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Colonial Militias

During colonial America, all able-bodied men of a certain age range were members of the militia, depending on the respective state's rule. Individual towns formed local independent militias for their own defense.

When one thinks of the Militia and it beginnings, we picture those brave men from Concord and Lexington. But prior to the Revolutionary War the militia was the primary source of defense for each of the original colonies. The militia and its structure actually date back to the founding of each colony. In the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this was March 4th, 1628/9(see note 1) when it received its charter. Each colonies governing body had total control over all internal military and political organizations. The colonies militia was the backbone of its military infrastructure. This infrastructure actually consisted of two separate Armies, with very different purposes. The Militia Army and a Provincial Army. The Webster’s Dictionary defines militia as a group of citizens who are not regular soldiers, but who get some military training for service in an emergency. The New Century Dictionary defines “militia” as being a body of citizen soldiers; esp., a body of men enrolled for military service, called out periodically for drill and exercise but for actual service only in emergencies. Most militia laws call for all males between 16 and 60 to serve in the militia. There were only a few that were exempted. In Fred Anderson’s book, “A People’s Army” (pages 26 & 27) we see that battalions of volunteers being raised for specific campaigns are referred to as Provincial Armies. In another book by Anderson, “Crucible of War” (page 88) we find Provincials defined as troops paid for (see note 2) by their own colonies. They were enlisted for specific campaigns and terms of service not to exceed one year. The use of any specific group of the Militia for a campaign would leave a part of the colony vulnerable for an attack. This made the use of a Provincial Battalion very important for the security of the colonies. The volunteers for these Provincial Battalions would be recruited from the individual militia companies. The militia was a multi purpose military organization. The militia structure was maintained by the militia laws or acts that the General Court would establish. These laws were being set for well over a hundred years before the militia would be made famous with the outbreak of the American Revolution. Many of these laws would remain unchanged throughout that war. The most famous of these laws gives the militia its basic structure and defines who is part of the militia, It states that every able-bodied man between 16 to 60 years of age were part of the Militia. Originally all minorities were excluded, which included Scotsmen, Slaves and Indians. In May 1652 the General Court ruled that all were now allowed to join. But in 1656 Negroes and Indians were again excluded. Ministers, Civil Magistrates, Harvard students and their Faculty were also exempt. However, throughout Massachusetts history, names of slaves and Indians can be found on many of the Militia Rosters. Another concern was the enlistment of Indentured Apprentices and servants. The structure of the Militia consisted of Regiments and Companies. Each County was to furnish a Regiment, originally. However this changed as the population changed. Essex County for example, grew from one Regiment in 1643 to three Regiments in 1687. Another example was Norfolk County which was exempt for nearly three decades from establishing a Regiment. Each Regiment was to be commanded by a Colonel. The Regiments were also to assemble annually for training. Each Town was to furnish a Company of militia to form a Regiment. They were to consist of at least 64 men. If this was impossible several small towns would be combined to form one company. If there were more than 200 hundred men, two or more companies would be formed. An example of this was the town of Ipswich, which formed 3 separate companies of militia in 1680. The ideal company size was 100 men. The Leadership of each company included a Captain, a Lieutenant and an ensign. These men were elected by the company as a whole. The NCOs were then appointed by the Officers of each company. Each Company would also have their own Colors (1635/6 Captain Wright) as well as musicians. The fines collected from the men would go towards purchasing Flags, Banners, Drums and Bugles. The Training days or Musters were conducted by Company, usually on the village green. These were originally held weekly in 1631. The following year they were reduced to monthly. Soon they were reduced to 8 times (except July and August) a year, then to 6 and then were finally reduced to 4 times a year. But emergencies would lead to changes in this. During King Philips War they were held every Sunday. In 1744 the Massachusetts General Court increased the training days to provide more security for the colony. On Training days, time might be spent repairing or building Fortifications. The firing of firearms was strictly forbidden unless they were attending Marksmanship practice. In 1645, the General Court actually ruled that with parent’s permission, boys from ages 10 to 16 could receive basic training from an officer or veteran soldier on training days. This was also the time that equipment would be cleaned and repaired. Sometimes the local blacksmith would be kept very busy fixing muskets or making tools for the militias use. The fact was that the General Court passed a law that ordered that smiths were to lay aside their other work to repair arms Chaplains played a very important role in the militia and their musters. A Chaplain would open and close each day with a prayer. They would also take the time to enforce morality, preaching brief sermons to ensure that drinking and prostitution did not occur. Records from the time actually prove that drunkenness and Prostitution were basically non-existent in the Massachusetts Militia camps. One Correspondent during the French and Indian War recorded the following: “They have five Chaplains and maintain the best order in camp. Public Prayers, Psalm singing and martial exercises engrossed their whole time.” Musters became quite a social event. Whole families would attend. The women would prepare large community meals that they would all partake in. The children would play in large groups, something that they would not normally have any other opportunity to do. This was a chance for everyone to socialize. Many young men would meet their future wives at these outings. Sometimes, work on a Church or other public building might be accomplished instead of training. During time of war, musters became a place for recruitment of volunteers. Provincial Colonels would “Beat their Drums” at the Musters in the various Towns throughout Massachusetts. They were seeking recruits for the Years upcoming campaigns. Local Militia commanders were not to give any obstructions or molestations to the Colonels. Infact, they encouraged and assisted in raising troops. Sometimes special Musters might be called just for this purpose. An example of this is found in Fred Andersons book, A People’s Army (page 44) concerning a David Perry. In 1758 the 16 year old shoemakers apprentice was attending the Muster of the Dighton militia. Perry records that there were visiting officers on the parade grounds. They were there to enlist men for the year’s campaigns. He enlisted as a private in Colonel Preble’s Regiment. British Officers didn’t think very highly of the militia. They felt that their Musters were nothing more than shams. In 1759 General Jeffery Amherst had actually ordered the militia to be trained in Humphrey Blands Treatise of Military Discipline. He also gave orders that Marksmanship training and as well as instruction in the manual of arms be given high priority. He wanted uniformity amongst all militia companies and regiments. It appears that there wasn’t any particular standard drill. The British would gladly use the militia or even the Provincials when emergencies would arise. But mainly they looked upon them as laborers. The militia was used to build things, such as roads, bridges, boats, forts and fortifications. If they could, they would even use them to dig latrines. They also used them for driving wagons, guiding pack horses and cutting firewood. For the Invasion of Fortress Louisbourg, a company of carpenters was included in the invasion force. These men were militia men from Massachusetts. Again in 1759, 300 Massachusetts Militia men were sent on the Quebec expedition to serve as pioneers.

