Chasing that pension file

The missing pension

Most folks whose families have been in America since oh-dark-thirty — defined roughly by The Legal Genealogist as after the Mayflower but before the Revolution — ended up with one or more ancestors involved in one or more of America’s early wars.

The Legal Genealogist is no exception.

My 3rd great grandfather Jesse Fore was a fifer in Captain Michael Gaffney’s company of South Carolina Militia.1 Another third great grandfather, Elijah Gentry, and his brother James Gentry, and their father — my fourth great grandfather — Elijah Gentry Sr. all served in the 1st Regiment Mississippi Territorial Volunteers.2

Now I’ve seen some of the pension files for the War of 1812. They can be absolutely wonderful. The application forms alone can contain all kinds of details you can’t get anywhere else. So one of the very first things I think of when I find a War of 1812 ancestor is: where’s his pension file?

I’ve sat in the National Archives and held Jesse Fore’s file in my hands.3 I’ve seen the mark he made on an 1857 affidavit about having transferred a bounty land warrant — and you can see it illustrating this blog too.4

In the case of the Elijahs, it’s pretty easy to understand why Elijah Sr. never got a pension for his 1812 service: he died before May 1818, when James was named executor of his will.5 But for the longest time it upset and frustrated me that I couldn’t find any pension records for Elijah Jr. He is all over the Mississippi state records for years, decades even.6 So why couldn’t I find his pension file?

It dawned on me, finally, that I didn’t really have a very good handle on just who could get a pension for serving in the War of 1812 and when. So it just might be a good idea to take a peek at the pension laws.


Until 1871, the only folks who could get pensions for service in the War of 1812 were those who’d been hurt in the war and the widows of those who’d been killed. That wasn’t a lot of people — there were only 2,260 reported battle deaths and 4,505 reported woundings in that war.7 You didn’t qualify for a pension just because you’d served until 18718 — when most of the 286,730 men who’d served were likely to have been either quite elderly or dead.

Under the 1871 law, to be eligible, a survivor had to have served 60 days and been honorably discharged, and widows could collect if they’d married before the peace treaty was ratified on the 17th of February 1815.9

It wasn’t until 1878 that the law was changed to make anybody who’d served at least 14 days eligible for a pension, and gave pensions to widows no matter when they’d been married.10

And there was my answer.

Elijah Jr. died before the end of 1868; though probate files don’t survive for his home county of Neshoba County, Mississippi, for that year, his wife Wilmoth and their surviving children sold some of his land in neighboring Winston County on 19 December 1868 and, in the deed, Wilmoth was identified as his widow.11 So like his father before him, Elijah simply hadn’t lived long enough to be eligible for a pension for his service.

Wilmoth herself wasn’t eligible under the 1871 law, since her marriage to Elijah wasn’t until about 1817.12 And she probably died before the 1878 law took effect.13

You’d think by now I’d have learned, right?

Check the laws.

Always, always, always, check the laws.


