Civil War pension records: a treasure trove

Civil War Pension Records are a treasure trove of informationAfter hearing an excellent talk at the NGS conference on what can be found in Civil War pension records stored at the National Archives, I placed an order for the records of three of my four Civil War veteran ancestors. (The fourth fought for the Confederacy, so his pension records would be with his state.) The fee was $80 per ancestor for the complete file and the application process was fairly straightforward. At the end, I was warned to expect it to take 45 to 120 days before I received any information.

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to receive a thick envelope from the National Archives in Washington D.C. today! It contained the pension records for my great great great grandfather, Richard Anderson Jeffries (1823-1914) who served in the Missouri infantry, Company D, 18th Regiment from 1861 to 1864.

I haven’t had a chance to go through the packet yet, but a glance shows me  that there are multiple applications for pensions as well as physicians’ affidavits.

I’m anxious to pore over it and unravel the story these documents tell. Luckily for me, Certified Genealogist Julie Miller, in her excellent talk, Anatomy of a Military Pension, gave step-by-step instructions on how to properly process the information found in these files. So I have my work cut out for me and I can’t wait!

If you have Civil War ancestors who fought for the Union and you have at least $80 to spend, I encourage you to hop over to the National Archives website (that link takes you directly to the application form starting point). If you have information on your ancestor’s military service (I found mine through Ancestry and Fold3), it’s easy to apply to receive a copy of the pension file. Those files have not been digitized, so the only way to look at them is to go to the National Archives or send away for them like I did.

Don’t take photo labels at face value

When I was at the Brown family reunion the last weekend in June, I was given a bunch of old family photos that pertained to my branch of the family. Some were duplicates of ones I already had (from the big box of photos my mother gave me). Some I’d never seen before. I was delighted to receive them.

One photo in particular brought home an important lesson: Don’t take the labels on the back of photos as the gospel truth. When a picture has an identifying label I tend to assume that the label is accurate, in the absence of any information to the contrary. But that’s not necessarily the case.

I was given this photo of a little girl.

My mother as a young girl

I know that it’s a photo of my mother, because I’ve seen many photos of my mother as a child. She also recognizes it as a photo of herself. My mother’s name when she was a girl was Betty Sue Brown.

This is what’s written on the back of the photo.

Labels aren't always accurate

My mother’s grandmother was Alice Jeffries. I’m assuming that the label was some sort of direction to share the photo with Alice. But it sure seems like it’s identifying the photo, doesn’t it?

Now, I think most people would assume the girl in the photo isn’t married and therefore isn’t Mrs. Jeffries. But what if the label had said “Alice Jeffries” rather than “Mrs. Jeffries?” Then someone who didn’t know what my mother looked like as a child might assume the little girl in the photo was Alice Jeffries.

This is an important reminder to apply critical thinking when looking at photo labels. Don’t take  them at face value; rather, try to find a few other clues to help verify the accuracy of the label, if you don’t know the people in the photos. In this example, Alice was born in 1885, so the attire in the photo would be a clue that it’s not a photo of her. Taking that extra step might help avoid misidentificaton.

Reading hard-to-read gravestones

My family reunion was last weekend and I had a great time. Family members were so warm and welcoming to my husband and me despite the fact that my branch of the family had not been represented at that reunion in a couple of generations. I was given family pictures (some of which I’ll probably scan and share here) and well as a painting that my grandmother had painted. It was a great weekend.

On Saturday, my husband and I paid a visit to the cemetery where my grandmother’s ancestors were buried. (This was a reunion of people from my grandfather’s side of the family, so it was an adjunct activity.) I had visited that cemetery, Meyer Cemetery, last year when I traveled to western Missouri.  Three generations of Jeffries are buried in that cemetery:  my great grandfather, James Earl Jeffries;  his parents, John D. Jeffries and Susan Price Jeffries; his in-laws, John Price and Mary Puffenbarger Price; and his grandparents, Richard Anderson Jeffries and Harriet McKinley Jeffries. I wanted to capture some more photos of the gravestones, as well as find the graves of the Prices, which I hadn’t seen on my first visit.

Fortunately for me, I’d learned just the prior week about using aluminum foil to make reading hard-to-read gravestones much easier. I’d seen a link to a blog post called safe solutions for hard to read tombstones on the fabulous Organized Genealogist Facebook page. That post described how you can cover a gravestone with foil and rub it to make the hidden words on a gravestone almost magically appear. The post linked above suggested using a clean makeup brush. I didn’t have one so I dug around a bit more on the web and found this post on Save a Grave that suggested using a damp sponge.

So I went to the dollar store and bought some cheap aluminum foil. I grabbed a sponge from under the sink and was ready headed to the cemetery the next day. The method really felt like magic.

This is the stone of the Mary Ann Price, my great great great grandmother.

Foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible

Cover it in foil and rub and voila, the writing emerges.

Foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible

There’s a gravestone  right next to my great grandfather’s grave. The top of that same stone was so worn and dirty you couldn’t really tell that there was a name on it. But when I covered it in foil and rubbed it with a damp sponge, the name “Harriett” appeared. Amazing!

aluminum foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible againI love this method! The downside is that, unlike gravestone rubbings–which I learned are harmful to the gravestone–it’s not easy to keep and store foil rubbings. I consider them temporary and my digital photo of the rubbed stone to be my permanent record. I can’t quite get myself to throw away the foil (it’s driving around in the back of my SUV), but soon I expect I’ll put it in the recycling bin.

Focusing my efforts in 2014

My strategy for focusing my genealogy efforts in 2014In December every year, I take some time to set some goals. I set them for my organizing business and for my personal life. This will be the second year I’ve set goals for my genealogy research. (If you want, you can read the goals I set last year.)

In thinking about my genealogy goals for 2014, I realized that I really want to be more focused and organized in going about my research. I still struggle with not knowing what to work on in any given session. And that lack of focus makes it hard for me to actually get started.

I just hit upon an idea that I think I’ll try. I’m going to assign a family line to each quarter of the year. In this structure (which I just thought of, so it’s still evolving in my head), I won’t be limited to working on that line necessarily, but if I don’t have something else specific I want to do, I will work on the family line assigned to that quarter.

I’ve decided that the schedule will be as follows:

  • 1st quarter: Adams (my father’s father’s line)
  • 2nd quarter: Brown (my mother’s father’s line)
  • 3rd quarter: Rasco (my father’s mother’s line)
  • 4th quarter: Jeffries (my mother’s mother’s line)

At the start of each quarter, I’ll take stock of where my research lies. I’ll use my progress tracker to see what census, vital and military records I’ve already located.

During each quarter, I’ll try to do the following for each of the lines:

  • Fill in the gaps on my progress tracker
  • Make sure my surname files for that line are organized on my hard drive
  • Ensure that everything in my paper files for that line is also organized on my hard drive
  • Fill in collateral relatives on my family tree in Reunion
  • Search for sources for unsourced data provided to me by cousins
  • Go up at least one generation in verified information
  • Attach photos to my family tree in Reunion

What I like about this idea is that it should keep me more focused. And help me feel less overwhelmed. It should get me past the “what should I work on today?” question that can be such a barrier. And, perhaps best of all, it gives me some specific goals and a deadline–the end of the quarter. (I love a deadline!)