Military Monday: Researching a Civil War Veteran Using the 1890 Census

My Civil War-era ancestor, John Henry Wilson (1823-1905), was one big brick wall. Back in the mid-1980s my great-grandma Winnie (Wilson) Mesplay had given us his photograph, with some handwritten names penciled on the back, and told us he had been a teacher and Justice of the Peace in Jasper County, Missouri. She thought he may have been a soldier during the Civil War, but she didn’t know where he came from or anything about his military service. He died in 1905, five years before the state of Missouri started making death certificates.

John Wilson - Teacher & Justice of the PeaceWILSON J H @ Carterville Cem crop

I already knew how to research Civil War pension files for Union veterans, but we didn’t even know what side John Henry Wilson fought on. And with a name like “John Henry Wilson,” how would I ever identify the right person in the records? I tried searching for “John Wilson” in The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database – there were over 800 Confederate soldiers with that name, and over 2,000 Union soldiers!

If I could find out what unit he served in, that would help me narrow in and see if he had a pension, or other military service-related records that might help me get to know this man a little better.

Many veterans’ gravestones will list their unit. We knew he was buried in Carterville Cemetery, and my dad had taken a picture of the headstone during his last visit. Unfortunately, nothing about John Henry Wilson’s military service is carved on his stone.

I called the reference desk at the Carterville Library and gave them John Henry Wilson’s date of death. The librarian there got back to me with two different death notices from different local newspapers, and she suggested I contact the Joplin Public Library as well. The reference librarian in Joplin emailed me a third death notice.

Wilson J H obit Joplin News Herald 17 Sep 1905 crop

Interestingly, one of the three newspapers referred to him as “Judge Wilson.” But none of the death notices stated anything about where John Henry Wilson had come from, what unit he served in, whether he was a member of a veterans’ organization, or on what side he fought – if he had fought at all.

Dead end. Until I found out about the 1890 census Veterans’ Schedules.

You may have heard that the original 1890 federal census pages were destroyed in a fire in 1921 at the Commerce Department building in Washington, DC. Well, it’s true. For many families, the twenty-year gap between the 1880 and 1900 census records creates a serious roadblock in research. But several “fragments” of the 1890 census survived, and one of the most useful sections of the remaining 1890 census are the Veterans’ Schedule pages, which are searchable on both and

Wilson 1900 census

I had already found my third great-grandfather, John Wilson, in the 1900 census. He was listed in the household of his recently widowed daughter-in-law, Ida (Coffer) Wilson, my second great-grandmother, and her five young children (including my great grandma Winnie, who was seven months old). His place of birth is given as “Virginia” – and Virginia is also given as the place of birth of the father of Ida’s children. (He was John Wilson’s son, Henry Plummer “Plum” Wilson, my second great-grandfather).

Henry Plummer Wilson crop revIda with Anna & Linn 3crop

Since John Henry Wilson was in Jasper County in 1900, I decided to look for him in the same place in the 1890 Veterans Schedule. This schedule includes the name of the veteran (or his widow), his rank, company, regiment, dates of enlistment and discharge, and information about any disability.

Wilson 1890 familysearch

The census taker for Carterville, who enumerated 12 pages of veterans, may have been confused about which veterans he was supposed to record. He (or someone) drew lines through several of the names and marked “Conf.” beside those names. Confederates.

So, John H. Wilson was a Confederate veteran. But beside his name, the spaces for his company and regiment are left blank. Still no regiment, but I’m getting warmer. He fought for the South, and he had a son born in Virginia in the 1850s. I’ve narrowed down my search.

Harriett Bowling Martin and the 1940 Census

Harriett Elizabeth (Bowling) Martin (1846-1938) of Patrick County, Virginia, midwife, Confederate widow and descendant of Pocahontas, used to be my third great-grandmother.

By that I mean she used be in my family tree, my direct lineal ancestor.  She was my paternal grandfather’s great-grandmother.

Until, one day, she wasn’t.

For more than twenty years I’d known of Harriet, and of the Martins of Patrick County, and I’d worked at documenting their lives from a distance of both time and geography. There were, and are, many Martins in Southern Virginia, and I was bound to be related to most of them. My charts showed my father’s father, B.I. Martin, was born there in 1919, the son of two Martins – Charlie Martin and his wife Agnes (Martin) Martin, a third cousin. Charlie and Agnes’ common ancestors, Moses and Philadelphia Martin, were themselves first cousins. Moses and Philadelphia’s grandfather, Isaac Martin (1720-1774), is said to have been the less-distinguished brother of General Joseph Martin, a patriot of the Revolutionary War.

Joseph MartinPicture 010

My dad, who grew up in his mother’s hometown in Missouri, never knew his father. B.I. Martin had been stationed in Japan shortly after WWII and died there in a boating accident. As an adult, with no connection to his father’s side of the family, my dad had researched the Martins at the Patrick County Historical Society and Museum in Stuart, Virginia. It was through the historical society that he contacted kin, borrowed and copied old family photographs, and located gravesites. Together we scanned and labeled Martin family photos going back four generations. I posted some of the photos to my family tree on, and connected up with other distant relations.

Picture 019 001crop   BI

I found a cousin online, Connie, who shared stories passed down from her mother about great-grandmother Harriet. She’d been the mother of ten children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. (Martin women, it has been said, would give birth in the morning, then go and prepare a lunch for their family at noon).

In Harriet’s later years she was stern with the little ones, maybe as stern as she looks in her photographs. As the local midwife she assisted the county doc at childbed, and she laid out the dead for burial. And when Harriet decided it was time for her to retire from midwifery, the doc retired, too.

I was fascinated by Harriet Bowling Martin’s story and by her ancestry. The Bowlings of Southern Virginia can claim descent from Major John Fairfax Bolling (1676-1729), the great-grandson of Virginia colonist John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan.

Pocahontas_Rolfe_crop BOLLING Maj John

But one day in April 2012, not long after the 1940 census had been released to the public by the National Archives for researchers to access, I made an unexpected discovery. I was searching 1940s-era records in, hoping to find a city directory showing the street address of my father’s mother. (The 1940 census had not yet been indexed by name, so a street address was the only way you’d find the family you were looking for). I’d found her parents in 1940, but she wasn’t living with them.

Searching under her maiden name, up popped a 1940 marriage record from the county where she’d lived. It wasn’t a city directory, like I had been looking for, so I almost skipped past it in my search results. But something told me to pull it up – I’d researched this family and this area enough to know that there was only one woman by that name in Jasper County in 1940.

So, my grandmother had gotten married on 7 December 1940, to a man named Raymond Edgington.

I did some quick mental math. My dad was born in September 1941.

We already knew grandma had married B.I. Martin about seven months after my dad was born – she’d explained that they’d had to postpone the wedding because B.I. was away in the Army.

I called the county courthouse to ask if they could check for a divorce record from 1940 or 1941, for a Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Edgington. A few hours later, I was holding a two-page fax in my hands.

It was not a divorce. It was an annulment – on the grounds that both Ray Edgington, age 20, and my grandmother, age 19, were both below the legal age to contract marriage without parental consent. My grandmother’s step-father, acting on his step-daughter’s behalf, was plaintiff. He told the judge that the young couple had never lived together as man and wife. It appears he did not know that his 19-year-old step-daughter – my grandma – was already three to four months pregnant.

EDGINGTON Raymond Mary annull Joplin Globe 17 Apr 1941

By the time my dad’s birth certificate was recorded with the state, four years later, his mother was married to her second husband, B.I. Martin. The man named on my father’s birth certificate was not Dad’s biological father.

I never did see much resemblance, now that I think about it, in those old Martin family photographs.