NGS Student has Immediate Success with Mother’s Pensions!

NGS Student has Immediate Success with Mother’s Pensions!

At this year’s National Genealogical Society’s Annual Conference 2014 in Richmond, Virginia, I presented the Newly Discovered Records of the Poor: Rich records of the indigent and down-trodden. I was excited to be speaking on the value of these 20th century records which were born of a progressive social program called Mothers’ Pensions. These little known “pensions” share a name with well-known records genealogists have used for years that stem from a mother’s lost financial support of a son who was a former Civil War soldier. These records are not in any way affiliated with each other in any manner but they are very similar in the vast amounts of genealogical information they hold. Actually the modern records can be more densely packed with richer information than the latter.

Mothers’ Pensions grew out of progressive social movements that were sweeping the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The issues of the poor were being dealt with globally. This program was the United States answer to assisting the less fortunate. These pensions were a joint federal, state, and county program designed to keep families together, allow children to stay in school, and help mothers who were trying to raise their family without a spouse’s assistance.

At the federal level the Department of Labor administered the program through their newly formed division called the Children’s Bureau. All 48 states eventually passed legislation to enact programs. South Carolina and Georgia waited until 1937 to adopt legislation. When the Social Security Act passed in 1935 the Social Security Administration took over the program and renamed it Aid to Dependent Children. Sadly the South Carolina and Georgia programs were very short lived.

The presentation stressed the importance of knowing the laws that created these records. The laws and statues provide clues to which agencies administered the program, what courts heard the cases, who created records, and where the records were kept. Once a researcher understands the processes in a specific state, they will know where to look for the records.

At the end of the presentation students were encouraged to go out and find their very own Mothers’ Pension for one of their family members. Sabrina Peterson was in the audience. She remembered reading stories in the diaries of her great grandmother about being on public assistance. Primed with this new information, she immediately jumped on a computer in the vendor hall. Her great grandmother was from Chelan County Washington and it just so happened that these records are online. These records are not indexed so it took a little effort but within 15 minutes Sabrina had found the court order granting a pension to her great grandmother.

It was so rewarding for me to personally witness a student having immediate success with these awesome records. Sabrina took the information she learned in the class and struck gold on her first foray into the records. What she found was the court order granting her great grandmother aid. It contains all of the information needed to find the application file including the investigator’s report.

Some words of warning and encouragement though, these records can be very difficult to find. Sabrina’s results are not typical. I spent an entire day in the Library of Virginia searching for Virginia’s Mothers’ Pensions. Not a single archivist had ever heard of the program or the records. I did find some old inventories of Virginia records compiled by the WPA in the late 1930s. Only one archivist had ever looked at the inventories and it was through him that we were able to identify some minute books that were a treasure trove of information about the beginnings of the program in Virginia, its administration, and the transition of the program to the Social Security Administration. I am hot on the trail of the records and case files in Virginia but as I always say, “Genealogy is not easy.” Good luck and happy hunting your elusive ancestors.

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