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1637 - The Pequot War

In 1633 the English Puritan settlements at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies had begun expanding into the rich Connecticut River Valley to accommodate the steady stream of new emigrants from England. Other than the hardship of the journey and the difficulty of building homes in what the Puritans consider a wilderness, one major obstacle threatened the security of the expanding settlements: the Indian tribe known as the Pequots.

Despite early attempts to reconcile differences, continued confrontations precipitated the first war between Native Americans and English settlers in northeastern America and set the stage for the ultimate domination of the region by Europeans. The War not only involved the Pequots and the English Puritans, but several other Indians tribes, some of which, including the Mohegans, aligned themselves with the English.

Based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, the Pequot and Mohegan Tribes, Indian peoples of the Algonquian language group, probably had lived in what is now southeastern Connecticut for several hundred years. Mohegan oral tradition holds that the Mohegan-Pequots, originally the same tribe, migrated into the region some time before contact with Europeans. Anthropological evidence shows that the two groups were very closely related. Just before the outbreak of war with the English, the Mohegans, under a sachem named Uncas, split from the Pequots and aligned themselves with the English.

At the time of the Pequot War, Pequot strength was concentrated along the Pequot (now Thames) and Mystic Rivers in what is now southeastern Connecticut. Mystic, or Missituk, was the site of the major battle of the War. Under the leadership of Captain John Mason [PR] from Connecticut and Captain John Underhill from Massachusetts Bay Colony, English Puritan troops, with the help of Mohegan and Narragansett allies, burned the village and killed the estimated 400-700 Pequots living inside the village.

