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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Virginia Revolutionary War record for a William Bonnell

John Bunnell gave an update to his research:
I''ve been heavily occupied at work recently, so I've not been able to think much about Bunnell/Bonnel geneology.  However, questions regarding the Virginia Revolutionary War record for a William Bonnell are still churning through my mind.  As a reminder, it was a salary payment made on 28 April 1785 for naval service that I sent earlier (Virginia Auditors Accounts, volume XXXI, page 31).  I've examined the document again and determined that all the payments on that page were for service in the Virginia State Navy (as opposed to the US Navy) in the Revolutionary War.  In the attached spreadsheet, I've cross referenced the names versus the extremely incomplete set of muster rolls I've found online.  I was actually surprised at the number of individuals I was able to match against their ships of service.  Unfortunately, this did not include William Bonnell.  Also, I was not able to identify any trends that would tie William to any other person on the page.  As you can see from the spreadsheet, officers and crew from all of the Virginia ships are mixed together. 
I have discovered that a "Master" in the navies of the day was not the captain, but instead a relatively low-ranking warrant officer who was responsible for navigation and the fitting of the ship.  This level of responsibility is confirmed on the William Bonnell pay sheet, as his line has no "No XXX" annotation associated with the payment, unlike the commissioned officers (Lieutenants, Captains, and the Commodore).  
I know that we have no other indication that William Bonnell had any connection with the sea.  I find it intriguing, however, that at least two ships of the Virginia line, the Dragon and the Pocahontas, were built and outfitted on the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.  This area is the northern border of Spotsylvania County, where the Bonnell, Wright, and Rossell families were living at the time.  The crews for these two ships were recruited from that area from 1777 until 1778.
Some other points to ponder: 
  • This Bonnell family appears to have been tradesmen rather than farmers.  We know that Samuel, Sr. and Samuel, Jr. were both blacksmiths.  We've not found that William Bonnell owned land at any place he lived, so I think it is reasonable to assume he was also involved in a trade.  Tradesmen would seem to be sought after in the initial outfitting of a ship.  
  • It is seems clear that although the William Bonnell in this record served honorably enough to receive pay in 1785, this service did not result in a land grant.  Land grants were only awarded if the service member completed three years of service, so this individual must have served less than this period.
  • We've not found that anyone has claimed connection to this naval William Bonnell with the DAR or SAR.  Unlike most of these records, where there is a stamped of people trying to prove their Revolutionary War connection, the familial connection to this record seems lost.
  • We still don't know why Jacob Wright died, but that event occurred while these ships were outfitting and recruiting at Fredericksburg.  Was there any connection?
  • There were other Bonnells and Burnells involved in shipping further north during this period.  Is there any connection? (see attached photos).
 In summary, we still don't have enough information to say what this record means, but I think the coincidences are strong enough to justify a deep research dive to determine if this naval Bonnell is the same as our ancestor.  I'll include a couple of websites I found useful so far...

George Farris responded:

Thanks for this information and analysis.  I had also been searching through the RW records available on this week for any Bonnell records that might apply to the William Bonnell of Spotsylvania VA.  There were none that I could find there.  The Brumbaugh compilation from 1936 that you reference is probably as complete a  list as exists anywhere for the VA naval vessels and their crews.  But, again, no William Bonnell is listed so these rolls must not be complete since the one VA pay record that you found does show William Bonnell as a VA ship's master.  Given the timeframe and location refernces that you cite involving the VA naval vessels it seems likely that this was our William Bonnell.  But there may not be any way to verify that from existing records.  I've encountered a similar situation regarding John Farris's RW service.  There seem to be no muster or pay rolls or other direct evidence of his service other than his own account in his pension application that is consistent with historical records.

When you make it back to do more research in the VA Archives some time in the future perhaps you can find more about this William Bonnell.  I think we have already identified enough other areas requiring more research there to occupy many days.  Perhaps your military career will take you back to that area and allow some research time in the future.

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