The Poorest of the Poor: How Benjamin Colvin of Culpeper Made It Into The Virginia Line and The History Books

Benjamin Colvin patent for 40 acres, which was certified in 1835, in Boone County, Missouri, some 14 years after he appears to have arrived in the early 1820s. BLM records indicate it was located along the Missouri river, very near the small community known today as McBaine. Image source: U.S. Bureau of Land management online database.

It isn’t every day that one finds his– Revolutionary ancestors mentioned by name in professional historical  monographs. In my case, I’ve never found a Colvin mentioned thusly. And I’ve been at this nearly two decades now. This is not to say that many of them, over the years, have not found their way into other media. Mostly one finds them snuggling in the warm embrace of amateur compilations, blog posts, and commercial databases – often with their genealogical particulars misstated or their surnames mangled nearly beyond recognition —  but not once in a respectable historic account. Not once. That is, until recently. My discovery was precipitated by a leisurely stroll through some secondary sources in an attempt to ferret out more military history about some of the Colvin men from Kentucky who served in the War of 1812. Most who ended up enlisting were first-generation Kentuckians whose parents had come there from their native Piedmont, Virginia area where the Colvin line of my study is rooted. I  found an online digitized copy of  the 1891 edition of Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky. Soldiers of the War of 1812 and began reviewing it using clues from other sources.[1] With these other clues, I was able to establish most of their military credentials as well as establish their relations to each other in some cases. Not all were from the same Colvin line, but I was satisfied that I had put in place another puzzle piece helping to answer basic questions such as: When did they serve? What were their ranks? and so forth. All of those who served were privates, and in one case, two brothers served in the same company. As for where they served and what they did, I decided to leave that for another investigation.

Then I turned my attention to some of the Revolutionary ancestors, not so much on any one individual, but more in terms of  historical context of the experience itself. I knew, for example, that a Charles Colvin from Culpeper county had been drafted in 1781, according to a Library of Virginia online catalog indexed reference bearing Charles’s name. The reference hyperlinked to to  Emily G. Hont’s, 1983 work,  “A List of Classes in Culpeper County for January 1781.”  But was this the same Charles of Fauquier County who, that same year,  was a tithable of  Fauquier  farmer, William Waller,  listed in Fauquier tax rolls?  It’s a good question.  That index entry indicated Charles fell within Class 11. Hoping to discover what that class signifies,  I  began a Google-trek to find answers when I came across John R. Van Atta’s essay, “Conscription in Revolutionary Virginia: The case of Culpeper County, 1780-1781,” published in the July, 1984 edition of  the venerable, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography which has, since 1893, been the scholarly journal  of the Virginia Historical Society — itself established more than three-quarters of a century earlier in 1811. So I thought that it would make for an interesting read.  I was not disappointed.

Atta sets up his primary thesis  by noting that, because of a strange quirk of fate, Culpeper county’s military records with regard to Revolutionary draft class lists are amazingly extant, unlike most Virginia counties whose lists are too fragmentary to be used to base substantive research. That’s important because in order to understand some of the  mechanics of the revolutionary draft, one has to know something of the folks being drafted.  That’s where the Class Lists come in. They help answer questions such as: How and why did this draft and substitution system operate? Who actually entered the Continental service and who managed not to? What, if anything, can be gleaned of the motives behind individual service in the Continental Army during the latter years of the war? (Atta, 264). [2]   That, important, too,  in order to understand some of the finer points involved with how the quota system of enlistees,  (established by the national Congress in 1776, ) would play out at the county level, then eventually, at the  state level. We were, after all fighting a formidable foe for independence, and needed as many soldiers to do it as possible. Thus, quotas. However, it turns out that, even with these quotas in place, they typically were not satisfied. Virginia, for example, in 1777 sent only 5,744 of its required 10,200, soldiers and even though its percentages improved slightly with each successive war year, like most states, it never satisfied its actual quota. There are numerous reasons for this,  including how the draft was itself designed and later executed. However, what intrigued Atta more, was what role did personal wealth (or a lack of it,)  play  in draftee selection, and particularly how  did economic standing impact the ability of draftees to use substitutes in those cases where they chose not to serve and what, moreover, might motivate someone to serve as a substitute?

