Processing Civil War pension files

Processing civil war pension filesAs I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I received my 3d great grandfather’s Civil War pension files from the National Archives in record time. I’d been prepared to wait 45 to 120 days and it arrived the week after I submitted the request online.

I dug right in and started processing the information. I was so grateful that I had attended the class Anatomy of a Military Pension, presented by Certified Genealogist Julie Miller at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference that month. She provided step-by-step instructions of what to do with a military pension.

So the day after I received that 65-page pension file, I did what Julie suggested. I put the documents in chronological order and I assigned a number to each. Then I figured out a citation for the overall file and a  citation for each of the numbered documents.

Coming up with a proper citation was a bit of a challenge and I emailed Julie, who was kind enough to share the citation she uses for these files. (She had given us that info in the talk, but I hadn’t written it down.)

Here’s the citation I’m using for the overall pension file for my ggggrandfather, Richard Anderson Jeffries:

[278] Jeffries, Richard Anderson (1st Sgt., Company D, 13th Regiment, Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Civil War), application no. 567612, certificate no. 529585, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veteran Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

278 was the next number in my source list in Reunion, my family tree software. Each of the individual documents is numbered, starting with 1, and has its own citation. My intention is that when I enter a fact into Reunion, I’ll use Source 278, but I’ll include in the memo field which of the 26 individual documents that particular fact came from.

I created citation labels for each of the documents and affixed them to the appropriate pages. (That’s the citation for document 16 above.) Then I scanned the whole document into a pdf. (I elected to have one pdf, rather than 26 individual ones–time will tell whether that was a good choice.)

The next step, according to Julie is to transcribe the documents. Yes, I’m going to type word for word exactly what is on the documents. Julie urged us not to skip that step because when we transcribe, we learn things we would not otherwise learn.

After I transcribe, I will abstract the documents, so I can tell at a glance what they are and what info is contained within each.

Then I’ll analyze the documents and enter the new-found facts into my software.

That’s a lot of work, but I’m delighted to have learned how to be thorough with it. And I know I’ll learn so much about my ancestor.

I am so grateful to have this structure, because just a few days after receiving Richard Anderson Jeffries’s file, I received the pension file for my gggrandfather, George Washington Adams. That file is over 100 pages; I had to request and pay for the rest of the file (another 80 pages) to be copied–I’m still waiting for part two. That same week I received the third and final pension file, for another gggrandfather, Benjamin Franklin Igleheart. All three pension files, probably 250 pages, came within two weeks of my request.

If I did not have the structure Julie provided in that talk to thoroughly process the information, I know I would feel overwhelmed. I would probably skim the documents, pluck out a few easy-to-find facts, and put them away intending to get to them later. And I don’t know when later would be.

I have skimmed the most recently received pension files to get a preview what I’m going to learn. (G.W. Adams had a big dispute about the amount of his pension–an adversary in the Soldier’s Home turned him in for saying he was more disabled than he was!) But I’m not going to analyze them until I’m finished with Richard Anderson Jeffries. So that will be motivation to go through the process.

I think these pension files are going to be a great learning experience not just about my ancestors, but also about doing proper genealogical research. This feels great!

 

 

How do you spell genealogy? P-A-T-I-E-N-C-E

Good genealogy takes patienceThe word that kept running through my mind as I took the excellent classes at last week’s National Genealogical Society’s conference is patience. As I listened to professional genealogists talk about strategies for success and skill building, I was reminded that good genealogy research takes time. It takes thoroughness. And it takes patience.

When I first dipped my toe into genealogy about 15 years ago, I went to an Internet cafe when I was visiting my parents (it was the days before I owned and traveled with a laptop), got on some website (probably Family Search) and started clicking through trees, going backwards in time. I created handwritten pedigree charts and was thrilled with how quickly my family tree grew.

I took everything at face value and evaluated nothing. By the time my “research” took me back to a Prince of Wales, I realized that perhaps some critical thinking was in order. I became overwhelmed at the notion of having to verify everything and put away those pedigree charts for almost a decade.

