What’s a whaleboat – and why does it matter to my Revolutionary War ancestors?

Used in whaling, a whale boat was a small vessel of about 30 ft with a crew of 6. The New Bedford Whaling Museum has an excellent description. During the American Revolution, they were used not for whaling but for raiding.

The best know examples occurred between Connecticut and Long Island. Sometimes called the Whaleboat War, this group of raids had British and Americans attacking shoreline settlements in search of supplies, reloading them into whaleboats and selling them upon return to their home locale. The Americans were well known for depriving the British Army of Long Island’s cattle herds in this way.

To learn more, Dr. Joanne S. Grasso, The American Revolution on Long Island (Charleston: History Press, 2016), 50, 51, 76.

What was the Loyalists Claims Commission?

The American Loyalists Claim Commission was a commission created by the British government to address claims of property damage by loyalists during the American Revolution. Established by act of parliament in July 1783, the commission paid out its final claims in 1789 ( Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Albert A. Knopf, 2011), 121, 142). Because of a high requirement for detailed records and legal documentation of claims, women and people of color tended to receive lower pay outs (Liberty’s Exiles, 134-135).

The records of the commission are held by the UK’s National Archives. The catalog entry for the collection can be viewed here. Records from the collection have been digitized by Ancestry and can be accessed through their “UK, American Loyalist Claims, 1776-1835,” database (subscription required).

Militia or Continental Line?

Land was the biggest driver behind your (non-officer) ancestor’s decision to serve in the militia versus on the Continental Line. In the colonies, land ownership was heavily tied to agriculture. Farming requires oversight, especially New England’s smaller farms. A farm owner would have wanted to onsite as much as possible. Militia service demanded – at most – a few months away from the farm. Continental Line service tended to require years: some served up to 6. If your ancestor was not an officer, they likely joined for the advantages of a steady paycheck and a chance to save some money in addition to patriot sentiment. Continental Line soldiers tended to be poorer than those of the militia.

This pattern tells us where to look for the records of the Revolution’s less wealthy veterans. Men of color and those white men without land tend to have served in the Continental Army. Many should be documented in muster rolls, bounty land grants, pensions, and other records of the Continental Line.

Danbury, the American Revolution, and missing Connecticut records…

If you go to review the Danbury, Connecticut records on FamilySearch , you’ll note that many of the records seem to begin in the late 18th century even though the town was settled by Europeans in 1685. There is records loss in records typically held by the town clerk. Why? According to the town clerk’s office, there was a fire in 1777.

That fire was the result of the American Revolution. In April 1777, the British marched on Danbury in hopes of attacking the military supplies stored there. When they realized they could not remove the supplies, they set them on fire – along with twenty four homes. In colonial Connecticut, the town clerk’s records were stored in the clerk’s home, which apparently was one of those burned.

So, what can you do if your ancestors were among those whose records burned? You may be able to draw some conclusions from records that did survive, but you’ll need to act as you would with a burned county in the American South. Use every available source and every available bit of evidence.

I’d like to apply to the Mayflower Society – but I have a budget. Is there anything I can do to save money?

Mayflower Society applications can get expensive. I get it. Not only are you dealing with the application fees, you may have certificate costs of several hundred dollars – and that’s before you decided to hire help from a professional genealogist.

If you have a budget, there are a few things you can do to make the process less expensive:

  1. Don’t apply on a whim: It can be easy to believe you have Mayflower ancestry simply based on the family story. Unfortunately, not all of them are true. Sometimes you’re just chasing down the wrong branch of your tree; sometimes your family has claimed someone of the same name. As most societies require a preliminary application fee, doing some advance research to ensure that your line is likely accurate can save some money.
  2. Do Mayflower Lineage Match: The Mayflower Society offers a way to check to see what information is already on file – and thus, what documents you would not need to provide again. There is a fee, but it’s equivalent to about three certificates. If it turns out someone’s already documented your entire line, it will be a big money saver.
  3. Don’t buy certified copies unless you have to. GSMD does not require certified copies. Older vital records are often available through online databases. Use Ancestry for Pennsylvania records; FamilySearch has many others.
  4. Ask questions: Sometimes you only need help with a single issue. Ask – and be up front about budget. For short questions, a historian may be able to assist or refer you to a professional. (If it will only take me a few minutes to answer an email, I can often answer a quick question for free.)

Happy hunting!

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 (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime/navy.htm: 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 (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/publications/publications-by-subject/naval-documents-of-the-american-revolution.html: 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!