At least 75 percent of the people who use the Delaware Public Archives do so to trace their family roots. Those researchers got a big boost to their efforts Aug. 7 with the donation of 700 applications presented by the Delaware Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Founded in 1890, DESSAR members are descended from men who took part in the Revolution. Their goal is to preserve the memories, ideals and sacrifices made in the nation's struggle for independence.
The files, which date from 1891 to 1976, contain a wealth of information, including names of ancestors, dates and places of birth and death, parentage and military assignments of their Revolutionary ancestors.
The older records are particularly valuable because the men who prepared them sometimes were only two or three generations removed from their forebears and often had first-hand information about those ancestors not available anywhere else.
"With each passing generation, there are greater and greater chances for errors to be made," said Outreach Services Manager Tom Summers. "I think it's great because this is information that's taken from sources much closer to the individual himself."
For example, Summers noted, detailed information was not collected on birth or death records before 1913, and census records before 1850 exclude spouses and children, listing only the head of household.
Each submission is personally signed by the applicant, giving the modern-day researcher an added bonus: the autograph of his or her ancestor.
Men wanting to join the DESSAR and the national Sons of the American Revolution must prove their descent from a Revolutionary War ancestor. Thorough research and unimpeachable documentation is required on each application, which is then reviewed before membership is granted.
The records' journey to state ownership began last year with a call from DESSAR historian Michael Keen.
The DESSAR had more than 1,600 records on file, all stored in a file cabinet, none of which had been digitized, a process he completed after two years. Keen said.
"Many states don't have buildings to preserve their records," Keen said. "Other states had given their files to historical societies or their public archives. Our board of managers decided to do that."
Keen was understandably concerned something could happen to the irreplaceable files, Summers said.
"It's an issue when you have these types of valuable records, and if something happens, they're gone," he said. "Knowing the Archives' reputation for preservation and conservation for future generations, he decided to turn them over to us."
At first, Keen brought in copies of the records for a review and to screen out any files submitted by persons still living. Those files, Keen indicated to Summers, will be donated as time passes.
The records can be amazingly detailed, Summers said. One, submitted by the DESSAR's first president, Thomas Francis Bayard more than 110 years ago, details his ancestry back to that of Richard Bassett, a man credited with raising the First Delaware Regiment, one of the largest military contingents in the Continental Army.
Page 2 of 2 - Descended from Bassett and his second wife, Bayard served as secretary of state and ambassador to Great Britain under President Grover Cleveland.
You don't have to live in Delaware to become a member, either. The files contain a December 1895 application by Alexander Griswold Cummins Jr., of New York City, claiming membership through his great-grandfather, Daniel Cummins. Cummins detailed his ancestor's military exploits in tiny but neat handwriting at the bottom of the application form.
Other well-known Delaware surnames in the files include Stockley, Townsend, Sipple, duPont, Clayton and Richardson.
Although now in the Archives' possession, the new files first must be processed and recorded before they are available to the public, Summers said.
That should be sometime in the fall, he added.
For more information about accessing these new records at the Archives, call (302) 744-5000.