Do you have an ancestor who participated in the War of 1812? If so, the War of 1812 pension files may hold a treasure trove of genealogical information for you. These records have previously been difficult to access until, led by the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the genealogical community began digitizing them in 2015 to make them available for the bicentennial of this important war.
Finding family information in war files may seem counterintuitive, but records of these files are filled with important details about soldiers, their families, and even extended families. Learn more about what information these records contain and how you can access them to find your ancestors.
What are pension files?
Citizens who joined the militia and served in the army or navy during the War of 1812 were eligible for pensions. Throughout the 1800s, nearly 100,000 applications were submitted. Some were approved, some not, but files for both were preserved.
To qualify for these pensions, applicants were required to provide the government with stringent proofs of eligibility, so the files may include original records sent in by the applicants. They may include pages torn from family Bibles, marriage certificates, photographs, military records, and more. Such records may provide proof of such facts as a wife’s maiden name, marriage places and dates, names of children, bounty land awarded, military service details, names of parents, death dates and places, and physical descriptions of the veteran.
Who could apply for a pension?
Before 1871, veterans had to prove that war injuries prevented them from earning a living in order to receive a pension. If the veteran was deceased, his widow could apply provided she had married the veteran before 1815, the year the war ended. Through the years, stipulations for pension eligibility were relaxed, and more families applied. After 1871, all veterans who served at least 60 days, or their widows, could apply. In 1878, benefits were extended to veterans, widows, and their children, provided the soldier served at least 14 days. Pension applications could also include men who served in the war effort in capacities other than as soldiers.
Some soldiers who were not eligible for pensions still qualified for bounty lands. What is found in the Fold3 1812 folders may differ from that available on the online Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Bounty Land patents. The procedure to get a land patent included an application for bounty land, a warrant for the land, and a land patent. The patents are digitized on the BLM site, but the warrants are not.
Whether or not your ancestor served in the war, the information may still be in these records. Check the records on Fold3.com. Your ancestor may be listed on affidavits as witnesses to marriages and other events of friends and family who were involved in the war.
Where are pension records available?
Start by searching for an ancestor in the FamilySearch War of 1812 index, but don’t stop there. Indexes provide only limited information, could include transcription errors, and aren’t necessarily complete.
Digitized records in the pension files are actual copies of proof documents and may contain much more information than is on the indexes. Thus far, files for surnames A through M have been digitized and are available free online at Fold3.com. The undigitized original files are also available to search at the National Archives in Washington D.C.
Keep an eye on your FamilySearch record hints as well. If FamilySearch finds one of your ancestors in the War of 1812 Pension File records, they’ll give you a record hint on your Family Tree. You can review these hints to view the record and make sure it applies to your ancestor.
The flowchart in this handout from RootsTech 2018 provides a trail sequence to find these records for various scenarios.