Your Revolutionary War ancestor might not have been as hunky—or as brave—as Mel Gibson in The Patriot, but unlike the actors in that Oscar-nominated movie, our forebears had to dodge actual musket balls and battle real Redcoats. Unlike the characters in 1776, your ancestors probably didn’t find as much time for singing—and may not have signed the Declaration of Independence (though it’s possible!)—yet the genuine patriotic perils they faced may inspire you to belt out a few choruses of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Nothing fills family historians with red-white-and-blue pride quite like uncovering an ancestor who participated in the Revolutionary War. Whether your 18th-century family members were Founding Fathers or merely corporals in the Continental army—or kept the home front warm for those who were—they helped forge a new nation. Even if your ancestors didn’t think a split with England was such a good idea, learning about their lives during that revolutionary time can bring the invention of America out of the dust of history books and into reality.
You may dream of joining the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Or maybe you’re just trying to break through a brick wall that’s blocking your research right around 1776. You might even want to immerse yourself in the social history of the Revolutionary era—much as the makers of films such as The Patriot must do—and re-create the stories of your own ancestral patriots. Whatever your goal, with the wealth of resources available at libraries and online, it’s probably easier than you think.
Relearning Revolutionary history
First, though, you need to clear your mind of everything you learned in school (or at the movies) about the Revolutionary War period, and abandon your contemporary perspective. By eliminating any assumptions and relearning history, you won’t overlook any clues. Thomas L. Purvis’ Revolutionary America, 1763 to 1800 (Facts On File, $95) will help you fill in a timeline of events happening before, during and after the war—to provide you with information on your ancestors’ daily lives. Another good resource, The American Revolution by David F. Burg (Facts On File, $75), concentrates on events and major personalities; it also includes some first-person accounts. This background information will help you find out what was going on in the area where your ancestor lived.
Don’t concentrate on men and soldiers when researching your Revolutionary roots, either. “Remember the ladies,” wrote Abigail Adams to her husband, John, and that’s good advice for you, too. Perhaps your female ancestor contributed to the war effort by supplying goods, following the troops to take care of laundry or keeping the family farm in working order. Other women actually served as soldiers—Deborah Sampson, for example, disguised her sex and ultimately received a pension for her efforts.
Make sure you don’t skip ancestors who, by today’s standards, might have been too young or too old at the time to join the cause. Most enlisted men were between the ages of 16 and 60, but that didn’t dissuade younger and older men from signing on—drummer boys as young as 12 accompanied the troops. You might be surprised to discover your ancestral patriots were just children like Mary Redmond, John Darragh or James Forten. Redmond and Darragh were spies, and Forten was a privateer. Joseph Plumb Martin was only 14 when he enlisted—enticed by patriotism and payment of a silver dollar.