A Greenleaf conundrum

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Applying to a lineage society can be a complicated process, especially if you are applying under a new ancestor or an ancestor with known problems in their lineage. Receiving a rejection letter after submitting such a lineage can make the process feel frustrating if you know the line is right. Sometimes the society will see problems that the applicant does not, or they know that with just the right piece of evidence the line would be acceptable without a problem. A rejection, however, is not always an insurmountable loss. Sometimes, if you look at the sources in question and do some diligent research, you can convince the lineage society that they are mistaken and have your application accepted.

This was the case with an application I worked on with a patriot named Israel Greenleaf. The Sons of the American Revolution had rejected an application using him as an ancestor because they believed that the service for Israel Greenleaf had been attributed to another individual with the same name. The primary source of this information was A Genealogy of the Greenleaf Family by Jonathan Greenleaf, which has two entries for two different patriots, father and son, named Israel Greenleaf. War service being misattributed or mixed with two different ancestors is a fairly common reason that a lineage society might reject an application. Sometimes records do not exist to resolve the dilemma; at other times the right information exists to make an argument that clarifies the identity and service of each person. This was the case with Israel Greenleaf.

Untangling this web first required examining the source material for the Greenleaf genealogy, which were the Massachusetts Revolutionary War Muster Rolls. These muster rolls are organized alphabetically on popular genealogy sites like FamilySearch and fold3. I examined the Israel Greenleaf section of this muster roll and found that two separate service periods had been attributed to one person. Within the same person’s muster roll, we had the following documents:

Israel Greenleaf

Rank: Private

Company leader: Capt. Thomas Brintnall

Regiment leader: Col. Cyprian Howes (Middlesex co.)

Time of enlistment: 28 July 1780

Time of discharge: 1 November 1780

Time of Service: 3 months 8 days

Israel Greenleaf:

Time of enlistment: 22 March 1781

Time of service: 3 years

Age at service: 16 years

Typically, you will see several different muster cards for any one person. What made this one suspicious, however, is that the second person was 16 at the time of his first enlistment, which began 22 March 1781. This was considered the minimum age at which someone could serve in the Revolutionary War. This suggested that the first muster card belonged to a different Israel Greenleaf, since his service began in 1780, when the second Israel Greenleaf would have been 15.

Additional documents in the muster roll include pension applications in which the applicant recalls their service to the War Department. The pension, in this case, was the smoking gun that proved that the Israel Greenleaf in this muster roll packet contained the service of two different people. The younger Israel Greenleaf stated in his pension:

“I Israel Greenleaf do swear that I belonged to Captain Turners Company – Colonel Tuppers Regiment Massachusetts Line – that I enlisted in the Month of March to wit; the twenty second day one thousand seven hundred and eighty one – and served until discharged in January one thousand seven hundred and eighty four.”

In applying for his pension, Israel would have included the totality of his time served in the war. This information demonstrates that he began his service on 22 March 1781, and did not serve before that. This means that the previous service must belong to his father, Israel Greenleaf.

By closely examining the muster roll packet for Israel Greenleaf, we learned that the documents within actually pertained to two separate people. This would not have been evident to SAR when they reviewed the muster roll as part of their application process, since they appear as one person’s materials. A deeper dive, however, revealed that this muster roll was assembled and digitized in such a way that assumed that the documents belonged to the same person, and this was not the case.

In the end, SAR ended up changing their decision on this particular application because they saw the same issues with the muster roll after they were pointed out for them. It can seem like an overwhelming obstacle when your lineage application is rejected by the society on one basis or another. Understanding the problem and careful research, however, can sometimes correct the decision.


James Edward Greenleaf, Genealogy of the Greenleaf Family (Boston: Frank Wood, Printers, 1896).

Israel Greenleaf, “Massachusetts, Revolutionary War, Index Cards to Muster Rolls, 1775-1783,” GS Film Number 002026996, viewed on FamilySearch.org.

About Raymond Addison

Raymond earned his BA in History from Stonehill College. During his time there he worked as an archivist's aide. He took roles in digitizing record collections and in preserving and restoring 19th century business ledgers. Prior to working with NEHGS, he worked with the Cambridge Public Library as a circulation librarian. He began studying his own genealogy as a hobby and quickly started showing library users how they could explore the field for themselves. In addition to his genealogical interests, Raymond enjoys being active in his free time and is an avid tennis player.

16 thoughts on “A Greenleaf conundrum

  1. I will probably be unpopular for saying so, but lineage societies smack of the elitism of cliques in High School, Fraternities and Sororities in College and an exclusivity that I find bothersome. I liked your post in that they were proved wrong. Even though I am eligible (cousins have been approved) I would rather beling to more inclusive organizations like NEGHS.

    1. Eliteism? Well that’s for sure. When we were first married, she belonged to the DAR. She got a notice from them that since she was under 35, she couldn’t be a real member, but she could be a gofor at their convention (be sure to not wear tennis shoes). This really pissed her off, she has a doctorate, a professional career and three kids and she doesn’t get to be a real member? Gimme a break. Even though our grandkids can trace back to 5 veterans, I’m not really interested in the SAR.

