Estate records and land deeds are some of the best records in which to identify the names and vital statistics of our more distant ancestors. They can also provide rich context about their lives. Yet these large and informative record groups are frequently unavailable to those of us whose ancestors had humble beginnings.
Despair not. We may have other record groups providing equally as rich information (and perhaps even greater detail).
In this blog post series, I present several record groups where our poor ancestors are likely to be found. In exploring these records, I provide examples from my own research and how I used them to not only identify unknown ancestors and their vital statistics but also to add rich detail and context to their lives.
Many of our early poor ancestors volunteered to serve in the military to earn money, obtain skills, and give back to their community. When researching early ancestors who served in the U.S. military, the best records are often associated with the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. The men who served (or their widows) frequently petitioned the federal and state governments for pensions and other benefits.
While the federal government provided pensions for service as early as 1788, the most liberal pensions were made available in 1832, and these applications provided some of the richest data I’ve seen. If your ancestor was fortunate enough to live until 1832, veterans often had to write detailed letters in support of their pension application answering questions related to his service, his birth, and current and past places of residences.
William Boyd (1753-1836)
My 5x great-grandfather, William Boyd, never owned land and resided in the poorhouse during most of the last years of his life. In the Revolutionary War, he served seven times nearly half of which he did so in someone else’s stead. In his pension application, William stated:
I was born in Plumstead Township, Bucks County on the twenty-third day of January one thousand seven hundred and fifty-three. I have no original record of my age. It is recorded in a bible, which I gave to my son who resides at New London Cross Roads in this County, and was copied into that bible from a “Confession of Faith,” which belonged to my father.
William Boyd goes on to say:
I resided in Northampton Township aforesaid at home during all my different terms of service. I have lived since the Revolutionary War first in Northampton aforesaid whence I removed to Upper Makefield both in Bucks Co., Penna. From thence I removed to Chester County (now Delaware County) between the Borough of Chester and Marcus Hook. From thence I removed to New London Cross Roads, Chester County. From there I removed to Washington County. From thence I returned to Chester County, East Nottingham Township. From thence I went to the Poor House in West Bradford Township, Chester County aforesaid where I now live. The above named counties are all in the State of Pennsylvania.
William’s places of residences permitted me to later link Boyd autosomal DNA matches with what I would later determine were descendants of his children. I’ve written an earlier blog post about how I used this information, along with the EGGOS (earliest generation group of siblings) search strategy, to confirm the Boyd branch of my tree.
Joseph Parker (1759-1834) and Mary (Parker) Keagle (1793-1851)
In reviewing my autosomal DNA matches, I discovered a cluster of matches containing several Parker families with roots in Pennsylvania. According to family trees, a large subset of these matches descended from Mary Parker who married John Keagle about 1815 – most likely in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, which is where John Keagle’s father lived. John and Mary (Parker) Keagle later moved to Ross County, Ohio by 1820 and to Sangamon County, Illinois by 1840. No publicly available family trees identified the parents of Mary Parker. The Keagles did not own land in the locations where they lived, and neither John nor Mary had an estate file.
Within the larger Parker cluster, one of the DNA matches listed in his family tree that his eldest Parker ancestor was Joseph Parker, who died in Ross County, Ohio in 1834, but he had no other information about Joseph and appeared to be not connected in any way to Mary (Parker) Keagle. What perplexed me about this tree’s reference to Joseph Parker was that the match’s Parker line never lived in Ross County and was in fact from Guernsey County, Ohio, which is about 130 miles back east. Yet, the possible Ross County connection between this match and the Mary (Parker) Keagle match was too much to ignore.
It didn’t take much effort to discover that this Joseph Parker had served in the Revolutionary War, and I quickly located his pension file on Fold3.com. Here’s what I found, as written by Joseph’s attorney in 1832:
That from information received from his parents, together with a record which he has seen in his father’s family bible, he was born in Bucks County in the state of Pennsylvania from which place he entered the service of the United States in the Revolutionary War on or about the 1st of September 1775.
From his place of residence in Bucks County Pa., he removed to Lacoming [sic, Lycoming] County Pa., from thence to Ross County, Ohio, where he has resided for the last thirteen years.
One of Joseph Parker’s stated residences was Lycoming County, which is where John and Mary (Parker) Keagle supposedly had lived. More importantly, one of the witnesses to Joseph’s affidavit was none other than John Kagle [sic], an additional clue foreshadowing what other records would later reveal. The information found on Fold3.com was Joseph Parker’s pension application, but what researchers may not have known is other documents often exist in the National Archives, such as the final pension payment vouchers that might illuminate additional information. A trip to the National Archives by a hired genealogist found his final pension records, which stated:
The said Joseph Parker died at his residence in said [Ross] county on the twelfth day of February 1834; that he left no widow; and that the following are the children and heirs and are all the children of the said Joseph Parker deceased, who are now living, viz: William Parker, John Keagle and Mary his wife, late Mary Parker, Job Parker, Charles Parker, James Parker, and John Parker.
Sarah Wilson (1836-1898) and Ezra McKinstry (b. 1832)
For as long as anyone has researched Sarah Wilson (my first cousin 5x removed), no one was able to identify her parents. While her maiden name and place of residence at the time of her marriage to Ezra McKinstry was known through other records, her parentage was a mystery or worse yet, misattributed.
