Citizen archivists race time to transcribe Revolutionary Veterans’ untold stories

WASHINGTON — In 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War, most of the first veterans of the United States of America returned home with little more than a tattered uniform and a signed paper of discharge, according to the Museum of the American Revolution. Some didn’t even bring their muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes because most of the Continental Army’s weapons remained government property after the war.

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The government had no money to pay the men who had won its independence. It allowed some of the veterans to keep their weapons and equipment, though many were so broke they had to sell them to make their way back home. The rest had nothing except promises.

The Continental Congress had promised them land as a reward for their service. They were owed back pay, and they had paper currency and promissory notes of full payment in their pockets, but they didn’t know if those would ever be worth anything. They did not know if they would receive a pension, or if there would be chances of employment back home the Musem reported. Most had entered the army as teenagers and in their early 20s, and many had no skills that would get them a job.

Telling Revolutionary War veterans’ stories

Tunis Cole was an old man when he wrote to the U.S. government asking for help. He cited laws passed in the 1800s made to create a pension for him and his fellow veterans, USA Today reported.

“…That having been encouraged to do so, (Cole) prays Government to look favorably upon his claims and grant him something to relieve his wants and give him comfort in this Autumn of his Earthly existence, that he may close his eyes in gratitude upon a nation upon whose altar of Freedom he has devoted many of the best years of his youth…”

His application, like hundreds of others was written by hand, some by the vets themselves, some by their widows, sometimes by friends who helped the old men who answered the call to take up arms and fight for their country.

Because record-keeping was so poor, vets had to include documents and information that proved their service “-- their units, their deployments, their leaves, their comrades in arms and their commanding officers, the places they fought, and even the horrors they witnessed,” Larimer County Genealogical Society reported.

The National Park Service and the National Archives are issuing another call to arms to Americans, asking for citizen archivists to help turn the country’s original veterans’ “applications into a massive database − and help reveal their extraordinary and untold stories,” USA Today reported.

About 2 million pages of handwritten pension applications from the Revolutionary War have already been scanned and digitalized. Organizers want a database that can be searched by battles, names, dates and more, according to Larimar County Genealogical Society.

There is much work to be done. Jason Wickersty of the park service said 52,360 pages have been transcribed and 1,602 pensions completed. Some applications are a couple of pages, some stretch to more than 100 pages The numbers include African Americans and Native Americans who fought for the Continental Army.

How to volunteer as a transcriptionist for the U.S. Archives

To volunteer to join the special project, go to Citizen Activist Missions at, and click on “Join the Transcription Record.” You can also join other transcription efforts featured there, among them, UFO reports, African American patriots, Inmate histories, and World War II oral histories, interviews and statements, among many others.

The hope is to transcribe as many of the Revolutionary War documents as possible and build the searchable database, by 2026, the 250th anniversary of The American Revolution.

More on the Revolutionary War transcription mission.

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