Saturday, August 15, 2009

My First Day at the National Archives

I remember my first day at the National Archives. I went armed with my rudimentary research plan and a lot of trepidation. The DC metro didn't exist, so I took the train from Baltimore to Washington's Union Station and walked to the Archives. There was no metal detector, you didn't need an ID card, and the beautiful new reading room wasn't even a dream. I found my way to the fourth floor microfilm reading room, got a researcher's card, and signed in to a microfilm reader with my first roll of census microfilm. After a few hours of census scanning, I took a break and switched to the microfilm pension indexes. I ordered the Civil War pensions of two of my 2xgreat-grandfathers, the Civil War pension of one 3xgreat-grandfather, and the War of 1812 pension of a 4xgreat-grandfather. I was then told that these pensions would be available in about one hour in the second-floor research room - so I took a real break and went to lunch.

After lunch, I signed in to the second-floor research room, after depositing everything I carried in a locker, and asked to see my first pension. "Name?" the man behind the desk asked. "Benjamin Rollins," I replied. He actually looked at me then, and said, "Your name, not the pensioner's name." "Oh," an embarrassed me replied. After getting my name, he went to a box, pulled out a pile of manila envelopes, and handed me an envelope and a pink sheet. "What's this?" I asked. "Your pension," he replied. "Name and date here," he pointed to the pink sheet. I signed the sheet, then stood there, holding this big manila envelope. I had been expecting microfilm, and my mind had simply frozen. He looked at me for a moment, sighed, then said, "Take the pension, find a seat at one of the tables, and open it." I did, and I've been hooked ever since. He had given me the War of 1812 pension, and among the real, live, original papers was the last letter ever written by Benjamin Rollins, my 4xgreat-grandfather.

The three Civil War pensions were equally wonderful. I couldn't believe the stories I found in those pages. Each pension was similar, and each pension was unique. I finished the last pension, looked at my watch, and realized that I might not be able to make my train back to Baltimore! I grabbed my photocopies, signed out of the research room, grabbed my things from my locker, signed out of the Archives, and ran all the way to Union Station. As I ran through the station, I caught a glimpse of the Baltimore train's track number and ran to the track. A train was pulling out, and, just like in the movies, the conductor leaned out of the last car's door, grabbed my hand, and pulled me on. Out of breath, I grabbed an empty seat, and said to the woman across from me, "This train is going to Baltimore, isn't it?" "Not as far as I know," she replied. "Oh, no! Where am I going?" I cried. "I get off at the airport," she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was on the right train, on my way home, with wonderful treasures.

"What have you been doing?" this poor woman now asked me. "Oh, you don't really want to know," I warned her. "No. Tell me," the unsuspecting thing said, and I didn't need any more persuading. I started telling her the story of my 2xgreat-grandmother, her four children, and her Civil War soldier husband. I talked about how her husband was wounded in the war, and recovered from his wound, but never quite recovered from the lung infection he suffered. I told her about his work as a traveling tinker and his death in 1879, leaving his widow with no money and four children, the youngest, my great-grandfather, only one year old. I talked about her sorrow as she apprenticed out her two oldest children and took in boarders and laundry to make ends meet. I told her about the scandal when a neighbor accused her of sleeping with a boarder. This neighbor wrote the War Department, saying that a widow who slept with a man should lose her pension. My 2xgreat-grandmother was poorly educated and didn't know what to do, but her second son had been apprenticed to an influential man in the neighborhood who helped her retain her pension. I then continued the story, and told the woman that my 2xgreat-grandmother eventually married this boarder, so the scandalous accusation might have had some truth to it. I grabbed papers and read her excerpts, showing her the difficult-to-read handwriting. I simply couldn't stop talking, even as I watched her eyes glaze over and her face begin to take on a shocked look. She was only released when her stop came and she could stumble off the train. I know she didn't take a seat on that train for at least a week before making sure I was nowhere near her.

Ironically, when I decided to make my own test of Ancestry's pension indexes, I discovered that, if limited to Ancestry's indexes only, I might not have found three of these four pensions.

First, you should all realize that Ancestry's War of 1812 pension index database contains the index images, but these images have not been indexed. When Ancestry announced their big military collection a few years ago, I plugged in Benjamin Rollins' name, but no 1812 pension results appeared. If you're searching for a War of 1812 pensioner on Ancestry, you must browse these images to find him.

I could find no pension entry for Guy Beckley Staples, the Civil War pensioner featured in the above story, in Ancestry's database, regardless of the many possible search configurations I used. I did find an entry for him in Footnote's database.

I could find no pension entry for William Henry Peck, my 3xgreat-grandfather, whose pension I also devoured on this memorable first day. I couldn't find him in Footnote's database, either. Only one of the four pensioners, Benjamin S. Gifford, was readily available on both Ancestry and Footnote. If I had access only to Ancestry, my first day at the Archives might not have been so memorable. Of course, that poor woman on the train back to Baltimore would have had a much more peaceful ride.

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