Sarah married 31 December 1859 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Ezra McKinstry, who served in the Civil War from Bucks County. Online family trees for Ezra clearly indicate he served in the Civil War, but it is unclear whether anyone ever obtained his pension file from the National Archives or simply relied on indexes listing his service (see an earlier blog post about the risks in relying on indexes). Perhaps if a copy of the file had been attained, researchers may have likely been disappointed in that the pension file contained no direct evidence of Sarah’s parents, but there was plenty of indirect evidence.
In the 118-page file, Sarah (Wilson) McKinstry provides great testimony of her life with her husband that rivals many modern novels. She identified her children and all the places she lived since marrying Ezra. Many friends spoke in support of her application. But one small and very important mention was made in her 1896 deposition:
My parents are both dead. I have one brother and two sisters living namely, William Wilson, his PO address is Bullard, Tex. Sister Mary Sherman lives near Neosha, Kansas, and sister Eliza Hill lives in Curtis, Neb.
For these newly discovered siblings, unfortunately no new records were found identifying the names of their parents. However, tracing each of them back through time to Bucks County proved fruitful. Based on a great amount of (indirect) evidence collected, I constructed an evidentiary network to not only identify their parents as William Wilson (1793-1846) and Sarah Thompson (1798-1882), but also to reconstruct William and Sarah’s entire family of 11 children – including Sarah (Wilson) McKinstry! A copy of the research report is available on my website.
As hopefully demonstrated, pension applications contain rich information that sometimes directly answers research questions but most often provides important pieces of indirect evidence that can be just as valuable. I encourage researchers to keep the following lessons in mind:
- If you discover your ancestor served in a war, don’t assume that researchers before you obtained, read, and vetted the pension file for information. In our haste or earlier in our genealogy research “careers”, we often only look for direct evidence explicitly stating the information we’re searching for. Yet, the amount of indirect evidence is often greater, and with persistence and effort, can accomplish the same research objective and feel much more rewarding.
- As valuable as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Fold3.com, and other databases are, they often do not hold all available documents in a record group. When you discover (or suspect) your ancestor served in a war, read all you can about the record group to understand what data are available and where it can be found. As communicated in another blog post, and if possible, take the time, effort, and expense to obtain the original document. Transcripts and indexes can overlook important and often critical indirect evidence.
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 Nudd, J. (2015), “Using Revolutionary War Pension Files to Find Family Information,” Prologue Magazine, 47(2); accessed 1 May 2022 from U.S. National Archives (www.archives.gov).
 Pension Application, William Boyd, Sergeant, Revolutionary War, “Declaration of William Boyd in order to obtain the benefit of the Act of Congress passed June 7,1832”, dated 9 April 1833, Pension Application S.22,127, Pension Office, War Department, Washington, DC; online database with images, Fold3 (www.fold3.com, accessed 31 July 2018).
 1810 U.S. census, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Lycoming, p. 819, image 3 of 4, Jacob Keagle; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 24 April 2022); Family History Library Film 193678, roll 52.
 1820 U.S. census, Ross County, Ohio, population schedule, Green, p. 285, image 3 of 6, John Keagle; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 24 April 2022); NARA microfilm publication M33, roll 92. And 1830 U.S. census, Ross County, Ohio, population schedule, Green, p. 281, image 7 of 20, John Keagle; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 24 April 2022); NARA microfilm publication M19, roll 139. And 1840 U.S. census, Sangamon County, Illinois, population schedule, not stated, p. 50, image 65 of 134, John Cagle; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 24 April 2022).
 Ohio, U.S., Soldier Grave Registrations, 1804-1958, Joseph Parker (1834), Union, Ross County, database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 24 April 2022); citing Fold3.com.
 Pension Application, Joseph Parker, soldier, Revolutionary War, “Declaration in order to obtain the benefit of the Act of Congress passed June 7,1832”, dated 25 October 1833, Pension Application S.8927, Pension Office, War Department, Washington, DC; online database with images, Fold3 (www.fold3.com, accessed 31 July 2018).
 U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2020), Joseph Parker, Ross County, Ohio, Revolutionary War Final Pension Payment Vouchers, Washington, D.C., accessed 21 April 2022 at https://www.archives.gov/research/military/army/final-pension-payment-vouchers.
 U.S., Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1970 (1859), Deep Run Presbyterian Church, Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 233, No. 405, image 189 of 238; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 11 Mar 2021); citing Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1907, Accession Number VAULT BX 9211.P48901 D42 v.2.
 Compiled Service Record, Ezra McKinstry, Indep Battery of Captain Durrell’s Co. D Pennsylvania Lt Artillery Reg. 104, Pension Application No. 518024, Call No. 1917, Bundle 7, pdf p. 77-85, U.S. Bureau of Pensions, Dept of the Interior, Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration.
 Compiled Service Record, Ezra McKinstry, Indep Battery of Captain Durrell’s Co. D Pennsylvania Lt Artillery Reg. 104, “Deposition A, Case of Sarah McKinstry, widow of Ezra McKinstry”, dated 13 Oct 1896, Pension Application No. 518024, Call No. 1917, Bundle 7, pdf p. 77-85, U.S. Bureau of Pensions, Dept of the Interior, Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration.