As Judy Benjamin, Goldie Hawn’s character in the film Private Benjamin, found out, military life is all about following the rules. That’s not always true with genealogy, though following a few research conventions is a good way to start.
A relative’s military service holds the promise of detail-filled records about his role in momentous historic events. For example, Roger Johnson, a Family Tree Magazine reader in Temecula, Calif., found anecdotal evidence his third-great-grandfather Levi Williams was a member of a military group called the Legion of the United States (the US Army’s name from 1791 to 1797). But Johnson can’t find records to prove it. To break throught his roadblock, he’ll have to find out more about the particulars — what this group did, when and where it was active, and how his ancestor might’ve come to be a member. Let’s get him started.
Go to the source
When you’re excited over a new family history find, it’s easy to forget a research basic: Verify information that comes from a secondary source-one created after the fact, such as a county history or encyclopedia. Since secondary sources are removed from the time period in question, they’re more likely to contain inaccuracies and are best used as clues for further research.
Williams supposedly served in the Legion with Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne from 1792 to 1794. Johnson’s cousin sent him an old history of Washington Township, Ohio, stating Williams was a “hunter and a lieutenant” who saw service during the War of 1812. Johnson also found mention of Williams’ service in C.P. Sarchet’s History of Guernsey County (Guernsey County Genealogical Society). Both books used quotes from Levi Williams’ eldest son, John, a lifelong resident of Guernsey County.
Johnson should turn his attention to fact-checking that printed secondary source by locating primary sources — for example, a military service record or eyewitness accounts in autobiographies, newspapers or journals.
Take a step back
Now is a good time for Johnson to look for historical background on the Legion of the United States. Not only would it make his family story more interesting, but it could turn up first-person accounts of Williams’ actions on the battlefield in newspapers or private papers of his comrades in arms.
My quick Google <google.com> search of the Web resulted in several hits, including a history, muster lists of men who served in the legion, and other articles at Legion Ville Headquarters <legionville.com>. Johnson had already searched all the links on the site, but didn’t find mention of any Levi Williamses.
I also searched the Web on general anthony wayne. According to the Toledo (Ohio) Metroparks Internet site <www.fallentirnbersbattlefield.com>, in 1794 “Wayne’s force, made up of 1,600 to 1,700 ‘regulars’ and 1,500 members of the Kentucky Militia, marched north from Cincinnati to build a series of forts… Waiting for [them] were about 1,000 warriors led by Miami war chief Little Turtle.” The Legion’s victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers led to the Treaty of Greenville, opening the Northwest Territory to white settlers.
Shoot for service records
Military records are Johnson’s best source for proving his ancestor was part of that momentous battle. He’s already visited the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> in Washington, DC, where he found that 13 men named Levi Williams served during the War of 1812 (he doesn’t recall which record he consulted, though). Two of the men died too early, leaving 11 possibilities for Johnson to investigate.
Knowing two facts will ease the records search: where Johnson’s ancestor lived and which unit (called a sub legion) he served in. According to the Washington Township history, Williams joined the Legion at age 15 in Pittsburgh and served with Col. Ephraim Kibby and Capt. William Wells. Based on this, Johnson should check the Pennsylvania State Archives’ <www.phmc.state.pa.us> Legion-related holdings. State historical societies and archives generally have state militia service records, such as enlistment rolls and payroll lists. Johnson also should seek information on the commanding officers for each Levi Williams he’s identified-their papers might contain details about men in their units. One tactic to try: Adding muster rolls to my Anthony Wayne Google search yielded some of Wayne’s papers <specialcollections.wichita.edu/collectionslmslindex.htmI> (click W, then scroll down) at the Wichita State University Libraries in Kansas.
Most federal military records are at NARA; typing legion of the united states into the Web site’s search box turned up Discharge Certificates and Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Discharge of Soldiers from the Regular Army, 1792-1815 and Records of United States Army Commands, 1784-1821 (both are in record group 98, a collection that isn’t microfilmed). The Index to Compiled Records of Volunteer Soldiers in the War of 1812 (film M602) lists each man’s commanding officer. One of these items may be the source Johnson consulted long ago, but I’d recommend looking again to sharpen that fuzzy memory. (If he can’t return to NARA, he can hire a local researcher or rent microfilm through the Family History Library <www.familysearch.org>.)
Another look for published source scould help, too-since Williams supposedly was a lieutenant, Johnson may find him named in William Powell’s List of Officers of the Army of the United States from 1779 to 1900 (Gale). He also could contact an Army librarian at Carlisle Barracks <www.carlisle.army.mil/library> to ask for research suggestions.
From the May 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.