Today, digital humanities projects abound, and offer scholars and students new ways of understanding the past, present, and future. Charles A. Sherrill, the State Librarian and Archivist with the Tennessee State Library and Archives, headed up one such project. Patriot Paths maps the movement of veterans from North Carolina and Virginia (as well as around the rest of the continent and Atlantic World) to Tennessee after the American War of Independence. The project identifies approximately 1,200 veterans of the revolutionary war who received a pension while living in Tennessee and traces their movement using ArcGIS. Here is our interview:
Bryan Banks (BB): Can you tell our readers about the impetus for this project? What led you/your office to this particular project?
Charles A. Sherrill (CS): Back in the early 1980s I became fascinated with the Revolutionary War pension application files, which my library in Cleveland, Ohio, owned on microfilm. I used them to track down nearly 100 pensioners who at some point lived in Franklin County, Tenn., including some of my own ancestors. Studying that large group of pensions together made me realize how many of those men had moved frequently during their lives, and revealed some patterns that left me curious.
The Tennessee State Library & Archives, where I currently work, has done some good work with GIS mapping of Civil War sites and Emancipation-era settlements. The easy availability of Revolutionary War pension files today through digital genealogy sites made me think of expanding my earlier pension project. Combining the two types of projects to create Patriot Paths was the result.
BB: Can you tell us a little more about these pension documents? What information did they include? Was there anything missing from the sources that might have helped your project?
CS: In 1818 Congress provided pensions for Revolutionary War soldiers who had served for at least nine months in the Continental Line. Even though this was 35 years after the war ended, more than 18,000 men applied. Congress quickly became worried that they couldn’t afford the pension program, and in 1820 required every pensioner to submit information showing he was needy. Several thousand were dropped from the pension rolls.
By 1832 many of those old soldiers were gone, and Congress was feeling more generous. Pensions were offered to soldiers who had served for at least two years in State Militias. This was a larger group, and many more men from the southern states qualified. Remember that this was nearly 50 years after the war ended, so Congress didn’t expect many applicants. But another 33,000 men were pensioned under this law. In 1836 widows were first eligible for pensions, based on their husbands’ service.
The application papers submitted by these veterans and widows are very interesting. Since this was before the advent of pre-printed forms, each applicant told the story of his service in his own way. They often gave their date and place of birth, told where they were living when they enlisted (and under what officers), where they marched and fought, and where they had lived since the war ended. Although these are legal documents written with the formality of the time, one can get a sense of the veterans and widows who were telling their stories.
Many application files mention family members and provide personal information. My own ancestor, Burwell Thompson, said that he was drafted in the place of his older brother, William. Burwell describes burning Cherokee Indian towns and taking the scalps of the natives. A younger brother, Stephen, testified in support of Burwell’s application in 1832. Sophia Hise, supporting the application of her widowed sister, Evy Awalt, recalled going with Evy and soldier Michael Awalt to see them married by Parson Wirtman in 1778.
Accounts of a soldier’s experiences in the war are often tangled. Many militia men served 3 or 6 month stints one after another, under a variety of captains and colonels. One gets the strong sense of citizen-soldiers going off to do their duty and returning home to plant or harvest a crop and see to their family before marching off again. After so many years, not all the veterans could remember every term of service.
Culling information for our Patriot Paths project out of these files was not an easy matter. If the information had been arranged on a form in lines and columns it would have been easier to abstract, but so many small details and historical facts would have been omitted. The narrative tone of the applications creates a rich trove for the historian and genealogist.
BB: It seems like these pension records would also contain quite a bit of information about settler colonialism in Tennessee, especially in regards to the Native American population. How does this project capture those voices? Do the pension records relay any information about slavery?
CS: Because of the free-style narratives found in the pension files, mentions of Native Americans and slaves are sprinkled throughout the files. Feeling at the time against Native Americans ran strong, as foreign powers often incited Natives to attack white settlements. Indeed, many soldiers in the South felt that the war was as much against Native Americans as it was against British soldiers. Mentions of attacking Cherokee settlements, burning their towns and destroying their crops, are frequently found in the files of Tennessee pensioners.
In 1820, when Congress required all the pensioners to prove they were needy, one of the concerns was that no one who owned slaves should be on the pension rolls. The testimony of pensioner William Coats of Nashville speaks to this: “My occupation has been that of a planter, which I am now unable through age and infirmity to pursue any longer. My family consists of myself and wife, and we subsist at present upon the bounty of our son, Austin Coates, who has no family of his own, who is the owner of two slaves and a fine house, but who is about to leave this State and fix his residence in Virginia. . . .”
Extracting information about enslaved people and Native Americans was not part of our project, but an excellent resource for doing research on the file is a private website titled “Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements.” The owner of this site has worked with a group of volunteers to transcribe pension applications of more than 25,000 veterans from southern states. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all the information, but it provides a huge amount of searchable data.
Please keep in mind that both our Patriot Paths project and the Southern Campaigns project are focused on the applications filed by soldiers and widows. Most Revolutionary War pension files contain additional paperwork, such as affidavits sworn in support of an application, or letters from applicants and their attorneys to the pension office. Many more details can be found in these papers (which are included in the digital version of the files on Fold3.com). It’s quite possible that some of the files contain affidavits by slaves helping to prove a veteran’s service, though I do not recall seeing one myself.
BB: My next question concerns the widows that filed for pensions. Where are their voices represented on the site?
CS: Widow’s pension files were included in the abstracts for the Patriot Paths project. However, the information is entered under the soldier’s name. If you open the Patriot List tab and read down the list of soldiers, you will see that some of their pension file numbers begin with W. Those are the migration paths which are based on widow’s pension applications. Examples at the top of the list include James Aiken and Early Albertson. Soldiers making application for a pension were not asked to give information about their marriage. For widows, however, that was a critical part of the proof they presented to the pension examiners. You will notice that James Aiken’s path includes his marriage in Lancaster Dist., South Carolina in 1808, and Early Albertson’s references his 1780 marriage in Guilford County, North Carolina. Marriages are indicated on the map by a yellow dot. The widow’s name is not included in the Patriot Paths data.
BB: Do you plan to make the narratives that went along with the metadata represented in the project available to the public? They would be great to read and would be incredibly useful, if digitized, alongside the project you’ve published.
CS: The pension application files are now widely available, thanks to digitization projects and the internet. Most research libraries have a subscription to either Heritage Quest or Fold3 where visitors can access the full pension files. Brief abstracts of the files have been published in four huge volumes (Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files by Virgil White, 1990). The Southern Campaigns website I mentioned earlier is a huge searchable trove of pension information. Our purpose was not to replicate any of these sources, but to focus on the migration data in a tool that allows users to sort and view the information according to their interests. We went directly to the original (digitized) documents to pull out the migration data, rather than using any transcription. We are archivists, and we believe in going to the primary source wherever possible. We hope users of Patriot Paths will do the same, and will learn even more about our Revolutionary War ancestors as they delve into the full pension files.