Documenting Migrations Via Pension Applications

As part of an ongoing project, the War of 1812 military pensions are available for free on As we’ve mentioned before, these pension files (actually all military pension files) can be a wonderful source for genealogical information. Lately my own use of these materials has focused on establishing micro-migration chains from one small area of the United States to another small area further west.

The image in this post (which has been reduced in size for posting) is from the widow’s application for Mary Hughes of Fulton County, Illinois. This affidavit in her application includes key details about her life, including when and where she married the soldier Taylor Hughes and when the family moved from Harford County, Maryland, to Ohio and from Ohio to Fulton County, Illinois.  Unfortunately the affidavit does not provide the specific residence within Ohio. The family’s move in 1820 to Ohio follows the move of two of her siblings there three years earlier. Her move into Illinois in 1840 precedes the move of some of her nephews and nieces to Illinois by a few years. That’s assuming her memory of the year is correct in the affidavit.

Mary (DeMoss) Hughes is a sister to my ancestor Christianna (DeMoss) Rampley and is a part of a larger chain of migrants from Harford County, Maryland, into eastern Ohio and eventually into west-central Illinois (generally Fulton, Adams, and Hancock County Counties–although these counties do not all share a common border). As part of an ongoing project, I’ve been tracking the movements of these families.

Widow’s pensions for extended family members may help the researcher in documenting a variety of aspects of the life for the person being researched. For migrations specifically, these records may:

  • specifically mention dates of migration
  • include names of witnesses who lives may have intersected with the claimant in more than one location
  • resurrect lost family members who appear to provide testimony or witness affidavits

Pictures are More than Images

A recurring source of frustration for me are digital images made from pictures with nary any provenance.

If I see a picture online that someone purports to be my 3rd great-grandmother and it’s the only picture I’ve ever seen of her anywhere and there’s no “source” listed or included with the image, how do I know it’s really who the picture purports it to be?

Of course, this is the problem with any digital image. Actually it’s a problem with any photograph. How do I know the picture is who someone says it is? It all boils down to how reliable consider that source to be.

I’ve blogged about this before, but I believe that including some provenance on the actual digital image is a good idea. Not just in the “metafiles” or the filename, but as a part of the actual image. That makes it easier for those who “copy and paste” to have the opportunity to copy and paste the provenance as well.

That’s what I’ve tried to do in this photograph. I’ve included:

  • Names of individuals
  • When and where photograph was taken
  • Who made the image
  • Who had the original photograph–someone vague in this online post, but my digital image has more specifics
  • Who made the digital image
  • How identification was done

Just something to think about.


They Have to Be Related: They Have the Same Last Name

Just because two individuals have the same last name does not mean that they are related. Researchers working on a Smith family know that two people with this common last name are not related, but what about a more unusual surname?

Well it depends on the origination of the name (and that even is not a guarantee) and jumping to conclusions makes for bad research.

One of my ancestral surnames is Habben–a somewhat unusual name. In Ostfriesland, Germany, where many of these families originate the surname is somewhat more common. However, the name is a patronym actually meaning “child of Habbe.” While patronymics was practiced, two men with the first name Habbe would have children with the last name of Habben–though there might have been no relationship.

Sweden is full of Larsons, Carlsons, etc. for exactly the same reason–patronymics.

Even surnames that are not patronymical in origin may be shared by two unrelated individuals. This is especially true with surnames such as Baker, Farmer, Lake and other names that may have been derived from occupations or nearby geographical features.

There may be cases where all individuals with the same surname are related, but let research, not your gut, be your guide. My tentative hypothesis is that all or most individuals with the last name of Trautvetter are related. However, research is not complete and just because the name is concentrated in a certain area of Germany does not mean there was one common ancestor.

Last names can be used as clues to relationships. But a last name only means it was that person’s last name, not that he (or she) had to be related to someone else.


Receipts are Great Places to get Signatures

Receipts from estate settlements are also great places to get signatures. This one comes from Hancock County, Illinois, in 1871, when Barbara Trautfetter/Trautvetter is signing for her share in the state of Michael Trautvetter–her brother-in-law.She made her mark on this one, but all the others signed their name. Remember that making a mark does not mean the person was illiterate. It just means that they made their mark. In some cases, the person was literate, but unable to write due to infirmity or age. I have seen individuals sign and make their marks on different documents at different points in their life.