  1. Compiled service records, Jesse Fore, musician, Captain Michael Gaffney’s Company, 1st Regiment South Carolina Militia; Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations, War of 1812; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762-1984, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  2. Compiled service records, Elijah Gentry, Pvt., James Gentry, Pvt., and Elijah Gentry Sr., Pvt., Captain Samuel Dale’s Company, 1st Regiment Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, War of 1812, RG 94, NA-Washington.
  3. Jesse Fore (Musician, Capt. Michael Gaffney’s Co., 1 Regiment South Carolina Militia, War of 1812), pension no. S.O. 4,553, S.C. 7,041; Case Files of Pension and Bounty-Land Applications Based on Service in the War of 1812, 1871-1900; Pension and Bounty Land Applications Based on Service between 1812 and 1855; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  4. Ibid., affidavit of Jesse “Four,” 4 Nov 1857, Union County, Georgia.
  5. Monroe County AL Orphans Court orders, 11 May 1818, estate of Elijah Gentry.
  6. See, e.g., 1850 U.S. census, Neshoba County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 119 (stamped), dwelling 74, family 79, Elijah Gentry; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 378. Also, 1860 U.S. census, Neshoba County, Mississippi, Hills Bluff Post Office, population schedule, p. 153 (penned), dwelling 988, family 1022, Elijah Gentry; digital image, ( : accessed 28 September 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 588.
  7. See Hannah Fischer, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” Congressional Research Service, 13 July 2005; html version, Navy Department Library ( : accessed 29 Mar 2013).
  8. “An Act granting Pensions to certain Soldiers and Sailors of the War of eighteen hundred and twelve, and the Widows of decease Soldiers,” 16 Stat. 411 (14 Feb 1871).
  9. Ibid.
  10. “An act amending the laws granting pensions to the soldiers and sailors of the war of eighteen hundred and twelve, and their widows, and for other purposes,” 20 Stat. 27 (9 Mar 1878).
  11. Neshoba County, MS, Deed Book Q: 619, Wilmoth Gentry et al. to Lemuel Knowles, 19 Dec 1868.
  12. Elijah had been a circuit-riding Methodist Episcopal preacher in 1816, at a time when the Mississippi Conference was described by its historian as “exclusively a bachelor Conference.” Rev. John Jones, A Complete History of Methodism as Connected with the Mississippi Conference, vol. I (Nashville, Tenn. : Southern Methodist Pub. House, 1887), 427.
  13. She was enumerated in the household of her son George Washington Gentry in 1870, 1870 U.S. census, Neshoba County, Mississippi, Philadelphia, population schedule, p. 374(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 1264, Wilmoth Gentry in household of George Gentry; digital image, ( : accessed 11 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 741; imaged from FHL microfilm 552240, but cannot be found in the 1880 census and likely had died by then.
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20 Responses to Chasing that pension file

  1. Trying to decipher when & why some ancestors have pension files while others don’t is quite a challenge. If you could share a synopsis of the laws regarding Revolutionary War pensions and land bounty rights as well that what be wonderful. I find your blog most interesting & informative.

  2. Melissa says:

    I only have 1 ancestor that I know to have served in the War of 1812, and my how I wish he had lived long enough to receive a pension.

  3. Amy Smith says:

    Gotta like a woman who isn’t afraid to sometimes say to herself, “Duh.” How many of those slap-on-the-forehead moments have I had? That’s why I love this blog – it slaps me upside the head, just when I need it. :D

  4. Betsy Miller says:

    And then you have the Southern veterans of the War of 1812, who were denied pensions under the 1870s laws because they had “supported” the Confederate States of America. One of my families has two brothers, one of whom moved to Missouri in the 1850s and collected his pension later, and one who stayed in North Carolina and could not collect his pension (guess which branch I descend from).

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Under the 1871 law only, Betsy. That was changed by the 1787 law, which deleted that ineligibility clause.

  5. Judy, thank you again for another wonderful post. This was very helpful. My day always starts with a cup of coffee and your blog.

  6. Shame on the Legal Genealogist for her definition of oh-dark thirty as starting with after the Mayflower. Surely she has heard of Jamestown, settled in 1607?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s when it’s still dark out for my family, Craig! The lights don’t even start coming on for my mother’s kin on this side of the Atlantic until well into the 1600s,

  7. Jana Last says:


    I want to let you know that this post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  8. J. Thornburg says:

    I have a War of 1812 ancestor who died in 1839. He was awarded Bounty Land in Arkansas. (County, Township and Range are even specified in his will.) My research has turned up information regarding his service with the 17th US Infantry that is marked “see pension case”. I have not been able to locate an information regarding a war injury. As his wife seems to have pre-deceased him, who might have filed for that pension (not yet located)? A son?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      What makes you think he didn’t apply for the pension himself? If he was injured, and left an invalid within the meaning of the pension law, he could have applied for it himself.

  9. Lindy Morgan says:

    I have recently found a War of 1812 application for an ancestor on which three wives are mentioned, two with this inscription: “Sold 1st wife Mary L, Sold 2nd wife Sallie, widow Bettie”. The soldier’s service was from Dec 19, 1813, to Feb. 20, 1814. He died in 1871, and the widow died in 1883. What does “sold 1st wife” and “sold 2nd wife” mean?

  10. Elder Eyre says:

    This is a link to a pension file. It also displays the selling of a first wife Sarah Chatham and the selling of a second wife —-? followed by a third wife Maria Goode who incedentally has the same last name of the captain of the Service. I would love to know what it means to have sold a wife. Thank you!

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