Family Tree Friday: Pension Indexes Examined

Posted by

Have you ever looked at a pension index, only to be confused because it didn’t make sense? Or frustrated because you couldn’t read the numbers? It’s probably happened to most of us, at one time or another. Researchers normally start with T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, or T289, Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900. If something isn’t clear, or makes no sense on one index, we direct them to the other.

But did you know that there is a third index available? It is microfilm publication A1158, Numerical Index to Pensions, 1860-1934, and it’s helped me find pensions that I couldn’t locate otherwise. But A1158 can be very confusing the first time you use it.

Let’s take a look at Lazarus White’s pension index cards. Lazarus White served in Company G of the 128th US Colored Infantry (USCT). When I first looked him up, I used T288, which is alphabetical by the soldier’s name. I found his card, although it was difficult to read.
It lists his name and unit, and indicates that there was a soldier application and a soldier certificate – meaning that he applied for and received the pension.

Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White
Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White

I also found another card, which looked like it could be related to the first card.

Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White's widow, Diana
Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White's widow, Diana

This second card has his name and unit, but it lists a widow (Diana), and doesn’t have the same numbers. In fact, the numbers on this card relate only to the widow. There is both an application and a certificate, which means that she also applied for and received a pension.
Normally, if you see two cards like this, we will recommend that you request both files. Chances are good that the files were combined at some point, so one of your requests will be a rejection. Every once in a while, however, there will be two separate files, so we always suggest you request both.

In this case, since I couldn’t read the certificate numbers very well on either card, I wanted to double check by using the organizational index (T289).

Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White and his widow, Diana
Civil War pension index card for Lazarus White and his widow, Diana

Since there was only one card, and it included both sets of numbers, I was pretty sure that both files had been combined. But I wanted to go a step further, and verify the numbers again, especially since they were so hard to read on the first two cards. So I went to A1158. This index is organized by the pension numbers – the basic idea is that you take one of the numbers (preferable a legible one!) and look at the roll of film that will contain that number. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, here’s where it gets confusing. Like the other pension indexes, A1158 is comprised of cards. The big difference is that each card can have up to four pensions referenced. Let’s say you look up the number 12345. When you get to the card for #12345, you will see a reference to every possible pension that that number (12345) could refer to – a soldier application, a soldier certificate, a widow application and a widow certificate. You need to make sure that you look at the right part of the card, and then look at the name listed there. If it matches the name of the soldier you’re looking for, then you’ve got the right number.

Since this will make more sense with actual examples, let’s look at Lazarus White again. On the first card from T288, I couldn’t really make out the soldier certificate number. On T289, however, I saw that it was listed as 920,628. The widow certificate was 674,207. I decided to look up both numbers in A1158, but I started with 920,628.

Numerical Pension Index card
Numerical Pension Index card

See what I meant about being confusing? The number appears in the upper left hand corner. Along the left side of the card, you will see “Invalid” and “Dependent,” and then “Orig” (meaning application) and “Ctf” (meaning certificate). Since we’re looking for Lazarus White’s certificate number, look under Invalid, then Ctf. Look to the right, and you will see Lazarus White’s name and unit. So now we know that the number 920,628 is correct.

Let’s repeat the process with the widow’s certificate number.

Numerical Pension Index card
Numerical Pension Index card

This time we find Lazarus White listed under the Dependent certificate, so we know that the widow’s certificate number 674,207 is correct.

A1158 is especially useful when numbers on the other indexes are illegible. It’s also really useful when a mistake was made on the original indexes, and the numbers don’t match up with the file you’re looking for – A1158 basically allows you to verify that you’re looking for the correct numbers.

T288 and T289 are available on microfilm in our DC facility, as well as some of our regional facilities. They have both been digitized – T288 is available on, and T289 is available on A1158 is only available on microfilm at our DC facility.


  1. Great explanation Katherine. Now maybe Ancestry or Footnote will digitize it.

  2. On the third card, under the category “LAW.”, do you know what “J” indicates? I have an index card that has “age. J” written in that section, on the invalid class line.

    1. Hi Will,

      Good question! I had to check with a couple of colleagues, since I wasn’t positive – not all of the cards have these notations, and some have different markings. We are pretty certain that these are just clerical markings of some sort – they could be the initial of the clerk who filled out the index card. I have also seen cards where the month the application was filed was listed in the “LAW” column. Like many of our other records, it’s possible that the clerks just used what they had for their own purposes. Unfortunately, as is the case here, we don’t always know the meaning behind the various markings. Whatever they mean, we are pretty confident that they won’t lead you to additional sources.

      – Katherine

  3. HI,
    This blog really made it possible to understand all the “cards” and what they meant. Thank you! I have a question and I can’t find an answer. I have a T289 for William Whitten that served in Company G, 27 Reg. NJ. Then, under additional services, it has what looks like EPC 4.13.20 Seaman Great Western Fairy. (1864-65). I found him on a Chicago, IL naval enlistment page. It has E.M.R. next to his name, and a few others. Can you explain what either or both of these abbreviations mean?

Comments are closed.