Your Own Unique Migration Path

I’ve never been a huge fan of migration trails. Of course, how our ancestors got from point A to point B is important. However, what is generally more important is why our ancestors went from Point A to Point B. Usually that “why” was a person.

A friend, relative, or former neighbor found out about an opportunity and thought that our ancestor, still living in Point A, should migrate to Point B. Of course, there were times than our ancestor read a book or newspaper that mentioned the advantages to living in Point B. But something still drew him to that area.

I have had more luck working with migration “chains” than any other type of “migration technique” for genealogical research. Our ancestors rarely moved in complete isolation. Twenty-two of my mother’s ancestors migrated to the United States between 1850 and 1883. Every one of them immigrated to where either:

  • a relative was already there
  • a relative was quick to follow the ancestor to the new location

And it was not only my Germans who followed this trend. My Irish settled where they had kin and former neighbors. My wife’s Swedes, Belgians, Swiss, Germans, and Greeks did the exact same thing during approximately the same time period. And it was not only the non-English speakers who migrated in groups over a period of time.

My families who travelled from Virginia into Kentucky and eventually into Indiana had some of the same neighbors in all three states. My wife’s Kiles who migrated from Ohio to Illinois in the 1850s were part of a larger contingent following the same migration path. And some of my Virginia families in the 1750s had neighbors with the same last names as the neighbors of their grandparents fifty years earlier and several counties further east.

Pay attention to your ancestor’s associates when he settles in a new area. Those associates and neighbors might have been his neighbors and associates from “back home.” Finding where they were from may help you discover where your own ancestor was from as well.


Learning about George’s Fellow Deserters

Loose ends in genealogy research are a dime a dozen. The problem is that sometimes it takes more than a dozen dimes to pay for tying them up. There were two George Trautvetters from Hancock County, Illinois, who served in the Civil War. There was George A. who served in Company H of the 49th Illinois and George who served in Company H, 15th Missouri Infantry. The Georges were born German natives and immigrated with their parents to the United States in the 1840s-1850s and eventually settled in the western portion of Hancock County, Illinois. George A. deserted his unit but survived to marry and leave descendants. George left no descendants and likely died in the 1860s (but not in the war itself).

We’ve written before about George’s appeal of his desertion charge:

But reviewing what I wrote about the desertion charge reminded me of several loose ends on George A., particularly related to his desertion. I have the appeal George A. filed to his desertion charges. I know the other men who apparently deserted with him did not receive military pensions, but did they appeal their desertion charges as well? If they did appeal is Trautvetter mentioned? Are there any clues in any appeals they filed?

Good questions. We’re working on getting answers. No one deserts in a vacuum.

We’re having Jonathan Deiss of perform our work at the National Archives. Stay tuned.


One Flower on the Stone

One flower was all I left because it was all I really needed to leave.

Life intervened and I was unable to make my cemetery visits in time for Memorial Day. My visit to graves was nearly a month late, but I’ve decided that the timing is not necessarily what’s really important. It’s the visit and the remembering that matters. Instead of leaving a larger decoration that needs to be removed later (which I’m not always able to do in time), I went with a single flower. These are always bought as locally as possible. It’s a good approach for those ancestral cemeteries where it may be only be possible to make one visit during my lifetime and one should always check restrictions on cemetery decorations before leaving them.

The larger decorations are more expensive and my budget is not unlimited. The flower won’t remain forever, but it will engage in self-disposal. Larger items that remain longer (which I use on my Mother’s grave) need be mowed around by maintenance staff and removed by someone at some point unless they get blown away and end up decorating an undesired location. Larger items are evidence to others that someone’s been to the grave. That evidence is no longer important to me, I’ve come to the conclusion that my visits to these ancestral stones are more for myself. I know I was there. That’s what matters.

Using a genealogical term incorrectly, I try and leave negative evidence that I was there. Grass clippings, dirt, etc. are gently brushed away in an environmentally safe way that respects the integrity of the stone and its mounting. This is easiest to do with more modern stones that are often set on a cement slab and where small piles gathered grass clippings eventually get wet and encourage biological activity. I’m always careful around older stones that may be on less secure mountings.

May they all rest in peace–with the occasional visit from their wayward descendant.


Citing What It Does Not Say

This is part of one of the online trees for a relative of mine. I’ve eliminated the name and the precise date of birth because I’m more interested in how handles citing sources than who this specific individual is whose birth is being cited. I’ve also seen problems like this countless times so I don’t want to appear to be picking on this entry only.

