The Continental Navy: a timeline

Important Dates in the History of the Navy

  • 26 Aug 1775: Creation of the Rhode Island State Navy.
  • 5 Sep 1775: Commissioning of the Hanna, officially under the control of the Army.
  • 13 Oct 1775: The Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of two ships, for “intercepting vessels coming out with stores and ammunition.” This date is recognized as the birth date of the American Navy.
  • 18 Feb 1776: The first American Squadron launched.
  • 1779: Famous defeat of the Serapis by John Paul Jones.
  • 1783: Disbanding of the Continental Navy.

Governance of the Navy:

  • Jan 1776-Dec 1779: Marine Committee
  • 28 Oct 1779-1781: Board of Admiralty
  • 1781: Department of the Marine

Records of these organizations can be found in the Journals of the Continental Congress and the Papers of the Continental Congress.


  • John Lehman, On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 14, 32-33.
  • Craig L. Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5-6.
  • George C. Daughan, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy – From the Revolution to the War of 1812 (New York, Basic Books, 2008), 203.
  • “U.S. Navy,” Maritime History of Massachusetts ( accessed 16 November 2022).

Resources on the Continental Navy

Do you have ancestors who served in Continental Navy?

These books can help you learn more about their experience:


  • John Lehman, On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 14, 32-33.
  • Craig L. Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5-6.
  • George C. Daughan, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy – From the Revolution to the War of 1812 (New York, Basic Books, 2008), 203.
  • “Naval Documents of the American Revolution,” Naval History and Heritage Command ( accessed 15 November 2022).


  • Fanning, Nathaniel. Sailing Under John Paul Jones: The Memoir of Continental Navy Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, 1778-1783. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2020.
  • The American Navies of the Revolutionary War. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974.
  • Zeinert, Karen, ed. The Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne: Patriot and Privateer of the American Revolution. Hamden, CT: Linnet Books, 1993.

What is the Court of Appeal in Cases of Capture?

Privateers played a major role in American naval activities during the American Revolution. With permission from the government, privately owned ships could attempt to capture an enemy ship. If the capture was judged to be legal, the contents and ship would be sold – and the profits redistributed to the crew.

At the start of the Revolution, most of the captures were judged on the colony or state level. The Continental Congress gave the right of appeals to the federal system on 25 November 1775 but never set up a formal court. On January 1780, the Continental Congress established a court of “trial of all appeals from the courts of admiralty” to serve as the final appeal. Later called the Court of Appeal in Cases of Capture, it remained active until 1786 or 1787.

The records of this court have been digitized and are available on Fold3. The Wikipedia article on this topic is excellent.

My ancestors are from Fairfield County, Connecticut. Do I have Mayflower ancestors?

This question comes up far more frequently then I would have expected – and the answer is, unfortunately, generally no.


In the 1600s, there were many more colonies in New England than states existing today. Much of Fairfield County fell under the political jurisdiction of New Haven Colony and the commercial realm of New Netherlands. Neither colony had similar political or social views to Plymouth. In typical settings, they generally would not have interacted.

Remember, ancestors don’t have to arrive on the Mayflower to have a fascinating history!

Can the Connecticut freeman’s oath be considered an oath of allegiance for a Revolutionary War lineage society?

To vote in colonial and early Republican Connecticut, you had to be a “freeman” (typically a white male, over the age of 21, holding land) and to have taken the freeman’s oath to uphold local government.

In October 1776, the state changed the wording on the oath, making it a clear statement of loyalty:

You A.B. do swear by the ever-living God that you will truly and faithfully adhere to and maintain the government established in this State under the authority of the people, agreeable to the laws in force within the same; and that you believe in your conscience that the King of Great Britain hath not, nor of right ought to have, any authority or dominion in or over this State; and that you do not hold yourself bound to yield any allegiance or obedience to him within the same; and that you will, to the utmost of your power, maintain and defend the freedom, independence, and privileges of this state against all open enemies or traitorous conspiracies whatsoever: So help you God.

Charles J. Hoadly, Public Records of the State of Connecticut from October, 1776 to February, 1778 inclusive (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1894), 5; digital images, HathiTrust ( : accessed 3 November 2022).

This new oath required freeman to swear allegiance to what the king of England would have considered a rebellion – and should be considered as a loyalty oath by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.

Would receipt of property in the suffers’ lands be considered evidence of qualifying service for the Sons or the Daughters of the American Revolution?

Maybe, with many caveats, including that acceptance of service is at the discretion of the organization.

First of all, what were the Suffers’ Lands? In 1792, the state of Connecticut acquiesced to repeated petitions from those who had lost property due to damage by the British and granted them a share of the Connecticut Western Reserve. This area became known as the Suffers’ Lands or Fire Lands and is now known as the Firelands. A list of those eligible for shares appears in the Public Records of the State of Connecticut volume covering that year.

Why the caveats?

First, it’s not entirely clear under which category this service would fall. The Daughters of the American Revolution lists “refugees from occupying forces” on its list of accepted service. Those who lost property to the British were refugees, but very temporary ones. British incursions into Connecticut were very short lived. Although they resulted in significant damage, they typically only lasted a day or two. An opinion would be required as to whether damage from raids would fall under this category.

Second, the person named on the Suffers’ Lands list may not be the actual property owner. By 1792, some had died and the state considered their heir/heirs to be entitled to damages instead. Some research would be required to confirm whether the qualifying individual was the owner or the heir.

In short, the Suffers’ Lands applicants may qualify for Revolutionary War service, provided that it can be documented that the applicant was the one living during the American Revolution – but the decision will rest in the hands of the Society.

Common Migration Patterns

You’ve gotten your ancestor back to the 1820s – and gotten stuck. You’re pretty sure the family had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. How do you find them?

Pay attention to migration patterns. While it’s little discussed in our study of American history, your ancestors weren’t settling randomly. Instead, they were following others into new regions and new communities. By look at where your ancestors lived, you may be able to determine where your family originated.

How do you determine migration patterns? There are a few options. First, look for local histories. They may mention that many of the early settlers arrived from one town or region. Second, at the history of the period your ancestors arrived. In the years immediately following the American Revolution, bounty land served as a major driver of new European settlement. Finally, look at your ancestors’ own land records: you may be able to use them to build a timeline.

Happy hunting!

County or no county?

“Shouldn’t you be listing the county on the lineage society application?”

This question has been coming up a lot recently as I’ve been preparing applications. Under the current guidelines for most societies, the answer is yes – but only if the document lists the county.

Here’s the reasoning.

The listing of counties was standard up until 5-6 years ago, if I’m remembering correctly. Most states use a county system, so it made some level of sense to require counties be included. If someone has been preparing applications for a while, they may still teach or use this method by default.

However, societies now discourage automatically listing counties for the one simple reason: it’s very easy to list the wrong county. County borders change, so the county for that location in 1785 may not be the county today. Some states have completely discontinued their county system. If you list today’s county, you’re making it harder for future researchers by pointing them in the wrong direction.

If the document lists a county on it, feel free to use it. The notation was created at the time and should reflect the existing system. Otherwise, please skip adding the county to your application!

I’m ordering vital records for my lineage society application. Do I need a certified copy?

The answer to this one is straightforward: no. Some states require you to purchase a certified copy every time you want to request a certificate. However, it’s not required by any lineage society of which I’m aware. If an information copy is offered, go ahead and get it…

And before you order anything, be sure to check what’s digitized and available online. For Pennsylvania, start with The site has many vital records for the early 1900s. The Rhode Island State Archives is now a record goldmine. Finally, FamilySearch is always a wonderful option. Yes, you can use digitized records for applications!