Unidentified woman, possibly a nurse, during Civil War

Finding Your Female Ancestors Through Pension Files

March is Women’s History Month. Last month, I talked about finding ancestors and family stories in military pension files. What I didn’t mention is that pension files are a great place to find our female ancestors. I did tell that I didn’t know who my great, great grandmother was until I obtained my great, great grandfather, John Malin Carder’s Civil War pension files. In those files, I learned that John had been married three times.  First, to Elizabeth Steen and then to Caroline Morris. Both died very young. John then married Eliza Jane Dobbins to whom he was married until his death nearly sixty years later.

The information and clues in John’s pension files led me to other records and I began finding possible siblings for both John and Eliza Jane.  John stated that he married Eliza Jane Dobbins on April 1, 1855 in Xenia, Greene County, Ohio.  I searched the Greene County marriage records for John and Eliza Jane and found a few more Carders and Dobbins who married during the same time period.  I copied these marriages also, just in case they were relatives.

The beauty of pension files is that they tell you everywhere your ancestors lived throughout their lives and when they lived in those places.  That key unlocks the passage to trace them and find their records in each of those places.  As I researched in each county they had lived, I took the list of marriages I had found in Greene County.  I hit the jackpot when I found most of the people whose names were on the list buried near each other in a small, rural cemetery in Champaign County and another one buried just across the county line in Miami County.  Four of the men whose graves I found had served in the Civil War, two in the same company as John M. Carder. Two of them had the surname, Dobbins, just like my great, great grandmother’s maiden name.  The other two men were the same names of the husbands of the two Carder women named in the Greene County marriage records.

Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut feeling. You will never find that in a book, class, or lecture on how to trace your family tree but it’s true.  Sometimes, something inside you says this is right, this is who you’ve been looking for. Follow up on that feeling. Call it a hunch, a gut feeling, or instinct but most of the time, mine have been right.  That’s not to say it’s right every time, but more often than not.  What do you have to lose?  If it’s wrong, then you aren’t any farther than you were when you started so you just move on and keep looking.

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This feeling said that the couples on that marriage list and buried near each other were John and Eliza Jane’s siblings.  I had to find out so I took a chance and sent for pension files of the veterans whose graves I’d found. I believed they could be the husbands of John’s sisters and the brothers of  Eliza Jane.  By the way, if you do order a record from the National Archives and it turns out not to be your ancestor, you can send it back for a refund.

What I received was page after page that confirmed the relationships among my great, great grandparents and the people who I believed to be their siblings.  From the information and clues in these pension files, I was able to find more and more records on all of them.

Correlating the information in the pension files and the civil records for the people named in the pensions files, I found two of John’s previously unknown sisters, their husbands, some of their children, John’s daughter from his second marriage, Eliza Jane’s parents and all of her siblings. A few of these family members’ relationships were directly stated in the pension files.  Most, however, needed other records to reach sound conclusions that these were John and Eliza Jane’s families.

Had I not gotten great, great grandfather Carder’s pension file and followed up by getting the other pension files, I may never have found their families, including these seventeen female ancestors. Follow the pensions to find the ladies!


© 2013 Deborah A. Carder Mayes   All rights reserved.

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Image: Unidentified woman, possibly a nurse, during Civil War, bet 1860 and 1863 | Library of Congress

9 thoughts on “Finding Your Female Ancestors Through Pension Files”

  1. The photo of the woman in the “polka-dot look” dress is so similar to a photo I have of my great-great grandmother Hannah Jane (DeWitt) Allen – same style and pattern in dress and same hairstyle. Hannah was born in Fayette County, Ohio, in 1812 and lived there until sometime between 1860 & 1870 when they moved to Missouri. Do you know who the woman in your photo was and when and where the photo was taken? Mine doesn’t have a date on it. Thanks – Bonnie

  2. I don’t know. My Eliza Jane was born in Ross County in 1828. Her parents were William Dobbins and Mary Goldsberry. William iis a brick wall. I don’t know where he was from or who his parents or siblings were. Perhaps, we’ll make a connection in time.

  3. dianne neu harvey

    Just wondering if your Eliza Jane Dobbins is related to my Sarah Jane Dobbins.

    Sarah Jane Dobbins b.Sept. 1828 Pemberton, Shelby Co. OH to James DOBBINS and Mary Forsythe
    m. June 1846 Shelby Co. OH to Harvey AUSTIN
    d. July 1909 Sidney, Shelby Co. OH

  4. Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed my article. If you go up under writers and find my name, any articles I write for Family History Daily will be listed, including these first two. Also, I hope if you like my articles that you’ll follow my blog, Rambling on the Ancestral trail and my column for the In-Depth Genealogist.

    I’m sure that the National Archives doesn’t advertise that you can send a record back if it’s not yours. I just know that one time I ordered a pension file that was not for the ancestor I needed it for and when I contacted them and told them, they told me I could return it and would not be charged. It as for one of my great, great grandfather’s cousins and since I research the whole family, I kept it.

  5. The whole article was interesting and good information. One short sentence popped out for me though. I didn’t know records could be returned to the National Archives for a refund. That is really good to know. It probably isn’t a full refund, but that is o.k.

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