The Real Widows of the 19th Century Revealed

Vanessa Varin, January 2013

Letter from Charity Snider, with accompanying mole skin, from her Civil War Widow's Pension Application File. The paper bears the discoloration from the unusual enclosure. (WC843258, Record Group 15). Image courtesy of the National Archives (NARA).Through a crowdsourcing project sponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration, genealogists and archivists across the country are working together to reveal the seldom-explored individual experiences of widows after the war ended.

While transcribing a set of files, genealogist and project participant Pamela Loos-Noji discovered a world of intrigue and backstabbing among the widows. In an article in Prologue: Pieces of History, playfully titled "The Real Widows of the Pension Office," Noji reveals a subculture among widows with complex friendship networks and distinct forms of retribution reminiscent of the scheming we see today on a "Real Housewives" episode. Using the case file of Henrietta Frances Kane, Noji recounts how the pension office became the stage on which widows clashed with rivals, by accusing enemies and fellow beneficiaries of violating pension sanctions and thereby having the funds revoked.

The Civil War Pension Project is merely one way in which archivists, genealogists, and historians are collaborating to digitize large sources of information for public consumption. In the case of the Widows' Pension Project, participants are transcribing and digitizing over 1.28 million case files. Beyond the sheer volume of files, the greatest obstacle is the diversity of materials. An average case file contains material ranging from military records, notes from the deceased family, court records, or tintypes of the deceased soldier or of the widow petitioning. As of April 2012, four percent of the files had been digitized, with newly digitized pension files uploaded every week.

For more information about the Civil War Pension Project and how to access digitized material, visit the USGenWeb Archives Pension Project.

Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.