Research Your Revolutionary Roots

"Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth." June 1778. Copy of engraving by J. C. Armytage after Alonzo Chappel

The Fourth of July has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1941, but the tradition dates back to the eighteenth century and the American Revolutionary War that began in 1775. Suffice it to say, if your ancestors lived in America between 1775 and 1783, there’s a good chance one of them aided in the struggle for independence by serving in the military.

Men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, although typically born between 1715 and 1767, may have served at some point during the war in either the Continental Army, State Line Troops, or a local militia built up to help the Continental Troops. Those who supported the rebellion may be mentioned in records as a rebel or patriot while loyalists or Tories were those who opposed the rebellion. Discovering this part of your heritage can be fascinating and can leave you feeling proud.

Tracing your lineage back to the 1770s, plus finding evidence of your ancestor’s service, can be a challenge. (That’s 256 sixth great-grandparents!) I always suggest asking relatives first for family lore, photos, or records. Our own family—parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles—can be a great resource of our own family’s history. If you know particular branches in your family tree that have deep roots in the United States/early America, focus your research there, then choose one ancestor to investigate first.  

As you research and work back to this time period, take note of any ancestors with roots in known areas of activity. The next step is to look for evidence of patriotic service.  Some ancestors engaged in the fight for independence by serving in a local or state militia, Army, Navy or by assisting allies. Keep in mind that service to country took many forms such as serving as a town or state official, providing aid to the wounded, furnishing food and supplies, or signing petitions for the cause.

Many people have heard of Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), lineage societies that people can join when they have proven their relationship to a soldier or to someone who had participated in or supported American independence. Obtaining membership can be difficult because of the strict requirements for proving the applicant’s lineage, but if others have applied under your ancestor patriot before, the collections of the SAR or DAR may have what you need to prove one or more generations of your ancestors’ lineage. With so many ancestors, finding a relative who is or was a member of the DAR or SAR is a quick path in the right direction. Find more information at the following sites:

Revolutionary War Graves Registry and Patriot Index (sarpatriots.sar.org) offers an easy-to-search database of those who fought and those who died during the American Revolutionary War.

Daughters of the American Revolution’s Ancestors and Descendants Databases (dar.org) offers a wealth of information about those who served in the Revolutionary War. They also offer a database of more than 7 million descendants of these service members.

United States Revolutionary War pension and bounty land warrant applications, 1800–1900 (FamilySearch.org) Pension applications and bounty land warrants are a wonderful but lesser known resource. Did you know the federal government granted bounty land warrants to Revolutionary War veterans and their heirs? The promise of land during the war was an incentive to join and remain in the military.

With a little patience and a lot of persistence, you can build a tree line that reaches your Revolutionary-era ancestors. Good luck and happy hunting!


Like other soldiers’ wives, Mary followed her husband on campaign, typically performing mundane tasks like washing clothes and sheets. This may have been where the name "Molly Pitcher" originated, as "Molly" was a common nickname for women named Mary, and "pitcher" referred to the buckets of water the women would carry for cleaning. But when William was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth, Mary made the fateful decision to take his place on the artillery piece, watching her husband drill enough in Valley Forge to understand the basics. Soldier and diarist Joseph Plumb Martin attested to her valor, writing how "a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation."

Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. She is a board member and president of the Niagara County Genealogical Society, as well as a guest lecturer and freelance writer. Email questions or comments to noellasdaughter@gmail.com

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