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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding Military Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

October 07, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

In the course of history, there have been wars and more wars. And many of our ancestors have been involved in them. They have bravely fought for their homeland, or for an as yet unknown land to be created. And for genealogists, these wars have generated records.

While none of us can remember a period in time when our government was not dutifully recording our every waking breath, in the United States some of the earlier records are not as useful as we have come to expect in government records. In fact, this can be seen as you look at the changes that have taken place in the passenger lists and census records over the years. Now if only the records will continue to record all the valuable information, we will continue to find them of use.

Military records may hold the key to your ancestors heritage.

Different Types of Military Records

In the United States, throughout the years, there have been records generated to track the involvement of soldiers in the military, as well as pensions paid after service. Each of the different types of records offers us, as researchers, a different view into the individual. The records used most often by genealogists are:

  • Service Records
  • Pension Records
  • Bounty Land Records

Each of these records will have different information. Some of it will be more useful than some of the other information. Another factor that will alter the information you might find is the time period. There are three historical periods of military activity in the United States that are significant to genealogists. These are: the Colonial period, pre-1775; early US, 1775-1900; and modern US, 1900 to the present. And in each of these times there were likely to be some different records. However, we will look at the major groups that researchers use.

Service Records

Service records consist of those records generated during the time of service of a soldier. Some of the types of papers found in the service records include:

  • Enlistment papers
  • Discharge papers
  • Muster rolls
  • Attendance reports
  • Activity reports

Pension Records

For genealogists, the pension records usually turn out to be the most valuable. It is these records that will often have copies of bible records or interviews with witnesses that detail the dates and places of marriage and birth of children or of the soldier.

Pensions could be sought by the soldier himself, his widow or his heirs. They applied for the pension to request assistance due to age, injury, sickness, incapacitation or death. These records often provide the veteran's date and place of birth and death; marriage information and the maiden name of his wife; and information about his children, parents and other relatives. Sometimes these records provide detailed biographical, medical and historical information.

Bounty Land Records

As payment for their services, some of the soldiers, especially in the American Revolution, were entitled to Bounty Land. The files for the bounty land include many of the same types of records and information you find in pension records.

In Conclusion

To order these records, you need to use the NATF 80 Form from the National Archives. You can request copies of this form be mailed to you via e-mail by visiting the National Archives Web site. You will want to be sure to request both service records and pension records. However, to do this will require two separate forms. Each request must be separate. Also, when requesting these records, be sure to write on the top of the form, COPY ALL FILES, so that the National Archives sends copies of the complete file, rather than just parts of it.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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