June 18, 2012–the anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war against Great Britain–marked the official start of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. To help celebrate that anniversary and bring attention to one of America’s lesser known conflicts, let’s take a look at some of the records of that war, starting with an essential and perennial favorite: the War of 1812 pension application files.
Everyone generally knows by now that pension files offer some of the most fruitful information available for genealogy, and the 1812 files are no exception. Applications files by veterans of the war often contain details about their military service, sometimes even minute tidbits that don’t show up in their compiled service records. Something I discovered in the pension for my own 1812 ancestor, Daniel Heilman, who served in the 71st Regiment of Pennsylvania Militia, was that he claimed to have been “drafted” into the service–I suspect he probably meant “enlisted” since there was no formal military draft in the U.S. until the Civil War–and that he marched down to Marcus Hook below Philadelphia in the fall of 1814 to help repel a suspected landing of British troops. None of that is mentioned in his service record, but Daniel’s pension has it in his own words!
The applications for widows and dependents often prove to be even more valuable, because they had to prove their relationship to the deceased veteran. In those cases, personal family documents, such as marriage certificates, baptismal records, and even pages taken from family Bibles were sent in as evidence and became part of the official record. The applicants had no idea they would never get those precious family records back, and so the pension files often provide the only available source to locate such missing records.
The 1812 pension files are formally part of Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the series “War of 1812 Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files” (RG 15, Entry 22; NARA ID 564415), and include over 180,000 case files relating to claims based on service between 1812 and 1815. Until recently, the only way to research these records was to visit the National Archives in person or request a copy of the file through the mail. A massive digitization project is now underway, sponsored jointly by the National Archives, the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), and Ancestry.com, to put color scans of these files on Fold3.com. About 3% of the files (over 250,000 documents) have been scanned so far, and you can follow the progress and view the posted images on Fold3. Digitization offers an invaluable way to improve access to important historical resources, so please check back often on the 1812 pensions, browse the files, and learn the wonderful stories they hold about America’s “Second War of Independence”!