Genealogy Introduction—Military Research at the National Archives: Pension Records


Hello, my name is John Deeben. I’m a genealogy
specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration. And in this lecture we’re
going to talk about how to research military service and the U.S. Military using pension
records. Of course, the pension records that we have here at the National Archives here
in Washington, DC document service in U.S. Military between 1775 and 1916. One major
exception, we do not have Confederate pension records. Of course, the U.S. Government did
not issue pensions to Confederate veterans. Some states did issue such pensions to those
veterans. So, to find them you need to go to the state archives, and that’s depending
on which state the Confederate was living in at the time he applied. Otherwise, there
were different types of pensions that were issued by the Federal Government. Initially,
a veteran could only receive a pension based on disability that was incurred during his
time of service. But as time went on, the pension law became more liberal, and veterans
could receive a pension just for having served in the military and also widows and dependents
could also receive pensions based on a veteran’s service. And there were also many pension
acts over the years. So, if a veteran or widow or some such applicant was rejected for a
pension under one act, they could reapply under a later one and hope to get a pension.
Pension records are usually the most valuable record that you can use for genealogy research
in terms of documenting someone’s not only military service but also family information
as well because the pensions included the name of the individual/ the veteran, his dates
of service and also his periods of service, the units he was attached with during his
service in the military, his residence. It will give you information about his medical
history especially if he applied for a pension specifically based on a specific disability.
It will usually give his death date. And, especially if a widow or dependent filed for
pension, they had to prove their relationship to the veteran. So, in these instances, you’ll
see a lot of family documents that might show up including original marriage certificates
or pages out of the family Bible that were sent in by these widows to verify that they
were married to the deceased veteran. We’re going to look at a specific example of a pension
record using William Graham who served in the Revolutionary War. The envelope that contains
his pension file is used for basic information. It includes his name, the name of his widow
Mary, and it gives you the pension certificate number, and also shows the state that he served
from, in this case, both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Both William and his widow
Mary, they both applied for pensions during their lifetimes. William Graham applied for
his pension under the act of March 18, 1818. And then, after his death in 1824, his wife
Mary applied for her own pension under the act of July 4, 1836, so both of their pension
certificates are included in the pension file. William Graham also had to provide a declaration
or an affidavit for pension to prove that he needed this type of benefits. So that the
information that you can find on his declaration shows that he was 62 years old at the time
that he applied on April 21, 1818. At the time that he applied, he was living in the
town of Hadley in Saratoga County, New York. His declaration shows that he enlisted in
Captain Abraham’s company of the First Massachusetts Regiment in 1777 for a period of three years.
It indicates that he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill which actually occurred two
years before that service in 1775. And he indicates that he served under Captain William
Scott of the New Hampshire line. So, there are two distinct periods of service that warrant
further investigation. Over the years, he indicates that he lost his discharge papers.
So to verify his service, he includes a statement from Lewis Scott who was the son of his company
commander William Scott. And what Lewis basically does is provide a statement saying that yes,
he remembers both William Graham and his father William Scott sitting around the fireside
in their elderly years regaling about the military service during the Revolution. William
Graham, at this time that he applied for a pension also had to prove that he was destitute
and he needed these benefits, so he provided an inventory of his property which actually
turns out to be pretty meager. He shows no real property that he owns and list of personal
property is pretty poor. Among other things that he lists includes two hogs valued at
five dollars, one spade valued at twenty-five cents, a tea kettle valued at seventy-five
cents, and so forth. He indicates that he was a basket maker by trade, but due to his
age and illness he is no longer able to work. His wife is age 68 at this time and is also
unable to work. And he also says that he is supporting a daughter whose age 30, is lame
and subject to frequent fits. So all these factors together are putting a burden on his
household and so he states that he is unable to subsist without a pension or some type
of private or public charity. And this is the case that he makes and why he should get
a pension from the Federal Government. After his death, Mary Graham applied for her own
pension and she again provides her own declaration. Filed in 1837, and at this time she was 86
years of age. She includes a copy of the affidavit file filed by William in 1820 detailing his
service under both Captain Scott of the New Hampshire line and Captain Abraham Hunt in
the First Massachusetts Regiment, and she also mentions two other services under Captain
John Miller and Captain Timothy Remick’s Company. But she doesn’t provide specific
states or any more information about what those services were about. The pension files
also includes a statement showing Mary Graham’s death which occurred about a year later after
she applied for a pension. Mary died June 10, 1838. The statement of death includes
the surviving children, the legitimate heirs who were still living at that time. So, it
shows that she had two daughters, Lucinda Eggleston who is married to Amos Eggleston
living in Saratoga County, New York and a Nancy Clayton who was married to Farmer Clayton
living in Fulton County, New York. So again, here you can find useful information about
the family of the veteran. Up until the Twentieth Century, before these files were transferred
to the National Archives, they were held by the VA and individuals would still write into
the VA requesting genealogy information. So that when a request like this came in, someone
at the VA would look at the file and then type up a summary of the important information
within the records. So, if you’re lucky, you might also come across a typed summary
that’s also included as part of the record. So, we have that in the case of William Graham.
There’s a two-page summary which provides very good information about his service. The
first paragraph again gives a summary of all of his military service. A second paragraph
shows specific information about his marriage to Mary. It provides her maiden name in this
case and also the date that they were married. And the third paragraph gives more specific
information about the surviving children. It mentions, as we’ve seen before, Lucinda
and Nancy, and it also mentions a daughter Rhoda who we can assume was probably the lame
daughter he was supporting at the time that he applied for a pension. So again, the availability
of records, the majority of pension records are only available in textual form that we
have with the exception of the Revolutionary War pension files. Those available both on
microfilm and they’re online through Ancestry and also Footnote. You can also find other
records on HeritageQuest or, if you want to request a traditional search of the records,
you can use the mail-in form that’s also available on the National Archives’ website
at “http://www.archives.gov”.

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