Approximately 2,400 men crossed the Delaware River with George Washington on Christmas Day 1776. Today, countless modern-day Americans claim some of those soldiers as their ancestors. But are the stories that have been passed around their Thanksgiving dinner tables fact, or simply family lore?
Hard to say, according to experts.
“Proving one of your ancestors crossed the Delaware in 1776 is very hard to do using documentary evidence,” says Katherine Ludwig, librarian at the David Library of the American Revolution. “We have people ask us all the time for a list of the men who crossed, but that list simply doesn’t exist.”
The reason? Record-keeping in 1776 was spotty at best. At the time of the crossing, soldiers signed up for three- and six-month stints in the army, which meant that men constantly moved among different units, brigades and regiments. Many times, records such as muster rolls were incomplete or simply nonexistent.
Researching the Crossing
Into this information vacuum stepped the Washington Crossing chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
In 2017, two of its members took on the monumental task of generating a list of men who made the 1776 crossing. Kathy Blessman and Sally Osbeck were tapped for the newly formed Crossing Research Committee.
It would be an understatement to say it’s been a time-intensive project.
“Generating a list of individual men has never been done before, but we naively took on the job,” Blessman says with a laugh. “Our first stop was the David Library.”
There, they spoke to Ludwig, who gave them a good starting point – a list of regiments and brigades that were known to be at the crossing. Ludwig also provided suggestions on how to find men’s names within these regiments and directed them to two books: The Continental Army by Robert Wright and Trenton and Princeton: Washington Crosses the Delaware by David Bonk.
“These initial sources provided us with the approximate number of men under a given officer,” Blessman says. “Another DAR member directed us to revwarapps.org, which contains a database of transcribed pension requests from some men who participated in the war. By searching keywords like Trenton, Battle of Trenton or Delaware Crossing, we could locate men who referenced the crossing in their pension applications.”
Once they exhausted that website, Blessman and Osbeck began focusing on other groups, such as General John Glover’s 14th Colonial Regiment from Marblehead, MA. This group was comprised of 177 seamen who manned the boats that moved Washington’s troops across the river.
“For this group, we were able to acquire a copy of Glover’s May-July 1776 ledger book, which lists each man in the group,” Blessman says. “We are currently attempting to determine if these men were actually at the crossing, since the book is dated before December 1776. We are researching this list using Ancestry.com and a military site within it called Fold 3 to access war service records.”
Connecting the Dots
Blessman describes the research she and Osbeck are doing as “a trip down the rabbit hole. It’s like investigative work, one thing leads to another.” To date, the duo has identified about 800 names out of 2,400. Some are men who definitely crossed – officers are the easiest to confirm since they were better known – but the vast majority will be listed as “probable.”
“In most cases, we’ve come to realize that there is no definitive way to determine who actually crossed,” Blessman says. “For example, even if we know a particular regiment crossed, and even if we know John Smith was in that regiment at the time of the crossing, it still doesn’t prove he crossed. He may have been unable to cross due to illness, which was very common, or he may have remained back in his home state with part of the regiment.”
Blessman’s advice to those claiming a 1776 river crosser: start with a name. “If you have the name of a family member you think crossed, that’s a great head start because there are many resources you can use to look for them,” she says. “Our biggest challenge was that we were starting with no names, which is very difficult.
“Family records such as notated bibles or any biographical narratives are also helpful,” she adds. “Don’t discount local resources. It’s sometimes amazing the amount of information local libraries have on history. And if you know the county in which an ancestor was born or lived, local historical societies may contain information you won’t find online.”
Blessman says their work is ongoing and she hopes that one day the information she and Osbeck have turned up will be compiled into a single database with an accompanying narrative.
“This should be a living, amendable document because you never know what researchers will turn up in the future,” Blessman says.