One of the ways Atta sized up the situation was by also consulting the local personal property tax rolls which, I can tell you from personal experience, are excellent indicators of where a person stood in the local economic food chain. The colonists were taxed on pretty much everything at the county level, and since disestablishment was still a distant reality, they were also being forced to tithe to the Anglican church, even if they were Baptist or some other denomination. So our colonial Virginia forebearers were taxes on their cows, their watches, their wagons, and if all they owned was a horse. Well, the horse got taxed.  Unlike census, the personal property tax rolls were annual, (usually in the Spring,) so they’re very useful in tracking a household’s rise in prosperity or its plummet into poverty. This was about where I was in Atta’s essay – the part where he was making the case for who the draftees were and how they ranked as property owners. He was noticing that the less property a draftee owned, the lower the rank he would rate when he entered  military service. Fellas with a single horse, for example, might be drafted as a private – his neighbor with many acres and a few slaves, might be drafted as a captain. Apparently, in the draft, size mattered.  And as he was tallying these numbers up,  Atta also pointed out who, among the draftees was the poorest selected. Guess who he named?

            Benjamin Colvin.

That’s right. Of all the men in Culpeper county, without so much as a nag to his name, only Benjamin Colvin (1758-1834) was singled out in print as being “the poorest draftee found in the 1782-83 records…” (Atta, 272).  Apparently he had a working musket and was able to take up arms against the British. So that was a plus. When I saw the name, I laughed out loud. Somehow I’d always thought of my Colvin Revolutionary ancestors in more glorious scenes — surrounded by Redcoats, dashing their brains out with the butt of their flintlocks,  cannon smoke swirling everywhere. But, hey, maybe  less is more, right?  Maybe not. As poverty went, Benjamin had even less that William Brady, who Atta found was the poorest among the substitutes found on the draftee list. Brady at least had two horses. Benjamin, conversely ”own no property whatsoever and held no land.”  Bummer. As for that landless situation, that changed soon enough.  Fortunately, we  need not feel too sorry for  Benjamin because his military pension records reveal he went from rags to buying forty acres near the Missouri river, not too many years after he was discharged. Plus his deposition with the Boone county judge in 1833,  (he was 78 years old then,) gives us real insight into what Benjamin  did, when and where.[3]

He entered service on  April 20,, 1781, having drawn his draft ticket and was assigned to Capt. Elijah Kirtley as a private. He mustered with his troop at Hanover Virginia. and they were supposed to go to join Gen. Washington, but that didn’t work out and they were instead sent to the Potomac to guard the British from coming up. So they left Culpeper and marched down to join  Gen. Daniel Morgan at  Bird’s Ordinary in Amelia County.  From there they went on to Richmond where they received their arms at a place called the Bacon branch, and a short time later, they were joined by  Gen. Peter Muhlenberg. (Muhlenberg was an Anglican priest-turned soldier and moved up the ranks to become a General in the Continental Army. See John A,  Rogosta’s “Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty”  (Oxford, 2010.)  Thus, with  Gens. Morgan and  Muhlenberg at the head,  the troops went on to a little town [Benjamin could not recall its name,] but there crossed over toward Roanoke River where Gen. Morgan mistakenly thought that Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton was “doing mischief.”[4]  By the time the troops arrived,  Tarleton was already gone. They left there and  marched back crossing the James River about 20 miles above Richmond. About 12 or 15 miles after they crossed the river, they  met up with Gen. Anthony Wayne, and within a matter of  days, were engaged in their first a small skirmish known as the Battle of  Spencer’s Ordinary near the Hot Water Plantation, several miles outside of  Williamsburg on  June 26th.  Benjamin said in his deposition:[5]

this engagement was with a party of the British who were out robbing the country of cattle, the British had a great many cattle fenced up in [Gen. Robert Lawson’s] field, we succeeded in getting them all from the British.

On the heels of that skirmish  came the Battle of Green Springs Plantation.[6]     Afterwards, the troops returned to  Richmond and remained there although Benjamin gives no details, noting only that they scouted  “round through the country from one place to another, occasionally exchanging shots & having light skirmishes with the British.”

His first term expired on October 20,  that same year and he had planned on mustering out. But in a strange coincidence, his company was newly joined by troops from Culpeper under Capt. Samuel Ferguson, and so he decided to reenlist another three months.  He must have been persuaded by seeing so many old friends. Many of the men, he explained to  the judge deposing him, were neighbors of his father’s  — “all raised from the young men immediately in his neighborhood.”

For his last remaining 3 months, things were fairly dull.  No skirmishes; no battles. He remained a private under  Gen. Daniel Morgan and the troops eventually returned to their headquarters near Richmond  where he eventually mustered out, although no date is given. However, Benjamin told the judge he’s served a total of 9 months and 10 days, and even though he’d received the proper discharge, he’d lost it. By Benjamin’s calculation, he left service in January, 1782. For his troubles,  beginning in 1833, Benjamin was granted an annual pension of $31.11. In today’s’ economy, that would net him little more than $800.00  a year, according to the folks at  Not much then. Not much now.   The National Archives has an excellent blog post, Follow the Money, which details how Revolutionary soldiers pensions were applied for and paid, including the arduous process involved for the applicant and has untangled the twisted route otherwise needed by modern-day researchers to unearth the records needed to examine their Revolutionary ancestor’s pension records.

