Editor’s note: I came across this piece from the Mercury News a few days ago in my daily traipsing around the Internet. The original author, Joan Morris, speaks of her search for a particularly hard to find ancestor. What caught my eye was her use of pension records and how important they were to finding her ancestor.
Please note that links related to sites mentioned or other resources have been added to this post for the convenience of our readers, and are not part of the original article.
You can follow Ms. Morris on Twitter.com/AskJoanMorris.
Elusive ancestor holds on to his secrets
Thomas Honea was born around 1812, got married, became a soldier and sometime during the Civil War, he died. Everything else was lost to history.
I’ve been searching for Thomas ever since I discovered my great-great-grandmother’s widow’s pension voucher tucked inside a bunch of old letters and photographs.
The voucher was for $24, covering three months starting in November 1906. A paltry $8 a month for a supreme sacrifice. What made it even more tragic is that the voucher was never cashed. Nancy Honea died before she could execute it.
That piece of paper has sent me on a long and frustrating search for answers. Who were Thomas Honea’s people? What role did he play in the Civil War and for which side? Most importantly, how did he die?
I asked my mother, who told the family story as she recalled it. Thomas had been pinned down during a prolonged battle. He took shelter behind an overturned table and in the course of the fighting, suffered frostbite on his feet. The wounds became infected and then gangrene set in. He died in a military hospital.
At the time, we assumed he was a Confederate soldier. My family always seems to be on the wrong side of things. It was nothing I took particular pride in, but I did want to know more about him and honor his personal sacrifice.
My sisters and I poured over Confederate roll calls, searching for him. When we hit dead ends there, we tried the Union rolls. There was nothing.
For years, the voucher lay in a drawer, ignored but not forgotten. Then I installed Family Tree Maker on my computer and got myself a membership to Ancestry.com. The chase was back on.
I added a membership to Fold3.com, which focuses on military records. I found a few Thomas Honeas listed, one in the Georgia volunteers and another in the Texas militia. Neither turned out to be my Thomas.
It was then that I noticed a curious hand-stamped notation on the pension voucher. It read, “Widows, Indian Wars.”
Although Thomas was old for the Civil War era — he would have been 49 when that first shot was fired on Fort Sumter — he was much too young for the War of 1812, also known as the Indian War. The Union Army, however, waged two wars during the 1860s — one against the South and one against American Indians in the West. But now I had one elusive answer: He’d been a Union soldier.
I turned to my friend, Kathy Echols, who volunteers at the Family History Center in Concord. The center is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As part of the Mormon faith, church members build extensive family trees. They have amassed a trove of records and created a way for everyone to tap into them.
These days, Kathy spends much of her family-tree research on Swedish records, and although she doesn’t speak a word of Swedish, she has learned to read a good deal of it. If Kathy could find her Nordic relatives, then surely a farm boy from Mississippi couldn’t be much of a challenge.
Thomas wasn’t giving up his secrets easily, however, but I was able to find a bit more information on Nancy’s widow’s pension. The official pension record matched the scant information I had on my aging document, but it included a few more enticing clues. Thomas had been killed during a skirmish with the Creek Indians. No date or location, but I had another nugget for the file.
Kathy also was able to discover something I never knew. My great-grandmother, Rachel Honea Spears, had not been an only child, as I had assumed. Instead, she had been Thomas and Nancy’s last child. She had three older sisters, Minerva, Jane and Rhoda, and two older brothers, William and James.
This valuable if meager information has renewed my desire to find more, and I’ve since learned Thomas’ birth and marriage dates and the name of his parents, Wilks and Celia Honea.
I haven’t solved the question of how he died or where he last drew breath, and I don’t know that I’ll ever unearth all of his secrets, but trying is an adventure.
The LDS church has several Family History Centers throughout the Bay Area. They are free and open to the public. Go see what you can find.
Image credit: Un-civil pensions, created by artist Coffin, George Yost, 1850-1896, via the Library of Congress.