“Pension File Discoveries” from the 8/9/18 National Archives Newsletter

Pension file discoveries

We are fascinated by the remarkable stories found within military pension files. They often contain valuable details about family history, as told through military veterans themselves, or through their widows and dependents who provided evidence of their relationship to a soldier

Today we share a couple of the interesting stories recently found within pension files while scanning in the Innovation Hub in Washington DC…

“Approved Pension File for Bettie Sugar, Widow of 1st Sergeant Sugar George (alias George Sugar), Company H, 1st Indian Home Guards (C-2496362)”  

Widows of veterans often applied for pensions, and sometimes proving you were the legitimate spouse could be complicated. For the pension of George Sugar (aka Sugar George), his widow Bettie Sugar had to first prove she was divorced from her first husband.

She married a man named Peter Smith, also enslaved. After the war and emancipation, they continued living together for a few years, until Peter apparently left and married someone else.

Some years later, Bettie married George Sugar. When George died around the turn of the century, Bettie filed for his pension. The Pension Office inquired if she had divorced her first husband, making her George Sugar’s legal widow.  However, she didn’t have a legal divorce while living in the Creek Nation. She explained, “I never got a divorce from Peter Smith but when he married again I thought I had the right to marry again.” The Bureau of Pensions agreed: if a marriage was legal according to the law of the land where the person married, it was good enough for the Pension Office. The same rule applied to divorces. Also of note in this file is a copy of Bettie Sugar’s assets. She inherited from her husband seventy head of cattle, nine horses, 160 acres of land and $12,500 in cash.

“Private Lewis Martin, Company E of the 29th Regiment of the US Colored Troops”

In this file, Private Lewis Martin’s official Certificate of Disability for Discharge includes an image of Martin, seated, showing the two amputated limbs he’d received in battle at the  Siege of Petersburg on July 30th 1864. Photographs are a rare find in pension files. Martin was plagued by pain from his amputation sites as well as where shots had grazed his shoulder and temple, but did go on to marry Mary Jones after the war in 1869. His file documents requests for an increase in his pension, which raised from an original pension of $20 to $50 per month over the decades. He dropped off the Pension Office’s rolls in 1895.

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