Federal Records that Help Identify Former Slaves and Slave Owners

I gave a presentation with this title during the 2018 NARA Virtual Genealogy Fair which is online. I’ve now added the “June 2019” version of the handout for that presentation to my “Research Guides” page on this website. This handout highlights of federal agencies or major records series that are useful; it is certainly not exhaustive.

In addition, it is good to remember that most documentation of enslavement will be found in property, estate, tax, and other records created primarily at the county level, not in federal records.

Letters and Financial Reports, June-December 1870, and Letters and Endorsements Pertaining to Trusses, November 1875-July 1884, by Assistant Surgeon John S. Billings

There are now 26.7 million descriptions and 136 million digital objects (images) in the National Archives Catalog. Those figures will continue to grow.

One recently digitized series – that consists of just one item (one volume) – is the “Letters and Financial Reports, June-December 1870, and Letters and Endorsements Pertaining to Trusses, November 1875-July 1884, by Assistant Surgeon John S. Billings” (National Archives Identifier 15501038).

A truss is a prosthetic appliance used by a person with a hernia. The Act of Congress of May 28, 1872 (17 Statutes at Large 164), “An Act to provide for furnishing Trusses to disabled Soldiers,” entitled “every soldier of the Union army who was ruptured while in the line of duty” during the Civil War “to receive a single or double truss of such style as may be designated by the Surgeon-General of the United States Army as the best suited for such disability.” Section 2 of the act directed the soldier to make his request to “an examining surgeon for pensions” who would “prepare and forward the application” without charge. Section 3 of the act directed the Surgeon General to purchase trusses “at a price not greater than the same are sold to the trade at wholesale.”

This volume contains two different sets of fair copies of correspondence sent by Assistant Surgeon General and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel John S. Billings.

Pages 1-32 contain fair copies of correspondence sent by Dr. Billings from June 1, 1870, to December 31, 1870, and related records. These are letters to various payees who received government checks for services or supplies; suppliers of artificial limbs concerning limbs for specific veterans; and others. There are copies of receipts issued for money received from the sale of surplus U.S. Government property as well as weekly financial statements submitted to the Surgeon General concerning the financial condition of the Medical and Hospital Department, Army Medical Museum, Surgeon General’s Office Library, and the funds for the “Comfort of Sick and Discharged Soldiers.” Pages 23-32 (August 6 – December 31, 1870) consist solely of financial statements.

Pages 35-49 contain a name index arranged roughly alphabetical by the initial letter of the surname. Each entry includes the person’s name and the page number in this volume upon which correspondence was recorded.

Page 51-201 and 204-237 contain fair copies of letters sent and endorsements made by Dr. Billings concerning trusses from November 1875 to May 1884. Letters were recorded on the upper section of pages 51-71 while an endorsement on an unrelated matter was recorded sideways on the lower section of pages 51-58, 62-65, 70-71, 85, 100, 109, and 151, and sideways on the upper section of page 165. Letters addressed to manufacturers are primarily purchase orders or, in a few cases, complaints about specific truss models. Many letters to U.S. Pension Examining Surgeons and other physicians are notifications that individual soldiers were ineligible to receive a free replacement truss, while others address concerns about a truss issued to a particular pensioner. There is also correspondence with pensioners and the Pension Office. The endorsements copied into this volume were made on truss applications returned to examining surgeons with directions to obtain measurements necessary to provide the applicants with the correct size truss. A sample of the form of notice that the Act of May 28, 1872, permitted only one truss per soldier was inserted loosely at pages 358-359. Page 358 also contains a brief note in shorthand. For unknown reasons, an anatomical diagram of the “venus sinusesal base of brain” was inserted loosely at pages 360-361.

Pages 33-34, 202-203, 238-357, and 359 are blank.

Neighborly Deception and All Things Human

Stories about local personalities, estate sales, local events, long-forgotten conflicts and more…. You just never know what you will find by digging in unusual records. Find out more in “Mrs. Hartshorne’s Estate Sale and the Joking Neighbor of Patrick McGroury of Manalapan, New Jersey.”

That Pesky Issue of Spelling

As citizens of the 21st century, we often expect “precision” in names, dates, places, geographic locations, and many other things. For our ancestors, however, precision in such details was not as important as things like, “How many eggs did the chicken lay today?”

Although we ‘live by the clock’ our ancestors did not, or not so much, and a Norwegian island wants to try to go back to that during their longest days. (See New York Times article here).

But back to the name thing. Today’s blog post by Damian Shiels, “Leaving Off the ‘O'”: Insights into Irish Emigrant Name Changes in 1860s America” gives good food for thought regardless of your ancestors’ nationality.

As always, superior genealogical research requires an understanding of our ancestor’s perspective and worldview. It makes understanding the records a tad easier.

Burial Flags for U.S. Military Veterans

Today, when a U.S. military veteran dies, we take it for granted that the federal government will provide the next of kin with a U.S. flag to drape over the casket during funeral services. Obtaining this flag is one of the many routine tasks performed by funeral homes for grieving families.

But, did you know this? — The tradition of federally-funded flags for most veterans dates back only to the 1920s! You can read more about it in Records of Burial Flags for Veterans, NGS Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec. 2016): 39-42.

flagdrapedcasket

Call Number 13

The near-infinite variety of records in military pension files is the very essence of a truism: a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting. And yet, of course, you do not know what will be in any particular pension file until you look. It is in looking that interesting things are found. Egads, another truism.

A Civil War (or later) veteran’s answer to “Call Number 13” is one of those interesting things that will only be found in certain Union Civil War pension files. You can read about Call 13 and the circumstances under which it is found in “Did Your Civil War Ancestor Respond to Call Number 13?” NGS Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr.-May 2016): 35-39.

Those “Boring” Administrative Files….

Most novice genealogists understandably focus on finding vital records of birth, marriage, and death. More experienced researchers know that understanding an ancestor’s full life – as well as finding ways around “brick wall” problems – comes from delving into a wide range of records created by government record keepers at all levels of our federalist structure.

The “wide range of records” includes those “boring” administrative files, which, it often turns out, are not so boring after all. My recent article – “Special Examiners: Records of the Bureau of Pensions’ Efforts to Combat Waste, Fraud, and Abuse, 1862–1933” – in Volume 8 of the Federal History Journal seeks to bring greater appreciation to less-well known records in Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933

Any time money is involved, a record must be created. Successful pension applicants expected payment. Records were created to ensure that payment was timely, correct, and made to the right persons. Records also helped guard against theft and fraud. Read more about the 1907-1933 pension payment cards for Caroline S. Moulton, widow of George H. Moulton, 38th Massachusetts Infantry (Civil War). More information is in a longer article from this summer’s NGS Magazine. Updated 8 October 2015.