While it does not offer searchable databases, one website that should not be overlooked is that of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which features a searchable catalog containing the holdings of their impressive library in Washington, DC. In addition to searching for specific books, one of the biggest strengths of the online catalog is the ability to search for surnames within family histories or genealogies in their collection. The library staff makes the effort to identify major families in all family histories and genealogies and then adds the names to the catalog. A search of the Ayer surname here revealed a listing of the Ayer family in Mary Lovering Holman's Ancestry of Charles Stinson Pillsbury and John Sargent Pillsbury, and a chart compiled by Eva Budd Bodens about Robert Ayers, Revolutionary Patriot, born July 4, 1754.  Knowing what may exist enables the researcher to check libraries that more convenient or accessible for the resource.

    Members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society have many databases at their disposal on the NewEnglandAncestors.org website, including military records such as the Massachusetts Pensioners' Receipts, 1799-1807 and 1829-1837, and lists of soldiers, as in the Massachusetts Militia Companies and Officers in the Lexington Alarm database. The ability to search past issues of the Register offers another way to identify an ancestor's possible involvement in the American Revolution.  Some of the more recent database releases including those detailing tombstone inscriptions may also hold clues to the identity of an individual as a soldier during America's fight for independence.

    Most commercial sites will also have some databases devoted to the soldiers of the late 1700s. Remember to consider the source of any compiled database whether available for free or through a commercial site. Consider how the information came to be online and what the potential is for error and remember that such databases may require creative searches in order to find the right names.  Too often such databases have typos that prevent the researcher from identifying their ancestor because the surname or given name is not spelled correctly.

    Keep Looking

    These are but just a few of the places to turn to in search of information about those brave men and women who fought and sometimes sacrificed.  There are many websites available and more coming online every day. If a search does not produce success one day, good researchers know to try again the next.

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