I’ve recently taken a deep dive into the Revolutionary War pension file of Robert Shaw, my 5th great-grandfather.
Born about 1755, his parentage is unknown. He may have been a Scottish, Irish or British immigrant. He is first found in Guilford County, North Carolina, relocating to Sumner County, Tennessee about 1786 along the Red River.
While in Guilford County, Robert married Elizabeth “Eliza” Hamilton, the daughter of a neighbor, Thomas Hamilton and his wife Jane McCracken, immigrants from Ulster.
Robert died on 31 December 1830, in his sixties, but Elizabeth lived to be 101 years old. This gave her plenty of time to pester the U.S. government for military pension benefits, as we shall see.
Elizabeth first filed for a pension in January of 1840 when she was about 80 years old. She did not have any documentary evidence of Robert’s service, so instead she rounded up an impressive array of depositions from relatives and former neighbors from her days in Guilford County, over fifty years beforehand. Elderly veterans from as far as North Carolina, Kentucky, and Illinois contributed first-hand accounts of Robert Shaw’s service.
One deposition was from Benjamin Garrett, then of Fayette County, Tennessee, who swore that he was “well-acquainted” with Robert Shaw,
…who was enlisted in the armey of revolution in the North Carolina line for a term of three years…in Captain John Nelson’s company in Col Alexander Martin’s regiment…in which Robert Shaw was an acting Sargent in the Recruiting Department and while this regiment was in the north Robert Shaw was Discharged and returned him to Guilford County North Carolina.
The same Robert Shaw again enlisted for the term of nine months in ? of troops called the ? in the North Carolina Li—and while the same Robt Shaw was in the Line of his Duty in nine months tower [tour] Robt Shaw and ? was both at Brier Creek and I know he served this nine months tower fully out
and afterwards ?? with the same Robt Shaw in the armey and in Col Davises regiment of horsemen and in Capn Gillespie’s company this armey of men engaged in Battle with the enemy at ?? in Mecklenburg County North Carolina and we again engaged in battle with the enemy at Sharlot (Charlotte) in the same state + county the enemy was commanded by Lord Reden and afterward genl green engaged in battle with Lord Cornwallis at guildford Courthouse and said Robt Shaw was there engaged in battle and acted Bravely
also the same Robt Shaw was again engaged in Battel at the R? [Raft] Swamp. in all the above named Battels this Soldier Robert Shaw was both Brave and Obediant and generally acted in the armey as an Uncommissioned officer.
I ? ? do firmly believe that this same Robt Shaw as well Deserved his full pay for his service as any man whatever I also do know that Robt Shaw was in service untill the war ended
From this and other depositions, we know that Robert Shaw served first in Captain Nelson’s Company of Colonel Alexander Martin’s Regiment. This is a bit unclear, because there is no Captain Nelson listed under Martin’s Regiment. However, a Captain John Nelson is associated with the 4th North Carolina Regiment, along with Martin. So, it seems likely that Robert Shaw served in the 4th, part of the Continental Line, under this Captain John Nelson.
He was discharged and re-enlisted for another nine months with an unknown company, fighting on 3 March 1779 at the Battle of Brier Creek. In 1780 he served with Captain William Bethel’s Company in Colonel William Brannon’s North Carolina Regiment.
He enlisted again for at least one more tour, and fought in the Continental Line (regular army) with Captain Daniel Gillespie’s Light Horse Company at the Battle of Charlotte (Mecklenburg Court House) on 15 March 1781 at the pivotal Battle of Guilford Court House, and finally at the Battle of Raft Swamp on 15 October 1781. Robert remained in service “until Cornwallis was taken” which would have been at the Battle of Yorktown on 19 October 1781.
Other witnesses recount that Shaw “spoke often” of his service. A summary version of the file written in 1937 includes the fun fact that he was “at that time known as “Chunky Bob Shaw!”
In July 1840, Elizabeth appeared before a Justice of the Peace to make her own declaration.
State of Tennessee
Samuel Kirkpatrick jurat
On this 4 day of July 1840 personally appeared before me one of the acting Justices of the Peac in and for said County Elizabeth Shaw a resident of said County Aged Eighty-five years who being first Duley Sworen acording to Law Doth on her oath make the folowing Declaration in order the obtain the benefit of the provision maid by the act of Congress past July the 4 1836 that she is the widow of Robert Shaw who was a Soldier in the North carolina Line in the war of the revolution and served as folows
“that her husband the said Robert Shaw Entered the servis in the year seventeen hundred and seventy five as an Enlisted Soldier in the regular army for a tour of two years in Captain Smith’s Company of the fourth regimet and was Discharged on the tenth of August seventeen hundred and seventy seven the said Robert Shaw was then Living in Guilford County North carolina
that in the year seventy Eight or seventy Nine he again Entered the servis in what was called the New Lines (?) for a tower of Nine Months but this Declarant dos not recolect whether it was as a Volunteer or as a Militiaman Neither dose she recolect the Names of any of the officers that he was under the Tourr but she was informed by her husband the said Shaw that whilst he was out in the Tower he was in the Battle of Brier Creeke
after this Tower he returned home to gilford County and in the year seventeen hundred and Eighty the said Robert Shaw entrd the servis as a substitute for one Moses McLain for a Tour of three months as a militia man but she does not recolect his officers names but understood from him that he was at the Battle at Charlott
and after he returned home from this Tour he remaind some time During which time the said Robert Shaw and this Declarant was Maried and immediately after we were married the said Robert Shaw entered the servis in a Light Horse Companey Comanded by Captain Daniel gillespie and that her husband then living in guilford County and was shortly afterward marched to guilford Courthouse and was in that battle after which Time the said Robert Shaw continued in Servis untill after Conrwallice was Taken after which time he returned home
she further Declares that she was married to the said Robert Shaw on the ____ Day of December in the year Seventeen hundred and Eighty [note: date of the bond was 20 May 1779] that her husband the aforesaid Robert Shaw Died in the 31st day of December on thousant eight hundred and thirty and she has remained a Widow ever since that ? as will more fully appear by reference to the proof hereto anexd
She further Declares that she has no Documentary Evidence in support of her Claim that her family record that showed the Dait of her marriage and the Berths of her Children was Burnt several years ago that her first child was born on the 17 July 1782.