    2. Kelly Wheaton your attitude towards lineages societies is not as unpopular as you might think. I value accuracy of information shared about family connections. Yet I prefer being part of organizations that reflect our American values.

    3. Kelly, To my mind, your comments are never unpopular! You have an astute mind and a peaceful way about you. Don’t be too tough on lineage societies though. Like you I’ve moved away from them, largely due to my dislike of rubber chicken and my need for genealogy over ideology. That being said, lineage societies foster a beautiful means of objective authentication of ancestral lines. Are they wrong sometimes? Hell yes. Are they stubborn about change? Incredibly so. Will they make you any better a genealogist? Yes, they definitely will. They will challenge you where you don’t see the challenge and make you go that extra yard to either prove yourself right, or, if you are so fortunate, them wrong.

      I get your misgivings about their lack of inclusion, but consider the value in the ancestries they keep and preserve. Quite often, the people in lineage societies are also your cousins by blood or marriage which, after all, is about as inclusive as you can get. – Definitely avoid the rubber chicken though and their often archaic sense of decorum. Aside from this they can honestly be some of the nicest most honorable people you could ever hope to meet.

      Please don’t ever stop fighting the good fight!
      All my best!

      1. Jeff.
        Really appreciate your thoughtful response. And yes lineage societies have value as custodians and gate keepers, but every coin has two sides. Sometimes the heads are not always pretty.

  2. It could possibly be that the Israel Greenleaf who enlisted in 1780 and served only 3 months was just 15. When they found this out, they bounced the guy out of the army and they told him to come back when he was 16, one year later. That lines up with the second muster roll methinks. This happened to a family member of mine in the Civil War.

  3. Greenleaf vs Greensleet
    Raymond, a very helpful explanation of name confusions especially as a tutorial for us amateur family genealogists! In my very preliminary family tree I have an “Eleanor” or “Hannah” Greenleaf or Greensleet born abt 1688 in Salem.

  4. Are the Greenleaf and Greensleet family names in the 17th C often confused, or are they usually the same name with different spelling? Thank you. Asking for a 6th Gr Grandmother Eleanor, or Hannah, B abt 1685 in Salem…

    1. Hello and thank you for your comments. I am unfamiliar with this Greensleet family in Salem. According to the Greenleaf Genealogy, the ancestors of Israel Greenleaf arrived in Newburyport, MA by 1639. Newburyport and Salem are close enough, so I would assume that some confusion could come between them.

      1. Thank you for your reply, Raymond. Part of my confusion is the two different last names, GREENLEAF and GREENSLEET. Are they two spellings of the same family name? Or are they two completely separate families? Does the Greenleaf genealogy address this issue?

        1. The Greenleaf genealogy does not contain any Greensleets. They could be a separate family, although I don’t know much about them.

  5. Hurray for you! I have had an ongoing argument with NSDAR over a mother. They keep my research material for their library but reject the argument. If I can ever get an article about it published, it proves my mother is correct; the other is her sister. But until then – grrrrrr.

  6. Thanks so much for posting the results of this “in the weeds” effort. The mix of family information (two or more people in a file) does happen a good deal with probate material, too. In a Bristol County, Massachusetts instance, from circa 1807, the estates of two sisters are mixed together under the name of the one who died first. Also, a second thanks as your post prompted me to add a new sub-file to my NEHGS-VB main file here at Outlook: VB-Military USA. I treasure the information and techniques presented through VB, but how to find it when needed? I have to pick up my half-hearted organization. At least this one is where I will be able to find it!

  7. I am reminded of a similar problem I have in my own ancestry that I have not been able to resolve. My GG grandfather’s grave has a metal star marker next to it from the War of 1812. Having looked at the original documents at the National Archives, I am quite convinced they refer to an older man of the same name who lived in another county about 160 miles away.
    I wrote to the local historical society and they told me the markers were put on the grave within the last 50 years or so and the man who researched the military records and put up the markers has since died. I have tried to find out what he based his records on, but nobody seems to know and they are unwilling to do anything about it.

    What recourse do we have in such a situation to set the record straight?

    1. Hello, yes this sounds like it could be another possible case of confusion. All you can do is show your research to the body responsible for putting up the marker and explain why it is an error. Sometimes you need to be diligent, possibly even annoying, with the people you are trying to convince to get them to move on this. It might otherwise be worth trying to figure out who placed the marker and getting in contact with any family he has to see what his research was.

      1. Thanks for your reply. Much as I don’t like being “that annoying person,” I may have to keep trying… It has been a few years since my initial attempt, so with luck there will be a new contact person at the historical society who will be more receptive to the idea that a mistake has been made. I picture my ancestor squirming in his grave, since he was the first mayor of what was originally a Quaker town and would probably not appreciate the military marker!

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