The battle turned the tide against the Pequots and broke the tribe's resistance. Many Pequots in other villages escaped and hid among other tribes, but most of them were eventually killed or captured and given as slaves to tribes friendly to the English. The English, supported by Uncas' Mohegans, pursued the remaining Pequot resistors until all were either killed or captured and enslaved. After the War, the colonists enslaved survivors and outlawed the name "Pequot."

"The effect of the Pequot War was profound. Overnight the balance of power had shifted from the populous but unorganized natives to the English colonies. Henceforth [until King Philip's War], there was no combination of Indian tribes that could seriously threaten the English. The destruction of the Pequots cleared away the only major obstacle to Puritan expansion. And the thoroughness of that destruction made a deep impression on the other tribes."

1675-78 – King Philip’s War

King Philip's War, sometimes called the First Indian War, was an armed conflict between Native American inhabitants of present-day New England and English colonists and their Native American allies in 1675–78. The war is named for the main leader of the Native American side, Metacomet, who had adopted the English name "King Philip" in honor of the previously-friendly relations between his father and the original Mayflower Pilgrims. The war continued in the most northern reaches of New England until the signing of the Treaty of Casco Bay in April 1678.

The war was the greatest calamity in seventeenth-century New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in Colonial American history. In the space of little more than a year, 12 of the region's towns were destroyed and many more were damaged, the economy of Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies was all but ruined and their population was decimated, losing one-tenth of all men available for military service. More than half of New England's towns were attacked by Natives. Hundreds of Wampanoags and their allies were publicly executed or enslaved, and the Wampanoags were left effectively landless.

The French and Indian Wars

The French and Indian Wars were a series of conflicts that occurred in North America between 1688 and 1763, some of which indirectly were related to the European dynastic wars:

  • King William's War, 1688–1697, 1st Intercolonial War
  • Queen Anne's War, 1702–1713, 2nd Intercolonial War, Dummer's War
  • King George's War, 1744–1748, 3rd Intercolonial War, War of Jenkins' Ear
  • The French and Indian War, 1754–1763, 4th Intercolonial War, Father Le Loutre's War

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The Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783),[v] also known as the Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence, was initiated by delegates from thirteen American colonies of British America in Congress against Great Britain. The war was fought over the issue of U.S. independence from the British Empire. Fighting broke out on 19 April 1775: the British army stationed at Boston was harassed by the Massachusetts militia at Lexington and Concord after destroying colonial Assembly powder stores. In June, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington to create a Continental Army and oversee the capture of Boston (April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776). The British fight against the U.S. ended with the Battle of Yorktown and Cornwallis' surrender in October 1781.

The War of 1812

The War of 1812 (18 June 1812 – 17 February 1815) was a conflict fought between the United States and and the United Kingdom. The conflict formally began when the United States declared war on June 18, 1812, and officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814 (even though some fighting continued into 1815). In August 1814, the British burned Washington (including the White House and the Capitol). The Americans then repulsed additional British raids on Baltimore, and New York, and the end of 1814 saw an end to British-American conflict to the north. In early 1815, United States forces decisively defeated an attacking British Army outside New Orleans, which was made up of veterans fresh from their European victories over Napoleon's forces.

The Civil War

The American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865) was a civil war in the United States fought between the Union (states that remained loyal to the federal union, or "the North") and the Confederacy (states that voted to secede, or "the South"). The central cause of the war was the status of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery into territories acquired as a result of the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican–American War. Disunion came after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 United States presidential election on an anti-slavery expansion platform. An initial seven Southern slave states declared their secession from the country to form the Confederacy. Both sides raised large volunteer and conscription armies. Four years of intense combat, mostly in the South, ensued.

The war effectively ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Lee surrendered to Union General Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House, after abandoning Petersburg and Richmond. Confederate generals throughout the Southern states followed suit, the last surrender on land occurring on June 23.