Was Your Ancestor a Revolutionary War Spy?

In a letter to Ebenezer Hazard on February 18, 1791, Thomas Jefferson said,

…let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the records documenting the “infancy of our country” should be circulated and appreciated. As Archivist of the United States, I am honored to have opportunities to connect people with records and to present copies of original documents to those with a personal connection to the record.

Last month, I had an opportunity to visit a dear friend of mine, Natalie Nicholson. She was the Associate Director of Libraries at MIT when I began my library career shelving books in the Humanities Library. Natalie, who turned 100 this past January, was one of the several strong women who took an interest in my career early in my library life at MIT.  She was a mentor who offered guidance and direction and opened doors for me. During my visit I presented a facsimile of a letter written by her great-great-great grandfather Issac Barker.


Letter from Isaac Barker
(See citation below)

Isaac Barker’s letter is from his Revolutionary War pension file at the National Archives, where there are approximately 80,000 pension applications and bounty-land warrant application files based on participation of American military, naval, and marine officers and enlisted men in the Revolutionary War. These applications were received by the federal government in response to legislation enacted between 1818 and 1878. Pension amounts depended on the serviceman’s military rank and length of service.

Isaac Barker was born in Middletown, Rhode Island in 1752, the sixth generation of Barkers living in the area. In August of 1778 he began conspiring to “furnish regular intelligence” on British troop and ship movements to the Lieutenant in charge of the American regiment at Little Compton — a Revolutionary War spy! His pension application included the map above, which includes a description of “the line of stone wall used for signals to give information to the Americans” of what the British camp was doing on Rhode Island.

Isaac Barker’s letter and pension file represents some of my favorite records at the National Archives. These records are an important source for genealogical research and provide insight into the everyday life of Americans at a time when there were few records. Some records include journals of service and detailed inventories of personal property and worth. Other files contain original family documents to prove relationship to a veteran. Without the benefit of photocopies, individuals sent in marriage certificates, family Bible pages, and needlework samplers. These treasures exist in the records of the National Archives because family members did not realize their documentation in support of their pension claims would not be returned.

What have you discovered in the pension files? In your research at the National Archives, you might be surprised by what you discover.

For More Information:

  • Isaac Barker (R 21772); Case Files of Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Based on Revolutionary War Service; Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

AOTUS Blog Post on the discovery of a Revolutionary War diary in the pension files

NARAtions blogs posts on Revolutionary War pension files:

Prologue articles on Revolutionary War pension files: