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Family Stories . . . and How I Found Mine illustrates the Potential of Pension Records

Pension Records
Family Stores...and how I found mine

When last we took up the story of author J. Michael Cleverley’s Greene family ancestors, it was during the reign of England’s Richard II (1377-1399)—just as one of Michael’s forebears was about to lose his head. Today’s excerpt comes from “Chapter Five: Road to Rebellion,”  as Rhode Island ancestor Nathaniel Greene and others attempt to organize a militia company to support the Patriot cause. Readers of this excerpt from  Family Stories . . . and How I Found Mine will also learn the important use that Mr. Cleverley was able to make of  pension records in bringing this chapter to fruition.

from “Road to Rebellion”

…When representatives from all the colonies met the next month [in 1774] at the First Continental Congress, colonial legislators decided to re-vitalize their militias.  It was then that the Military Independent Company submitted a petition to the Rhode Island Assembly for recognition.  Thirty-five men signed the petition.  Ten of them were Greene brothers and cousins.  The Assembly agreed and transformed the Military Independent Company into the Kentish Guards, named after Kent County where they were located.  The Kentish Guards were authorized to expand to 100 members.1

1“Tory Mob,” Providence (Rhode Island) Gazette, September 17, 1774, printed in The Kentish Guards, The Kentish Guardsman & Fife and Drum Review, (August 2009). Col. Thomas Allen, “Kentish Guards, a History,” 1918, 1, quoted in The Kentish Guards, The Kentish Guardsman & Fife and Drum Review, (August 2009). Gerald M. Carbone, Nathanael Greene, a Biography of the American Revolution, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 15. Virginia Dart Greene Hales, Greene and Greene, Their Ancestral Heritage, 1550-1900, (self-published, 2016), 131-132.

The Kentish Guards quickly organized itself.  First, they elected officers.  Future General Nathanael Greene hoped to become one of the Guard’s officers and lobbied to be chosen.  He had no formal training, but his inexhaustible independent reading had consumed everything he could find on military topics.  He was easily the most military-versed member on the unit’s roster.  At the urging of his cousin Griffin, Nathanael ran for lieutenant, but when the votes were tallied, he lost.  Many were not sure he looked “presentable” enough. One of his legs was longer than the other, and he limped.  

Instead, Nathanael’s brother, Christopher, was elected 2nd Lieutenant; Richard Fry was 1st Lieutenant; and James Varnum was Captain.  Varnum was a close friend to the Greenes.  As their attorney, he had successfully represented Nathanael and his brothers in the suit against Lt. Dudingston of the Gaspee for reparations.  When East Greenwich opened its collection for the people of Boston, Nathanael’s contribution of nearly three pounds was topped only by Varnum’s.

Nathanael was embarrassed for losing, especially when the reason many voted against him was his limp.  He urged his friend Varnum to continue, but resigned from the Kent Guards, pledging to financially support them.  Someone talked him into rejoining, however, and he re-considered.  All that winter, three days a week, he faithfully attended Kentish Guard meetings where they worked to build themselves into an operational military company.  Such meetings, in fact, were going on all over New England where companies of militia and minutemen were on fast courses to be prepared for a conflict they increasingly believed was coming.  

The Greene boys got their first real military training at the new Kentish Guards meetings.  As a Quaker, Nathanael did not even own a musket.  Many of the other Kentish Guards probably did not have guns either.  However, they had proud uniforms made up of red coats with green facings, white pantaloons, and white vests.  They started buying cartridge paper and were soon making their own bullets.  Those without muskets, like Nathanael, looked for ways to get one.2

2Carbone, 15-17. Col. Thomas Allen, “Kentish Guards, a History,” 1918, 1, quoted in The Kentish Guards, The Kentish Guardsman & Fife and Drum Review, (August 2009), 1.

Nathanael solved this problem during a visit to Boson where he went to collect on a debt owed his father.  The city was full of British soldiers who often could be seen drilling, marching, and maneuvering.  While he watched the British troops’ precision and discipline, it occurred to him that the Kentish Guards needed a professional trainer if they wanted to become an effective unit.  He seized the opportunity when he met a British sergeant who had deserted his unit.  Nathanael convinced him to return with him to Rhode Island as the Kentish Guards’ new drill instructor.  He also found the musket he was seeking, maybe from the same British deserter.   When they left Boston, Nathanael concealed his new musket under the straw of a farmer’s cart and walked inconspicuously down the road behind the cart.  After reaching Rhode Island, the sergeant took the task of drilling the Kentish Guards with the same type of discipline British soldiers knew…

Pension Records are Valuable

I first learned about the Kentish Guards when searching for Joseph Greene on  I found a few things also in a professional genealogical survey of the Greene line done decades ago, perhaps commissioned by one of Mother’s many correspondents.  In a short story, one of the few I found about him, it said that he was a member of the “Kentish Guards.”  

I googled “Kentish Guards” to see what I could learn.  Through various google entries and the Guards’ own web site, I found that the group still exists with a proud and honored history. They meet regularly in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  No longer a strictly military organization, the Kentish Guards provide pageantry and re-enactment color to their historic community.  

When I wrote the current Kentish Guards commander that I was a descendant of the Greene family, he replied that he was well aware that there were many Greenes in the Guards’ history.  He kindly sent copies of some of their newsletters that laid out how the unit came into being…  As I went down the early rosters of the early Guards, I was surprised to see one Greene after another in its columns.  I pulled up Greene family group sheets on FamilySearch and found that a number of its members, possessing surnames other than “Greene,” were actually married to Greene daughters.  The early Kentish Guards was full of brothers, cousins, and brothers-in-laws to my ancestor Joseph.    

Joseph’s participation in the Guards and the Revolution, itself, was at first confusing.  For some reason, he seemed to have dropped out of the Guards shortly after it was first organized.  He signed the original charter declaration in September 1774, but his name did not appear on the petition to the Rhode Island Assembly the next month.  Since he was later remembered as a member of the Kentish Guards, I thought there must be more.  

I found the explanation by looking up Revolutionary War pension records on Fold3, an excellent online site specialized in military records.  Among the records I found was the file containing correspondence about his war pension.  Joseph Greene’s widow, Patience, applied in 1838 for a pension for his service during the Revolutionary War.  

As I repeat in later chapters, military records tell a lot of stories, sometimes of the battles our grandfathers fought, and sometimes of the trials their families went through while the men were away.  An image of Patience’s application told how he had been active in the Kentish Guards from the end of 1776.  This was two years after the Guards were formed.  Joseph’s brother, Stephen, corroborated Patience’s petition by telling in a separate statement about his service in the Guards with Joseph.  Joseph was in the unit when it was first formed but must have dropped out for a time before again getting involved after the war was in full swing.  According to Patience, during the war Joseph was in his unit about three years. 

Patience was eventually awarded $ 858.76 in pension arrears, not a small sum, to help her and her family in her old age.  It was based on 22 months and 7 days of Joseph’s service.  I wrote earlier that we find so little from and about our grandmothers.  It was a home run to me to hear just a little in Patience’s voice about the years she struggled while her husband was in his unit fighting a revolution.3

3“Joseph Greene,” pensioner: “Patience Greene,” (23 July 1838), NARA M804. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, Roll 1124.  From: Fold3, Revolutionary War Pensions (/title/467/revolutionary-war-pensions, accessed March 9, 2020), database andimages, (,us,joseph,revolutionary,greene).