Six years ago, I decided to pick it up again and start from scratch. I’m using software now (Reunion) and nothing gets added to my tree without a source. The tree is growing slowly.

I figured out this year that I want my family tree branches to grow out, not up. While I appreciate the thrill of breaking into a new generation, I recognize now that I shouldn’t grow upward without taking the time to grow the branches outward. So I’m adding the siblings of my relatives to my tree, which can be painstaking. I’m also trying to add as many sources as possible to each fact.

In the NGS class that I mentioned in my last post, “But I’ve Looked Everywhere,” Barbara Vines Little says that we should have look for every sibling in every census. That takes patience. Combing through records, particularly unindexed records, takes patience. Figuring out alternate spellings to search or exploring friends, neighbors and associates to find elusive ancestors takes patience.

Yes, it can be thrilling to click backward in time, taking other people’s research at face value. Yet the rewards of patiently and thoroughly finding and citing sources are much greater. Good genealogists are patient people. They celebrate the small victories. And they move on to the next one, however long it may take.

Photo by Greg via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

It’s not about climbing the tree

It's not about climbing your family treeOne of my takeaways from RootsTech last week was how much one can learn about one’s ancestors by digging deep into the records. I learned techniques for how to use historical maps, military records and tax records to learn more about my ancestors. I can’t wait to dig in.

And that got me thinking: Do I want to learn more about my ancestors or learn about more ancestors? It’s a bit of a quandary. I find myself really excited every time I break into another generation on my tree. I’m anxious to try to verify my initial findings (using unverified sources), for example, that I descend from the Mayflower. I can’t do that if I’m still working in the 19th century.

But I realize that I want to know more about my ancestors than their dates of birth, marriage and death. I’d like to know how they lived, why they migrated, what their military experiences were like, among other things. And that’s going to require locating multiple sources about each ancestor and resisting the temptation to just climb the family tree.

I’m a big fan of spreadsheets and checklists, so I think I’m going to create a checklist of categories of sources to try to find on each ancestor before moving to another. This will also help me when I come back to an ancestor.

I can’t wait to see what I learn!

Photo by Juanjo+Willow via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.

Documenting the failures

Document your research failures as well as successesHave you ever been pursuing leads on a thorny research problem and found the time just slipping away, without much progress made? I just experienced that. I was trying to fill in some blanks on an ancestor and actually managed to stay pretty focused, but two hours later, those blanks are still empty. I wouldn’t mind keeping going on this challenge, but I need to stop, because I have other things I need to accomplish this morning. Plus, I’m getting kind of frustrated.

It’s easy to spend a lot of time pursuing leads in genealogy research and feel like you’ve wasted your time. But I think there’s a sure-fire way to make the time spent more valuable. And that’s by recording what you’ve done and the results–even if the results are nil.

That’s where a research log comes in. I’ve not been diligent in keeping a research log, though I know that it can be very valuable. But my frustrating time this morning has me appreciating the effort of keeping a log, because I don’t want to repeat the unsuccessful searches (or if I do, I want to do so knowing that the searches have failed in the past).

When Springpad was around, I created a research tracker template that was included in the Family History Organizer notebook on Springpad. That form works with the way I think, so I’ve been continuing to use the template, only now it’s in Evernote. (Feel free to email me if you want me to send you the template–that’s the corner of today’s entry in the photo.) It’s simple and allows me to record the pertinent data without turning it into a big chore. I need to use it more diligently, after every research session, rather than waiting until days like today when logging my research feels absolutely imperative.

My way of keeping a research log is far from perfect. There are much more complete ways to do it–Thomas MacEntee offers an amazing research log template, it just doesn’t feel right for me. (I find it a little intimidating.)

If you’ve been contemplating keeping a research log, but got bogged down in trying to select the best format or you just weren’t sure how to do it, I’d suggest you let go of making it perfect (or even great) and just get into the habit of writing something down. Any information about your research session that you document at the end of the session is better than none!