Pension Files Reveal Family Stories

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Pension Files Reveal Family Stories

Names and dates are the core of our family history research but no one wants just lists of names and dates.  What we really want is to take those names and breathe some life into them.  We want real people to go with those names.  So, how do we do that?                         

To start, we talk to our living family members and ask what they know about the name we are trying to bring to life.  Sometimes, the stories passed to us by other family members were newsworthy enough to have been in the newspapers.  In those instances, we search old newspapers for the details and the true stories.

My favorite sources for stories not passed down are military pension files.  I have a large number of Revolutionary and Civil War pension files and have pieced together many stories about my ancestors that would not be found elsewhere.

When a veteran or his widow applied for a military pension, he or she needed witnesses to verify that the information given in the application was true.  These witnesses would make signed, sworn affidavits that certain information in the application was true and how they knew it was true.  The information in these affidavits are like little nuggets of gold found to make our stories shine.

When I began researching my family history, the only thing I knew about my great, great grandfather, John Carder was that he was born in Virginia and had served in the Civil War.  I didn’t know whether he lived in Ohio or Virginia during the war nor on which side he had fought.  My great aunt was still living at the time and took me to see his burial site.  With the regimental information inscribed on his tombstone, I was able to order a copy of his pension file.

The pension file was like hitting the jackpot.  It was a goldmine full of nuggets of information that enabled me to put together not only his life, but told me who my great, great grandmother was.  Now, I was able to trace her family and find their stories.


One of the things I learned in John’s pension file was that he had been married three times.  The first two wives died very young.  The third, my great great grandmother, Eliza Jane Dobbins was married to John for nearly sixty years until his death in 1901.

Two of the witnesses who verified John’s three marriages stated in their affidavits that John’s first wife died from injuries caused when she was thrown off of her horse.  What a great piece of info for a story!

Often, these witnesses were other family members.  Sometimes, they are family members we didn’t have.  So, now we have new names and new stories to find.  In John’s pension file was an affidavit made by Lula Moore.  Who?  I didn’t have a Lula Moore in my database.  Lula said that she was John’s daughter from his previous marriage.  Solid gold!  I was doing the Genealogy Happy Dance for weeks after finding this.  I thought I already had the names of all of John’s children.  Because Lula identified herself as John’s daughter, I was able to research her and learn that she was his daughter whose real name was Mary Louisa, that she had a brother, William, and that they were his children by his second wife.  John’s life story would not have been complete without knowing who all of his children were.  Knowing that he had been a widower with two toddlers changes the whole perspective of his life prior to his marriage to Eliza Jane.

To really get the full benefit and whole story of a family, you need to get the pension files of all the family members who served.  I obtained copies of the pension files for all of John’s brothers-in-law.  Each verified the relationships between family members and each added more and more details to the family’s stories.  Want to put together some great family stories?  Try pension files!

About Deborah A. Carder Mayes

Deborah A. Carder Mayes is a professional genealogist, speaker, writer, and researcher. She writes a monthly column, Beyond the Obituaries, for The In-Depth Genealogist online magazine, is co-editor of Allen County Ancestry, the newsletter of the Allen County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society and writes a blog, Rambling Along the Ancestral Trail .She enjoys helping people with their research and teaching about genealogy through speaking and writing. You can learn more about Debbie’s genealogical pursuits and services on her website, Deborah A. Carder Mayes Genealogy & Family History and blog, Rambling Along the Ancestral Trail. You can contact Debbie on her website, leave a blog comment, or by email at

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  • Dick Follett
    February 8, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Thanks for the stories. I found in my ggg-grandfather’s Civil War pension application by his wife a statement that his real first name was Silvester and not Christopher as all the many records indicated. Turns out when he was 9 or 10, he changed his name to Christopher because he didn’t like the one given to him! I now know where my streak of non-conformity comes from.

  • toni
    February 7, 2013 at 11:45 am

    what do you do when there are no living relatives that know the answers to questions? I would assume some of my male relatives participated in several wars but without a birthdate, place of birth and parents’ names on the file, how do I know if I have the right john smith?

    • February 16, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Start your research with what you know about your family and work backwards. When you find their records, it will lead you to him. Once you’ve located him, the census, his place of burial, and other records will give you his year of birth and where he lived. Trace him back on the censuses to 1860. Then check the county histories for those who served in the Civil war. If he is listed, you will learn the company and regiment he served in and will be able to obtain his military records.

      Also, trace the burial places of the family. He may be buried in the same cemetery as his children or grandchildren. Check the cemeteries in the area where he lived. His tombstone or the cemetery’s records should have his company and regiment,

      Good luck with your search.

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