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Jan 27, 2020
Today’s featured FamilySearch collection is United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934.
This is a searchable collection with images. The collection contains images of the National Archives’ carded name index to pension files for veterans who served in the military between 1861 and 1916 and applied for a military pension. These records are part of the National Archives record group RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and were taken from the National Archives microfilm publication T288. To learn more about the records in this microfilm publication, you can access the descriptive pamphlet here.
Most of the veterans listed in this database served in Union forces in the Civil War, but some files are for service in other military actions such as the War with Spain. To learn more about this database, see the collection’s Learn More page.
Here, we will look specifically at documenting your ancestors who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and take an in depth look at an example USCT pension file.
Our article Did Your Ancestor Serve in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)? Here’s How to Find Out will take you step by step through checking to see if your ancestor served in the USCT, and will also show you how to look for, and order, your ancestor’s USCT pension file.
To learn more about the many free resources available on FamilySearch for documenting your ancestor’s service in the United States Colored Troops, see our article Resources for Documenting United States Colored Troops Veterans.
The article USCT Pension Files: A Rich Resource for African American Genealogy by Bernice Bennett is a great overview of USCT pension files and the information they contain.
If you find your ancestor in the general index, you will want to download the pension file index card, as this is the document you will need to order your ancestor’s pension from from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). See our article Did Your Ancestor Serve in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)? Here’s How to Find Out for information on ordering your ancestor’s file.
Let’s look at an example, the USCT pension file for Richard Bryan, aka Richard Blake. You can view and download the entire file here. We will look at a few key pages of testimony gleaned from the pension file and see if we can use the information we learn about Richard Bryan aka Blake’s life to find other historical documents. The pages below demonstrate the richness of USCT pension files for revealing details about an ancestor’s life before, during and after the war.
Richard Bryan’s widow Rebecca Johnson Bryan testified in her application for a widow’s pension after Richard Bryan’s death. In her testimony, she reveals details of her life before the Civil War:
“My age about 50 – P.O. 5 Dereef Ct. I am the widow of Richard Bryan who served in co. E 21st U.S.C.T – Before the war I was owned by Wm. Simmons – I was born near Youngs Island and was taken, at the first of the war, up Cooper River – about 10 or 15 miles above this city – just after Charleston was taken some soldiers came to our place & spent a day and night there – I was then about 15 years old and had never been married and had never lived with a man – I went away with Richard who was then known as Blake.”
Her testimony reveals much about Richard’s early life:
“When I met my husband he was known as Richard Blake but after the war he took the name of Bryan & went by that name until he died – he said it was his father’s name – He said he was owned by the Blake family & that he was born down on Combahee but was taken up on Santee before the war – he also told me that when he first left home during the war he went on a ship and was a sailor for a few months – but the ship was sent North and he went to Hilton Head to see his mother who was there but found her dead & then he enlisted in the army – I don’t know the name of the ship – he said he did not get any pay – it was before the colored people were taken into the service – he just worked on the ship as a sailor.”
Think about that for a minute – she is telling us about Richard serving on a Navy ship as a contraband, before African Americans were enlisted as soldiers or sailors. This may be the only place this information is recorded!
From Anna Washington’s testimony, we learn more about Richard’s mother Molly and the circumstances surrounding her death. Notice that, in testifying, Anna Washington also reveals biographical information about herself:
“My age about 52 – widow of Abram Washington – P.O. 75 Anson St. I was born on Santee River and owned by Mr. Arthur Blake – I knew Richard Bryan in those days – he was also owned by Mr. Blake. During the war we were all taken on a big boat from Santee to Hilton Head. Yes sir – Richard and I went on the same boat with a lot of others. When we got to Hilton Head, the women & children were put on the island & the men were kept on the boat. I was about eleven or twelve years old then – I don’t know the name of the boat – Richard’s mother, Aunt Molly, went down there with us – she was taken sick & sent for Richard to come to her – but she died before he got there. He did come though & was there awhile & then he joined the army.”
Both Rebecca Bryan and Anna Washington testified that they and others were taken from Santee by boat and transported to Hilton Head Island. We decided to see what we could learn about how that came about. We searched for the terms “Arthur Blake Santee” on Google books and found the following in Senate Report 124:
We checked to see if Arthur Blake filed a claim for his losses during the war. We searched the FamilySearch collection United States Civil War Confederate Papers of Citizens or Businesses, 1861-1865 and found a Confederate Citizens File for Arthur Blake that describes Union Navy gunboats ascending the Santee River, destroying Arthur Blake’s plantation and carrying away 402 enslaved people from Blake’s Santee plantations. This is an index-only collection, but images can be viewed on Fold3.com. For more information about this record set and how to use it in your research, please see the article Confederate Citizens File on the FamilySearch Wiki.
“in June last 1862 about the 26th or 27th the Gun Boats under the command of persons engaged in the United States Naval service came up the South Santee River quite near the landing of the plantations belonging to the said Arthur and carried off upwards of Four hundred Negroes that is about four hundred and two…”
Remarkably, annexed to the Confederate Citizens File claim is a list of the 402 enslaved people, with ages noted, who were carried away in the raid on Blake’s Santee River plantations Washo, Cape and Oak Grove:
There are more FamilySearch collections you can search to further document Richard Bryan aka Blake’s service in the United States Colored Troops.
You can search the FamilySearch collection United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890 to see if your ancestor was included in this special census of Civil War veterans.
The FamilySearch collection United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933 is a searchable database with images.
You can search the FamilySearch collection United States Index to General Correspondence of the Pension Office, 1889-1904 to see if your ancestor corresponded with the United States Pension Office concerning matters related to their application for a military pension.
Yet another FamilySearch collection you can consult to document your USCT veteran ancestors is United States National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938.
You can search the FamilySearch collection United States Headstone Applications for U.S. Military Veterans, 1925-1949 to see if a headstone was provided to your USCT veteran ancestor.
USCT pension files will make up an important part of the IAAM Center for Family History’s research collection. We have posted 150 USCT pension files on our page USCT Pension Files – Honoring Those Who Served.
To learn more about documenting Civil War veterans, you can view BlackProGen LIVE! Ep 65: After the War Has Gone: Civil War Pensions & the Grand Army of the Republic.
African American Military Records provides an overview of armed conflicts that African Americans have served in, with links to related resources.United States Colored Troops in the Civil War is an in-depth look at African Americans’ service in the United States Colored Troops and provides many helpful links for researching ancestors who served in the USCT.
Researching African American Genealogy provides step-by-step guidance for beginning your ancestor search, as well as links to online resources.
Quick Guide to African American Records contains information on beginning research tips, links to suggested guides for beginning your search for African American ancestors, overviews of major record sets, tips for finding the slaveholder, links to tutorials for African American genealogy in the FamilySearch Learning Center, and links to other online and offline resources.
Southern States Slavery and Bondage Collections will help you locate digitized searchable collections as well as digitized microfilms in the FamilySearch catalog related to slavery and bondage. The page is arranged by state
African American Genealogy provides links to Wiki pages for researching African Americans in each U.S. state.
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