James and the Giant Mystery


James Colvin Rev War Muster roll

James Colvin served his three years in the 13th (a.k.a. 9th) Virginia Regiment during the American Revolution as an artificer. But was he really born in 1768 in Culpeper as some claim? And was he really the son of Daniel Colvin? Help solve this riddle and save mankind all at the same time. Western civilization will thank you. Image Source: Fold3.com

Soon  homework  will overtake my life (Middle Eastern History and American Revolution, this semester, the former a Junior level class, the later a Senior level one,) and this will likely be my last post until I come up for air sometime in May. So if you’re interesting in playing history detective, be my guest. Updated! (See bottom of post.)

James Colvin – presumably born in Culpeper 1768 and a son of Daniel Colvin (1737-1790) is listed among the several “artificers” at Ft. Pitt  in March, 1778. He enlisted in January, 1777 for a term of 3 years and seems to have served his time, judging by his appearance — though his extant military records are somewhat fractured — on a digitized original muster roll of Capt. James Sullivan as well as “indexed record cards” which list him with the 13th VA Regiment variously in 1778, ’79, and ’80.[1]  A brief excursion into the history of the 13th Virginia Regiment, however, reveals a few issues with not only the idea of James being from Culpeper but of both his being Daniel’s son and being born in 1768. Let’s take them one at a time.

1.  The 13th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army was raised at Ft. Pitt itself in February 1777 from men in Yohogania, Monongalia, and Ohio Counties. Those first two counties (now part of Western Pennsylvania,) originally belonged to Virginia but are located  nowhere near Culpeper.  Draftees tended to enlist in their own counties and they were typically in their late teens and early twenties although exceptions occurred and yes, there were those young drummer boys we all know about.  Proud patriots all.  Ft. Pitt was formerly known as Ft. Duquesne, built by the French in 1754 on the banks of what was then called the Forks of the Ohio at the beginning of the French and Indian War. With the French defeat by the British, it became Ft. Pitt. Today this is known as downtown Pittsburgh, where a national park enshrines the site.

2.  James’s birth date is based on a 1926 query letter from J.S. Jennings, to the U.S. Interior Dept. (where all such letters were sent in those days,) asking after the war records of  James who Jennings insisted was a son of Daniel.   But how reliable, really, is a letter written in 1926 by someone claiming Daniel was the father of James? Good question because Jennings had most of her facts correct. She noted, for example, James’s correct enlistment dates and his regiment’s name and even the regiment’s Commander. However….

3. If James was born in 1768, he would have been the youngest “artificer” ever to have served in the Virginia Line. Most artificers were more typically skilled craftsmen who provided skilled labor. As the National Archives October,  2010  blog post explains, “Simply put, artificers were skilled artisans and mechanics who kept military equipment in good working order so the troops could operate effectively.  They typically served under the jurisdiction of the Chief Engineer in the Quartermaster General’s Department, but were separate from other engineer regiments.  In the Continental Army, George Washington established a Corps of Artificers that was  often organized into specialized companies reflecting specific skills.”[2]

I could be wrong, but I have a hard time imagining a 9 year-old working in a makeshift military workshop banging out goods. It’s possible he was an apprentice, but I have a feeling there is a better explanation because there is little doubt that James married Martha “Polly” Hill on 13 November 1806 in Culpeper. That is, according to Catherine Knorr’s “Culpeper Marriages 1781-1815” (self-published, 1954) and who herself scoured the old deed and Will books and ministers returns  for every early Culpeper marriage she could find.   James and Martha were married by William Mason,  a Baptist minister who apparently married every other Colvin in the same area and many more other Culpeper Baptists as well.  Still, there is something clunky about James’ birth date because he’s marrying at age 38 — somewhat late — and his first daughter, Eliza Hansborough “Ann” Colvin, (Elizabeth obviously gets her middle name from her paternal grandmother,) was herself born in 1803.  Its perplexing.

Update: July 20 2014.   In begining a review of the title, “A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of The Republic 1763 – 1789, (J.K. Martin and M.E. Lender, 2nd ed. 2006,) which is one of a few textbooks I’ll be using in my upcoming Capstone course at the University of Houston on the American Revolution,  a subheading in chapter III, “Toward an American Standing Army 1776-1777”, The American Search for Manpower, deals specifically with the difficult recruiting issues facing Gen. Washington post-1776. Turns out teenagers were not that unusual amongst the infantry — recruiters being desperate to fill quotas  since no draft existed — and most all of the foot soldiers were from the poorest circumstances. Among the sources cited, was John R. Seller’s “The Common Soldier in the American Revolution.” a paper presented by the National Archives researcher who’d presented his paper at the 6th Annual Military History Symposium, held in Washington D.C., 1974. Sellers, who’d presented his findings from his study of more than 650 Revolutionary pension applications — the majority of whom were Virginian applicants–  found, among  his other discoveries that, “The preponderance of men in the army in 1781 continue to show up in the 14-19 age bracket, as did those at the beginning of the war. This suggests that there was a high turnover rate among the Virginia troops, both in the militia and the regular line, and that white males in their early and late teens were the best source of recruits throughout the Revolution. ”

While clearly this does not mean that James Colvin was an artificer at age nine, it raises the real possibility that he may have been where the records show he was in 1778: at Ft. Pitt, even if his reasons for being there remain unclear.

Readers interested in the full PDF version of the Conference Proceedings of the 1974 Military History Symposium , including Seller’s full paper,  feel free to contact me at ajcolvin@uh.edu.


[1] Index record cards are not primary sources, but derivatives created in the 1880s, by Colonial F.C. Ainsworth, then chief of the Record and Pension Office in the Department of the Army. He had  his staff indexed these records originally to determine who was eligible for a pension.

[2] John,  “Family Tree Friday: Artificers in the Revolutionary War”  National Archives, NARAtions (blog), October 15, 2010, http://blogs.archives.gov/online-public-access/?p=288

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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 publishing credits can be found at the link:
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