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William Burnham and the War of 1812

Pension records from the War of 1812 have been one of the most requested records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). During the 200th anniversary of the war in 2012, they began a project to digitize these files and make them available for free to researchers. Many, many genealogists donated to this cause.

After a multi-year effort, Fold 3 (, the online service for historical military records, now houses the digitized index and pension files that resulted from the successful project. Anyone can look at them at no cost.

I never had much interest in this project for my own research because I do not have many War of 1812 veterans in my direct line. The only one I know of is my 3rd great-grandfather, Benjamin E. Dunbar. He served in the Massachusetts militia for a couple of days when British ships threatened the coastline. He did not qualify for a pension.

This week I discovered a collateral relative who did receive a pension. Benjamin Dunbar’s daughter, Rhoda Ann, married a much older man named William Burnham who had served in the War of 1812. I learned of his service when I found a note of it on his Find A Grave memorial.

Curious, I decided to search for a pension file for him. I found it on Fold 3. From this, I was able to collect a great deal of information about him:

  • William Burnham was born at Hartford, Connecticut.
  • He enlisted at Canandaigua, New York on May 11, 1812 for a 5-year term of service. He was 5’5″ with light hair and blue eyes. At the time of his enlistment, he was a clothier.
  • He served in the heavy artillery units of Capt. Rufus McIntire and Capt. James McKeon. He saw action at the Battles of Queenston Heights, Fort George, and Fort Oswego.
  • Pvt. William Burnham received an Honorable Discharge at Fort Washington on May 11, 1817. He was 23 years old.
  • He married Rhoda Dunbar at Akron, Ohio on Sept. 19, 1846.
  • On June 30, 1871, he applied for a pension under the Act of February 14, 1871. At this time, he resided at Stow, Summit County, Ohio.
  • He was awarded an $8 per month pension. The pension ended on Sept. 4, 1879 due to failure to claim.

I can understand now why the genealogical community worked so hard to provide access to these pension files. They provide rich detail about the lives of ancestors who served in the War of 1812. I had no idea the military at that time collected all this information—birthplace, occupation, physical description.

I will add all this pension file information to the life story of my 2nd great-aunt Rhoda and her husband William Burnham. Now that I know how valuable these records are, you can bet I will be checking the index every time I look at an ancestor who is the right age to have served in this war.

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