Finding the Hidden Clues in a Pension File

One of the most common questions I encounter at Civil War Records pertains to whether pension files yield direct evidence of an ancestor's parentage. It's true; these files might not always supply concrete answers, but what they lack in direct evidence, they make up for in valuable clues that can propel your research forward.

This was the case when I stumbled upon a new direct ancestor of mine from the Civil War, a revelation that shed light on the incredible value of pension files and the indirect evidence they contain.

For years, I had proudly stated that I was the direct descendant of six Civil War veterans.  I thought that I had found all of my Civil War ancestors in my family tree.  Little did I know, an elusive seventh ancestor was waiting to be uncovered, concealed behind what seemed like an impenetrable brick wall. 

My new found ancestor's pension file is a prime example of the indirect evidence that can lead to remarkable revelations. My journey to unearth this ancestor began with my unknown fourth great-grandfather.  The only real clue I had was a death certificate for his daughter in Fayette county, Pennsylvania.  He was recorded as “Elie Conn,” with a wife named Nancy Cunningham.  He remained a mystery for some time, because none of my searches revealed anyone named Elie Conn who fit his description. 


(Death certificate of my ancestor Anna (Susannah) Rankin, showing parents Elie Conn and Nancy Cunningham)


One candidate I found was a man named Abner Conn (not Elie) married to Nancy, living in Fayette county.  He was the right age to have served in the Civil War, so on a hunch, I searched through the pension index cards on  Sure enough, there was a man with that name in the index from Pennsylvania.

I was so anxious to figure this out that on my very first visit back to the National Archives after Covid, I scanned the pension file for Abner Conn. I was hoping there would either be something in there that listed his children’s names, or some kind of direct evidence showing that he was, in fact, the right person.  Unfortunately, no such direct evidence existed in that file.  He was from Fayette county, Pennsylvania, but other than that, I couldn’t match him to my ancestor.

The file was put aside for a year or two before I looked at it again.  There was a clue in there that I did notice at first, but hadn’t looked at it carefully:  One of the affidavits in the pension file was from a man named Henry Cunningham

Cunningham…does that name sound familiar?  I knew that Abner's wife’s name was likely Nancy Cunningham, so that affidavit held the key. Henry Cunningham detailed his long-standing acquaintance with Abner Conn, stretching back to their Civil War days.  The clue that I had missed at first was that he explained that he and Abner Conn had even shared a residence for several years after the war.


(Henry Cunningham's affidavit, stating that he not only knew Abner Conn, but lived with him, a clue that proved vital to establishing a family connection)

Given my belief that Nancy Cunningham was my ancestor's wife, this revelation held tremendous weight. Reading between the lines, Henry Cunningham's assertion of cohabitation hinted towards a familial connection rather than a mere camaraderie formed on the battlefield. This piece of the puzzle illuminated the path ahead, inspiring me to explore the Cunningham lineage further.

More research into the Cunningham family confirmed what I had suspected: Henry Cunningham does appear to be my ancestor Nancy's brother, and Abner Conn does seem to be the father of my ancestor.  The affidavit, seemingly innocuous at first glance, held the key to dismantling a longstanding brick wall within my family tree. It underscored the genealogical value of military pension files, with their affidavits and insights, in unlocking ancestral connections.


(1850 Census record in Fayette county, Pennsylvania, showing Nancy Cunningham with a brother Henry.  Henry's connection to both Nancy and her future husband Abner Conn helped link the two together)

This discovery marked my seventh direct ancestor with ties to the Civil War, a milestone that underscored the importance of embracing every available resource in genealogical research. Beyond the thrill of expanding my family tree, this journey highlighted the significance of indirect evidence, showcasing that even the smallest clue can set in motion a series of revelations that ultimately reshape our understanding of the past.

The tale of my newfound Civil War ancestor serves as a testament to the hidden treasures that pension files can hold. It's a reminder that these documents are not mere bureaucratic records; they are windows into the lives, relationships, and stories of those who came before us. While they might not always offer direct answers, they possess the potential to guide us toward the truths we seek.

The moral of the story is this—don’t overlook the indirect evidence these files can contain! Embrace the breadcrumbs of information within these files, for they have the potential to illuminate entire branches of your family tree. Every affidavit, every testimony, and every piece of correspondence carries the potential to bridge gaps and dissolve uncertainties, offering a clearer view of your ancestors' lives.

So excuse me while I update my bio now—I’m now the direct descendant of SEVEN Civil War soldiers!



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