John Holbrook

Our Revolutionary War Ancestor

Written by Annette R. Nelson

            Did you know that one of our direct-line Holbrook ancestors served in the Revolutionary War?  If you’ve ever wondered if you could join the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) or SAR (Sons of the American Revolution), the answer is a resounding YES!  Joseph, Chandler & Phoebe Holbrook’s grandfather (Moses’s father) served as a soldier – not once, but three times – in the Revolutionary War. 

             In 1775, the Holbrook family was living in Sturbridge , Massachusetts .  Amariah (John’s older brother) was asked to join the military.  Amariah was the oldest living child in the family, and he may have had obligations that made it difficult to serve.  Whatever the reason, John, who was 24 at the time, stepped in as a substitute and served for his brother. 

             Today, we think of enlisting in terms of years.  Not so back then.  John went to Roxbury  in September for half a month.  While there he was “employed there much of the time in building forts & breastworks” (a temporary, quickly constructed fortification, usually breast-high).  End of service.

             Three months later, John enlisted for a period of two months.  Once again, he was sent to Roxbury to build forts and breastworks.  Up to this point, John’s service was labor-intensive, but not terribly dangerous.

             In May of 1776, John enlisted once again.  This time he was sent into active duty.  He was stationed part of this time in and about the City of New York .  He was in the battle at Harlem Heights and White Plains (see accompanying articles about these battles).  In December, five months later, he was dismissed from service.

             To encourage enlistment and prevent desertion and resignation during the war, pension legislation was enacted by the U.S. Government.  There were three principal types of pensions:  (1) “disability” or “invalid pensions” were awarded to servicemen for disabilities incurred in the line of duty; (2) “service pensions” to veterans who served for specified periods of time; and (3) “widow’s pensions” to women whose husbands had been killed in the war or were veterans who had served for specified periods of time.

             Neither John Holbrook nor his wife qualified for any of these pensions.  He wasn’t disabled, his service was less than nine months, and he didn’t die in the war.  At least, he didn’t qualify until an Act was passed in 1832 – 56 years after John had been dismissed from service.  Veterans who had served for less than two years, but more than six months, were now eligible for pensions.  John had served seven months and 15 days.

             By 1832, John was getting to be an old man.  He was eligible for a pension, but in order to claim benefits, he needed proof of his service.  He testified that he never received a written discharge, he had no evidence of his service, nor was there any living person that he could recollect who would know of his service.  Since he was 80 years old, it’s not surprising that many of his comrades had passed away.

             Within three months of Congress passing the new Act, John Holbrook appeared in Open Court to plead his case.  His claimed service was presented, then he made the following statement:

“I was born in Brimfield an adjoining town to Sturbridge on the first day of November 1751.  I have a record of my age in my bible & suppose it is also on the town records in Brinfield [sic].  I was living in Sturbridge when called into service, & have lived in Sturbridge all the times since the revolutionary war, where I now live.  I volunteered in in [sic] all the cases aforesaid.  I served half of a month as a substitute as before stated.  The names of the officers I have before stated.  I served all the aforesaid periods in the militia.  I never received in any case, written discharges.  The Rev. Joseph S. Clark, one of the clergymen in said Sturbridge & David Wright, Esq., of said Sturbridge testify as to my character for veracity & their belief of my services as a soldier of the revolution…” 

Nine of John’s neighbors were there to vouch for his character.  They submitted:  

“We the subscribed inhabitants of the town of Sturbridge aforesaid certify that we have for many years been well acquainted with the said John Holbrook, Esq., that he has between ten and twenty years held & now holds a magistrate’s *, that we consider him to be a person of unquestionable veracity, & that we have complete confidence in his statement in relation to his service as a soldier in the revolutionary war.”


“We, Joseph S. Clark, a clergyman residing in Sturbridge aforesaid & David Wright, Esq., of said Sturbridge hereby certify that we are well acquainted with John Holbrook Esq., who has subscribed to the foregoing declaration, that we believe him to be of the age of 80 years, that he has reputed & declared in the neighborhood where he resides to have been a soldier of the revolution & that we * in that opinion.”  

And, to add to these testimonies, George Davis, the Justice of the Peace submitted the following regarding their characters:  

“I have the above … selectmen of said Sturbridge subscribed the above certificate in my presence, & I certify that I am well acquainted with all the above named persons and that their characters for veracity are good & unquestionable.”  

Not surprising, John was awarded his pension of $25.00 per year until he died at the age of 87.


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