Friday, February 15, 2013

Pension Record Goldmining

Yesterday I finally talked my hubby into letting me order William's Pension record! I'm super excited as these can be a goldmine of information.

"What is a military pension record and why do I care?"

The federal government gave pensions to officers, disabled veterans, and widows or orphans of veterans who served in the military. Not every veteran received or even applied for pension, but rejected applications were still filed and may include all of the same papers. They can contain an incredible amount of vital information, and since they were filled out by the veteran himself (unless its a widows pension) it is a PRIMARY SOURCE!

Using William as an example, I am hoping to find primary source documentation for the following:
-Birthplace - which gets its own line because of its importance in continuing my research beyond the US, which I will discuss in detail in an upcoming blog post "The Holy Grail of Crossing the Pond"
-Marriage documentation on his remarriage to Catherine (from the widows pension)
-Details about his experiences in battle from doctors examinations of battle wounds and from fellow soldiers
-Details that reveal his everyday life, like his income, health, family, work, etc

"OK, so how do I get one of these pension record things?"

There are lots of ways to get pension files. They exist for most military service. We'll focus on Civil War (Union) pension records. If you want to search for a confederate pension record you'll need to check state archives as these are not kept at the federal level (for the obvious reason that they served the army of another country in fighting AGAINST the US).

If you're not sure whether you ancestor fought in the Civil War, or you know he did but you're not sure which regiment or how to get started, then this video from is a good primer.

This is an amazing overview of pension records done by which discusses what is found in a pension file based on pension laws and procedures. It's both brief and, well, awesome.

Also, here is a link to a blog post at "Reclaiming Kin" that emphasizes the color that witness statements can add to your ancestor's story. These witness statements make up a huge percentage of the papers in a pension file.

Pension records are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC. There are 5 possible ways to access these records:
1.)Go there. Make copies.
2.)Visit one of the regional centers. Civil War pensions are only in DC, but check out this link for locations and holdings.
3.)Order online here. It costs an arm and a leg, but that's still cheaper than airfare or gasoline for most of us.
4.)Hire a researcher. If you need to do some digging or there are several records you need, then hiring a researcher might be your best option.
5.) While there are no pension records on this paid-subscription site, they do have a complete pension index which will expedite each of the other 4 options. They have also begun putting the widows pension records online.

I have decided to go with choice #3... order online. I spent $80 on a COMPLETE file because... well, I guess because I can't do anything halfway. We'll see later if I regret that, lol!

This is the order form I sent in. It includes all the info they ask for when you order. Don't worry! Only some of it is required.

Unfortunately, it takes "42 - 120 days" to ship, so... Let the waiting begin! One down... 41 - 119 more to go.

*whistling Jeopardy theme*


I ended up realizing after I ordered the record that it would be more economical and MUCH faster to hire a researcher. In most cases the prices were WAY above me, but there were one or 2 researchers that were below $100. I ended up using Vonnie Zullo. She is a professional genealogist and researcher out of Fairfax, VA and has done work for the popular genealogy show on NBC Who Do You Think You Are. She got me hi-res scans in a PDF of both William's compiled military service record AND his entire 37 page pension/widows pension file (her max without an additional charge is 60 pages) for $75!!! No travel, copy, or postage expenses. This means that I got $115 worth of documents (by NARA rates) for $40 less than that. Not to mention that I got the files from her less than a week after I sent her a confirmation email. I gave her the go ahead, she emailed me back that she had the files, I mailed her a check on a Monday afternoon, and Wednesday at noon I had the PDF in my inbox. Amazing! I know you're curious what I found, but you'll have to wait for my special St. Patrick's Day post on Sunday. ; )

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