Saluting Military Ancestors

From the American Revolution to the present, Americans have served their country through military and patriotic service. The records they created are a cornerstone of family history research

As we once again approach our nation’s birthday celebration on July 4, it’s a great time to review the contributions of our military ancestors. We are normally aware when spouses, siblings, parents, and grandparents performed military service, but often we don’t know about more distant relatives who served.

Here’s a quick summary of American military actions–check for military service for ancestors of military age–generally teens through forties–during these conflicts.

    • 1775-1783–American Revolution. Military actions took place from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown in all areas of the colonies, including the western frontier areas. Ancestors serving in the military–continental and state–left traces in service records, muster rolls, pensions, and compensation records. They may have received or applied for bounty land from federal or state governments. Those who were still living in 1840 should be listed in federal census records (whether they were heads of household or not).
    • 1812-1815–War of 1812. Most Americans know about the siege of Baltimore and the burning of Washington, and they may know about the famous frigate actions that took place during this war, but the threat of British military action affected virtually all areas of the country. Serving ancestors left traces in service records, muster rolls, pensions, and bounty land records.
    • 1811-1858–Indian Wars. These include the battles in the Northwest Territory (Indiana), the three Seminole Wars (Florida area), the Creek War (Alabama area), the Black Hawk War (Illinois, Wisconsin), the Navajo Wars (New Mexico, Arizona), and the Yakima Wars (Washington, Oregon, Idaho). Serving ancestors left service, pension, and bounty land records in federal and state sources.
    • 1846-48–Mexican-American War (Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, California). Serving ancestors left service records, pension files, bounty land, and other records.
    • 1861-1865–Civil War. Although most military action took place in southern and border states and Pennsylvania, soldiers and sailors from all areas of the country served. Look for records from the country’s first draft registration, service records, and pension records. A special veterans census was conducted in 1890; veterans census records for the District of Columbia, Kentucky, and states alphabetically following Kentucky survived the general destruction of the 1890 census records.
    • 1865-1900–Indian Wars. These include the Sioux and Cheyenne Wars (Dakotas and Montana), the Apache Wars (Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico), the Modoc War (California), and the Nez Perce Wars (Idaho and Montana).
    • 1898-1902–Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection. Look for service and pension records at the state and federal levels. Veterans should be identified in the 1930 census; one of the supplemental questions in the 1940 census also asked about military service.
    • 1917-1918–World War I. Records of the three World War I drafts encompass virtually all men aged between twenty-one and forty-five in 1917 and 1918–about 24,000,000 men born between about 1873 and about 1901. World War I servicemen left service records, although up to 80% were lost in the 1972 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. Many states conducted special military censuses or offered bonuses to veterans, and World War I service should be recorded in the 1930 census.
    • 1941-1945–World War II. More than 20,000,000 men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four registered for the draft. Other records include enlistment records, service records (again affected by the 1972 fire), casualty records, and bonus records.
    • 1950-1953–Korean War. More than 300,000 Americans, including many World War II veterans, served under arms. Look for service records, casualty records, and bonuses. Access to service records may be restricted to veterans and next of kin because of privacy concerns.
    • 1954-1975–Vietnam War. More than 500,000 Americans served during this war. Because of privacy concerns, access to service records is restricted to veterans and next of kin. Look for casualty and burial records.

For information on specific wars and records, start with the Ancestry and FamilySearch wikis. The following books will also help you find more about your ancestors’ military service:

James C. Neagles. U.S. Military Records: a Guide to Federal & State Sources, Colonial America to the Present. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1994.

Christine Rose. Military Pension Laws, 1776-1858.San Jose, California: Rose Family Association, 2001.

Christine Rose. Military Bounty Land, 1776-1855.San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2011.