I’ve see all six “sources” used in this instance. The tree indicates that all six are sources for the fact that this person was born on a certain date in a certain place. The problem is that all six sources do not say that. Tying these sources to a precise date and place of birth is indicating that they are more accurate than they really are.

  • The 1900 census provides a month and year of birth along with the state. 
  • The 1920 and 1930 census provides an age and a place of birth. The age does not necessarily suggest a specific date–which this citation seems to indicate that it does. 
  • The death index does provide the date and place of birth.
  • The U. S. National Home for the Disabled Volunteer Soldiers provides an approximate year of birth and a state of birth. 
  • The World War I draft card provides a county and state of birth along with a date of birth.

Why not just link them all to the precise date and place? After all, that’s a heck of a lot easier. It may be, but it’s a heck of a lot less accurate.
There’s only 1 of the six records that provide the specific location and date–so really only one should be listed as a source with that precise information. 
Indicating a record says something it does not is confusing and in this case it looks like there are more sources with that level of detail than there are.
The date and place for an event when tied to a source for that should only be as precise as that source indicates.
Sure it takes a little more work, but it makes our work more accurate and makes analysis easier. 

  • Month and year in Illinois should be tied to 1900 census.
  • Approximate year and location of Illinois should be tied to the 1930 census and Soldier’s Home information.
  • The approximate year and county and  state should be tied to the draft card.
  • Specific date and specific place should be tied to the death index.

Is It Always Possible to Find That Reason?

One clue to learning more about your ancestor is determining why he moved from one point to another. Sometimes the reasons are clear after a little study of local history if the reason he moved was because of the destination–called the pull factor. If you don’t know where the ancestor was from, it may be more difficult to determine the reason why he left–called the push factor. It is difficult to read relevant local histories when you are unaware of where the ancestor was from.

Reasons might not always be stated in local histories. Your ancestor might have migrated because of family connections, the fact that a former neighbor had settled in the area, or that there was some type of employment that he could easily obtain. Sometimes the “connection” will be impossible to find. Generally genealogists are advised to research associates of the ancestor in his earlier days of residence in an area to get an idea of individuals he might have known “back home.” Sometimes that is easier said than done.

And if you ancestor didn’t move—there’s a reason for that as well.

If you speculate on why an ancestor moved (or didn’t) clearly indicate that your speculation is speculation. And remember, that many of our conclusions are speculation. Very few of our ancestors left behind detailed records explaining why they did what they did.

Often, we look at the records they left behind, use generalities gleaned from history, economics, and known social behavior, and weave a story. Sometimes that story is correct, but sometimes it is not. After all, ancestors leave behind pieces of themselves and when we use those records to tell their story, we often weave some of ourselves into the tapestry we create.


AncestryDNA Now Extrapolates in the Trees

It was bad enough that AncestryDNA was algorithmically extrapolating ancestors from their seemingly a·mor·phous “Big Tree” in the separate ThruLines section of their DNA analysis site. While Thrulines is decidedly not perfect, if one is aware of its limitations and uses it carefully (with their brain turned on and critical thinking skills engaged), use can be made of it and some matches can be quickly sorted.

But the ThruLines concept is now oozing.

AncestryDNA appears to be taking the extrapolating ancestors concept to the “tree” section of individual match analysis. It’s suggesting ancestors for the DNA match based on what it in the tree attached to the DNA submission of the match. The connection is based on the somewhat mysterious Ancestry “big tree” which is pooling of user-submitted trees. In the illustration, the match does not have John Neill as an ancestor. The tree extends to a James Neill born in 1876. Using other trees in the “big tree” AncestryDNA has determined that he’s a descendant of the John Neill in my tree. They’ve found another James Neill in the “big tree” who has at least one parent listed. They’ve found that parent in a tree in the “big tree” (perhaps the same tree used to find James’ parent) that has a parent listed for that person. The process continued until John Neill was reached–and John Neill is in my tree. This matching process is automated.

Sometimes it works (it did in this case) and sometimes it does not. It’s based upon the super-secret algorithm at AncestryDNA and the accuracy of the data in the “Big Tree.”

Clicking on the “view relationship” takes you to the ThruLines page which will link you to the individuals in the connection. AncestryDNA really wants users to utilize ThruLines.