Cluster research works.
You will find more information about your ancestors if you study the lives of those in the community where they lived.
One source that illustrates this clearly is Civil War Pension Records.
Don’t just check research your ancestors and move on. You should research every pensioner living where your ancestors lived.
A neighbor’s pension file may tell a story that includes your ancestor. Your ancestor likely provided testimony in his neighbor’s file.
Here’s a great example of why this process–time-consuming as it is–works.
George and Harriet King
On 20 September 1911, Harriet King applied for a widow’s pension, for the service of her deceased husband, George King. He was a former soldier in the Co. I, 44th Regiment of the US Colored Troops.
The 1880 Madison Co., Alabama census shows the George King household (they have not been located in 1870):
(George King, age 37, wife Harriet, 35, with children Georgia, age 12, Edward, 10, and Mary, age 7)
Most of the file contains testimony obtained by the Special Investigator into Harriet’s relationship with Eli Burns prior to her marriage to George.
Harriet wasn’t exactly forthcoming about that relationship.
Though probably bad for Harriet, it was a boon for future researchers.
The investigator interviewed between 25-40 (!) people in the local community trying to prove whether or not Harriet had a legal marriage to Eli Burns.
In the course of those interviews, one learns an astounding amount of information about the community. There are familial relationships, enslavers, neighbors, fellow slaves, and more.
Though neither Harriet nor George was who I was searching for, this file provides ample evidence for why a broader research strategy is so valuable.
The images below show some of the relationships uncovered by this one pension file.
Relationships In Harriet’s Pension File
- George’s 1st wife Sarah, with her maiden name
- Sarah’s date and place of death
- Two of Sarah’s brothers
- George and Sarah’s surviving children, and their spouses
- George’s owner
- The date of Harriet and George’s marriage
- George’s date of death
- Harriet’s prior relationship to Eli Burns
- Eli’s father’s, and his owner
- Eli’s brother
- Five of Harriet’s siblings, and the spouse of a 6th unnamed sister
- Harriet’s maiden name
- Harriet’s owner, and several fellow enslaved laborers
- George’s fellow soldiers
- George’s roots in Georgia
- George’s minister, and his church
- several adjoining plantations that form the cluster
And that is not even everything that was in this file. Even if George nor Harriet were your persons of interest, this pension uncovered valuable information about the entire community and its roots in slavery.
One thing I found quite funny is that Harriet noted that George had “good hair.” Lardy, have we really been saying that for so long?
It was also interesting that a few people made a point that even though they had the same surname as Harriet that they were not related.
On another branch of my family, in Hardin County, Tennessee, this strategy paid off again. Margaret’s Cherry’s file tells a story that likely applies to much of the enslaved population in the area, which includes several of my collateral ancestors.
Margaret’s file describes how her first husband Henry Jones was murdered at the Fort Pillow Massacre. Fort Pillow was a Union fort in Tennessee.
On April 12, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (notorious as a slave trader and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) invaded the fort. He and his troops murdered most of the African-American soldiers who were trying to surrender.
The memory of this tragedy served as a rallying cry during the war for black soldiers during many battles, as they yelled “Remember Fort Pillow!”
Margaret goes on to describe how she left Savannah (Hardin County’s capital) in November 1862 when the Union Army left.
General Grant took up residence at the Cherry Mansion in Saannah when the Federals arrived. Soon he and his Army would be drawn into the bloody battle of Shiloh nearby.
Like Margaret, many other enslaved persons likely left Savannah and followed the Army to Corinth, Mississippi.
In Corinth, one of the better Contraband Camps was eventually established, which now is part of Shiloh National Park.
Many couples married at Corinth and several regiments were raised that would in a short time become regiments of the US Colored Troops. Margaret married her husband Henry at the Corinth Contraband Camp; her second husband Isaac Cherry also became a soldier.
In her pension file Margaret goes on to say:
“I remained at Corinth until the Federals evacuated that place at which time I went to Memphis. I remained there until the Fort Pillow fight, after which time I went to Paducah, Kentucky. I left Paducah one or two years after peace was made and came back to Savannah where I have lived ever since.”
An affidavit from Martha Irwin confirms that:
“When the federals left Corinth, all the colored people that were there with them went with them to Memphis.”
Luckily, Corinth actually recorded a list of its occupants that confirms the Savannah, Tennessee origins of many.
Margaret’s pension file also provided the name of her owner, and the name of her husband’s owners.
But it is the social history that she provides, confirmed by other pensioners, that make the case that we really need to be checking pension files of everyone in the community.
Genealogy research done right takes a lot of time and patience. There is simply no quick and easy way to do almost anything worthwhile.
After 20 years, I’m still not done examining all the pension files from NARA from each of my research communities. But I believe this strategy works and can reveal information not found anywhere else.
Any one pension file will likely point to other former soldiers in the community through affidavits. Also remember that the 1910 population census explicitly asks about surviving soldiers in column 30. The 1890 Census of Union Veterans and Widows is also a good source.
Additionally, I use the USCT Service Records collection at Ancestry and search with the county or town in the “birthplace” box. This won’t locate every soldier, but it should yield enough names to get started. Each file should lead to more names.
Next, you’ll need to go through all of the pension card indexes (did you know there was more than one index?) to find pension numbers for the soldiers on your list.
Then you’ll have to either visit NARA in Washington DC in person, pay someone to copy the file, or order the file through the mail. Fortunately I live nearby, but if I didn’t I would pay someone who lived nearby since it will usually be cheaper.
I hope you will consider adding this strategy to your research bag of tricks. If you do, please do drop me a note and let me know what you found!
Here’s a table showing one page of my Civil War Pensions research. I have a separate section for each community where I am methodically viewing each file:
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.