It is not known whether Benjamin was injured or suffered any serious postwar afflictions. But much beyond his brief wartime experience is known.  For example, from various bounty land warrant records, it can be shown that Benjamin was one of  at least seven children – six of whom were males, and each of whom served in the Revolution. Those relationships can be corroborated by  the depositions they give on each other’s behalf, as well as from the depositions found in their pension files, where some of the males name their siblings.

Apparently Benjamin’s  postwar fortunes began to improve. By 1787, he can be found in Culpeper personal property tax records with at least 1 tithe and now three—count them three — cows!  By 1800, he has  three horses! By 1810, he is heading a house in Culpeper consisting of 5 males under 10; 1 male 10-15; 1 male 45 and over, (most likely a parent); 1 female age 10-15,  and 1 female 26-45 (most likely a wife.)[7]

Sometime after 1816,   Benjamin left Virginia with his wife and eight children  for Boone County, Missouri, where he can be found being taxed on at least 100 acres of land by 1821.[8]  By 1835, Benjamin received his patent for 40 acres of land (see Inset,)  which was likely located on or near the Missouri river near the present-day town of McBaine. There is reason to belive he used what’s become known as the Boon’s Lick Trail, to reach his designation. Boone’s Lick was a major route used by early 19th century pioneers migrating from east to west during the Westward Expansion period; the trail cut across several Missouri counties including Boone and Howard which are adjacent. This website  offers an excellent map of the trail.

Benjamin appears to have died a few short years later, by 1837. He had executed his Will in 1835  which was probated in 1838, wherein all of his heirs are named. To date, his final resting place is unknown but is believed to be in Boone County, perhaps on private land.  Nevertheless, Benjamin is not forgotten, nor does his humble beginnings appear to have been a barrier to later achievements. Data collection on his descendants is ongoing. Currently some five generations of data has been assembled reaching to the late 20th century with additional data to be compiled. Many of the descendants being Missourians by birth. Among them, a great-great granddaughter, Nannie B. Colvin, born March 25, 1895 and who died in Howard County, May 10, 1976. Ongoing research will no doubt reveal a richer narrative and legacy from a simple Culpeper resident once deemed among the Culpeper draftees of 1781 as being someone who “own no property whatsoever and held no land.”

[1] Report of the adjutant general of the state of Kentucky. Soldiers of the war of 1812.”, Frankfurt, 1891.

[2] John R. Atta, “Conscription in Revolutionary Virginia: The case of Culpeper County, 1780-1781”   The Virginia Magazine of  History and Biography 92:3, 263-281.

[3] Transcribed pension application of Benjamin Colvin, transcriber, C. Leon Harris. Southern Campaign Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters (

[4] Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, is best remembered for his sound whipping by the Continental Army in the Battle of Cowpens, in South Carolina in January 1781 – months before Benjamin enlisted. Gen. Morgan is often credited with much of the success of the British defeat, and the campaign itself and  is noted by historians as being a critical turning point in the Rev. War both tactically, and in terms of providing a much-needed psychological lift to the soldiers. The battle last only an hour, but Tarleton after being brutally whipped by  Gen. Washington with a saber, fled.

[5] The skirmish arose because British troops under Col. John Graves Simcoe were attempting to reprovision themselves with whatever was at hand.  It is typically called the  Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary because it was fought near a tavern named Spencer’s Ordinary at a road intersection not far from Williamsburg,Virginia.

[6] June 6, 1781. Gen. Anthony  “Mad”  Wayne  received his moniker because of his charge against the British after having been trapped by an  ambush during this battle.  Troops under his command had been sent to this location in James City County , to reinforce the Marquis de Lafayette’s  troops who were losing to the British forces. With Gen. Wayne’s reinforcements the tide turned, despite Gen. Wayne’s accidental entrapment and ambush.

[7] Ben. Colvin household, 1810 U.S. Federal Census Population Schedule, Culpeper County, Virginia..

[8] According to various census and other records, the youngest of Benjamin’s  Children was  Anna Colvin, born 1816 in Culpeper County. All of Benjamin’s children were named in his Last Will and Testament which was probated  January 3, 1838 in Boone County.


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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