Sworn to and subscribed befor me the day and year above written
Elizabeth X Shaw (her mark)
The Justice, Samuel Kirkpatrick, added that she was “a woman of Truth and Veracity” and that “full faith and credit are due and of right aught to be given to the statement.”
Another deponent, James Salinger, of Christian County, Kentucky, was present at the wedding of Robert Shaw and Elizabeth Hamilton at her father’s house in Guilford County in December of 1780.
…in the month of December Seventeen hundred and Eighty the said Robert Shaw and Elizabeth Hamilton was legally Married at the house of old Mr Hamilton in said County this affiant was then Boarding at said Hamilton’s and was the Wedding that they were married by a Justice of the Peace of Guilford County by the name of Lackey…
Despite all these efforts, Elizabeth’s pension was initially denied due to a lack of proper documentation. The “Old Lady” did not give up, however. I may detect a note of exasperation in this official’s letter to Washington, DC on the subject.
April 6th 1842
Enclosed I send you another declaration made by Mrs Elizabeth Shaw [illegible] a pension under the act of 7th July 1838 as it appears that there is no chance for the Old Lady to be allowed a pension under the act of 1836 notwithstanding all the proof that she has made as well as the Justice of her claim under that act
Please let me hear from you as soon as you receive this letter
Respectfully, Wm E Jones
William Jones must have been successful, because by 1843, Elizabeth was drawing at least the reduced pension amount of $32.50 per year. She had been able to adequately prove she was married to Robert Shaw, but was not yet able to prove that he had served for at least two years, entitling her to the full pension amount.
But the Old Lady was not done yet. In 1851, at the age of 95, she stood before a judge yet again to make her case for a full pension.
State of Tennessee
On this ? day of September 1851 personally appeared before the undersigned a Justice of the Peace in and for said County Mrs Elizabeth Shaw a resident of said county aged ninety-five years who makes oath that she is the same Elizabeth Shaw who applied for and was allowed a pension of thirty-two dollars and 50 cents a year under acts of Congress 7th June 1838, 5 march 1843, 17 June 1844, and 2 February 1848 in rite of her husband’s service, Robt Shaw in the North carolina line in the Revolutionary War
that her husband the said Robert Shaw served as Stated in her first declaration and that she was married to him as ? stated, that since death she has not again intermarried but still remaining his widow
that she makes this declaration in order to have pension increased from the amount she now received to the amount of a full pension as she always understood from her husband that he served as much as two years or upwards but for the particulars of said Service she refers to her first declaration.
Elizabeth X Shaw (her mark)
This time, Elizabeth actually hired some Nashville attorneys to present her case for the full pension. Here is their letter to a Judge J. Bryan in Washington, DC.
Oct 9th 1851
We enclose Declaration of Elizabeth Shaw, widow of Robert, claiming an Increase of Pension she only $30 under the Act Feb’y 1848. Her husband served more than a year, she is entitled to $80 per annum.
We have this day written to Mr Clarke of Raleigh NC for proof of service which suppose will be duly forwarded to you. Mrs Shaw’s original claim was prosecuted by Jury + and it would be well for you to examine the paper in case of Sarah Fitzpatrick, whose husband served in the same Company with Shaw, under Lieutenant Ben Starrett who proved F’s service but being now deceased, of course, we can not now get his testimony
Mrs Shaw was allowed a pension originally for going service of her husband or a new [illegible]
Your early attention is requested
Yr Obd Servants
Smith and Jones
Smith and Jones succeeded in obtaining information from the Comptroller of North Carolina proving that Robert Shaw had served his two full years and then some, with miscellaneous pay records on file extending from 1778 to 1782. A certificate dated 7 January 1852 awards 95 year old Elizabeth Shaw a full pension of $82.50 per year. If I read this correctly, this was back dated to 21 March 1821, with the reduced payments to be deducted from the total. In other words, quite a windfall!
But the Old Lady was not done yet. An Act of Congress in 1855 raised the amount of bounty land due to Revolutionary soldiers from 100 acres to 160 acres of land. Elizabeth, 99 years old at the time, made yet another personal declaration of the facts of her case in front of a Justice of the Peace, and filed for that land on 20 April 1855.
A folder in the pension file appears to grant her the land, and notes that “it appears from the original pension papers that this widow is 100 years old.”
Elizabeth died on 15 March 1856 at the age of 101. She was likely living with her son, William Shaw at the time, as she is found with him on the 1850 census. William was quite well-off, so it was not poverty that motivated Elizabeth’s insistence on receiving her full benefits.
Like many women of the time, she was illiterate, as indicated by signing with an “X.” Therefore, William or another of her children must have played a role in this legal and bureaucratic journey. However it certainly sounds from all her declarations, and from the fact that she appeared in person before a Justice of the Peace on several occasions to make her case (and was considered competent to do so even in her late 90s), that she was simply bound and determined to get what was owed her!