Oh Brother, Daniel Colvin, Where Art Thou? The Daniel – Mason Colvin Connection: Does It Exist?

There is a genealogical Colvin connection which eludes me. No where, during a recent search in primary records can I verify a source citation posted on the internet as evidence that Mason and Daniel were not only father and son but that Daniel was a Revolutionary war veteran from Culpeper. There’s an interesting tool in the scientific method that seems  to apply here; its called reproducibility. Essentially, I observe something, propose a hypothesis, test it through experimentation and, based on the outcomes of the test, the hypothesis is proven true or false. It’s always good if its true, because I, the investigator don’t have to go “back to the drawing board,” and come up with a new hypothesis, but the best part of a true hypothesis is, one’s critics (the doubters) can reproduce my experiment(s) for themselves and verify my findings! Neat, no?

In genealogy, there’s a similar path to take, although most of the hypothesis-forming and testing steps are implied, and the truth of a hypothesis  is typically offered up as source citations. And therein lies the Mason-Daniel dilemma. I cannot reproduce the claimant’s path; I cannot verify the findings.


I came across this particular Colvin connection while doing a little basic  surfing looking for some leads regarding a few of my Culpeper Colvin targets, a strategy which has its advantages in the very early stages of an ongoing study.

There is was —  this Mason-Daniel Colvin link, from out of nowhere! Its poster cited as his source for the Daniel Colvin as Revolutionary soldier claim, the rather significant-sounding, Virginia Soldiers of the Revolution, Lewis A. Burgess, Richmond, 1977. That looked pretty good to me, even though I suspected it was an index or a collection of abstracts. Even so, I could use the leads and glean from it the primary records. So I Goggled the title and, golly gee! Right off the bat there were problems.

The title cited was sort of, well, mangled and the author’s name was skewed. After some more keyboard time, I learned the authors actual name was Louis A. Burgess, and he’d compiled his tomb  not in 1977 but in 1927, under the exhausting title: Virginia soldiers of 1776 : compiled from documents on file in the Virginia Land Office, together with material found in the Archives Department of the Virginia State Library, and other reliable sources. Whew! Still, to be fair, the author who misnamed Burgess and his book did have the city where it was published right. So that’s something.

I looked at some reviews of Burgesss’ work; he got good marks from some respectable folk: The Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, a respectable peer-reviewed genealogy journal, gave the book its blessing so that was a good sign; and folks seemed in general to rave about the work because its one of those massive, muti-volume reference works some genealogists just love.  For reasons which utterly escape me, publication size in genealogy matters. Lots of genealogy libraries have a set, for the same reason they have sets of other works of similar density. But I wondered about what primary record Burgess had consulted  for Daniel Colvin. It seemed that since he’d been a war vet, finding his revolutionary records should be a snap especially nowadays.

I went almost immediately to Footnote.com’s digitized images of the VA Revolutionary War muster and pay rolls database, and was stopped cold.

Not a single Daniel Colvin, nor a Daniel Colven, a  Colvinious, or any spelling variant produced a single Daniel Colvin,  so-called Virginia Revolutionary War veteran. Nada. Zip. Nothin’.

The verifying process was going badly. The disturbing part of that is,  the records needed to verify D. Colvin’s American Revolutionary War service couldn’t be missing due to Footnote.com vendor-error.  Why? Footnote.com doesn’t digitize a piece of a National Archive microfilm reel here and another piece there, or create some clever index hoping you won’t notice how many names they’ve misspelled (and you can’t properly find in a search, consequently, ) in the process. No,  Footnote.com just films entire reels in the same sequence in which they were microfilmed (major kudos for that,) provides some basic bibliographic info, and lets you see the record for yourself in an Adobe Flash panorama. It couldn’t be more elegant, simple, or factual.  So, if Daniel Colvin served, he should have been in those muster/pay rolls. But he wasn’t. So where was he?

I checked somewhere else,  just out of curiosity: the Virginia State Library (VSL)  database of digitized land patents because, well, you never know. Well, there was a Daniel Colvin listing, a patentee, who’d received a few hundred acres in the early 1800s from the state. But, when I examined the digitized patent itself – guess what – it was a case of VSL mis-indexing. The grantee was Daniel Corbin. The writing was clear. Oops! But it was a nice patent. Yet it once again re-enforced  what I’ve learned time and again  over the past thirteen years I’ve been researching this line: the surname Colvin is rarely misspelled in original documents, but it is almost invariably mis-indexed as something similar. It’s a researcher’s curse I’ve learned to accept.

In short, the reproducibility of the poster’s Daniel Colvin claim of his being a soldier in the American Revolution failed. It could not be verified — at least by standard methods. 1.

As to the business of Mason being Daniel’s son, the poster cites Mason Colvin’s American Revolution pension record as the source. I happen to have his complete file — all twenty pages. The poster also cites a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) applicant number. Now that’s interesting because most modern researchers will tell you the DAR lineage books are not a reliable source because of the liberal way early members were allowed to fudge findings to gain society acceptance. Not major fudging just little things. Things are better with DAR today, but those earlier lineages are sketchy at best. In fact, if one reads through Mason’s pension file, he finds numerous letters from folks writing to the War Dept in the 1920s and 1930s asking about Mason’s service (always on pretentious DAR letterhead,) and — here’s the problem — his parents. The War Department always replied in a form letter “there is no data on Mason’s parents.”  And to make matters worse, Mason himself, during his two-page affidavit, couldn’t even remember his dates of service, but claimed being drafted no less than four times!

Granted, he was elderly (in his 70s) and so arthritic he couldn’t even attend court in the early 1830s when he applied for his pension, but there are big gaps in his claims, which did not go unnoticed by clerks or by War Department officials. But he got his pension anyway. But Daniel is never mentioned by Mason. So, again, the reproducability test fails.   (Cue theme music from The Twilight Zone)

So what have we learned? Test your claim against actual records and read those records thoroughly. Because you never know who might see them.

Oh, and a tip to those of you who forget the correct author and title of your source when you’re excitedly posting your unverifiable data online. Two words: World Cat.(www.worldcat.org)

1. This is not the same thing as saying Daniel did not serve in the American Revolution; it is saying the records upon which the claim is made were not found using the same path due to citation errors and record omissions discovered. The research exercise was to test the reproducibility of the claim.  Ditto regarding the relationship between Mason and Daniel. Evidence of that relationship has not been discovered. In both cases, the available evidence suggests only that more research is needed if one believes Daniel was a soldier in the Revolution and that he has a son named Mason. (Pssssst: could they be father and son and both be in the same war?)


About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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