The last post (see here) was the first in a series called Document Focus, highlighting specific documents that are of interest in both their own right but also served a specific purpose in building the claim of a prospective pensioner. In this second post on that topic, we return once again to the Irish of Ohio, examining a document handed over to the Pension Bureau by Tipperary native Catharine Phelan in the 1870s, which charted the story of her family.

The Phelan Family Register (NARA/Fold3)

The Phelan Family Register- click to enlarge (NARA/Fold3)

The document Catharine submitted was her Family Register. In supplying it to the Pension Bureau, Catharine stated that “all of the said record was written before the commencement of the last war, except the name of the last child and some pencil marks in the death column.” The register is a fascinating historical document in and of itself. It charts the place and dates of birth not only of Catharine and her husband Patrick, but also of their children. From it we learn that Patrick Phelan was born in Kilcrag[g]an, Co. Kilkenny on St. Patrick’s Day 1821, while Catharine (née Fox), a native of Tullagha, Co. Tipperary, had been born on 25th March 1826. The couple had presumably met following their emigration, marrying in Buffalo, New York, in February 1851. The names, dates and places of birth of the couple’s seven children were recorded as follows (1):

Name Date of Birth Location
Mary A Phelan 8 November 1851 Buffalo, NY
William H Phelan 2 August 1853 Lucas, OH
Ellen P Phelan 16 September 1855 Lucas, OH
Johannah Phelan 25 July 1857 Lucas, OH
John R. Phelan 14 December 1858 Lucas, OH
Anny Phelan 20 September 1860 Lucas, OH
Alice Phelan 27 March 1862

Table 1. Names, dates and places of birth of the Phelan children as recorded in the Family Register. 

Alice, born during the Civil War, is one of those names added in pencil. Also written in pencil is 15th February 1863, the date of death of Catharine’s husband Patrick. The Kilkenny man had enrolled in the Union Army at Camp Mansfield, Ohio, on 12 September 1862, becoming Captain of Company H, 120th Ohio Infantry. Somewhat unusually for an officer commanding a company, the 1860 Census for the village of Lucas recorded him not as a professional, but as a laborer. Patrick’s military career proved a short one. His death in early 1863 came of typhoid fever at a hospital in Young’s Point, Louisiana (you can see an image of Captain Patrick Phelan here). (2)

A private in the 120th Ohio Infantry (Library of Congress)

A private in the 120th Ohio Infantry (Library of Congress)

These family records of births and marriages– often kept in family bibles– are not unusual in the widow’s pension files, though they are somewhat less common in the files of Irish Catholic emigrants than those of other faiths. The Phelan register is a particularly fine example. Why had Catharine given it up, to become a formal piece of evidence in her pension claim? She explained the reason herself, in an affidavit of 1873, stating she was:

availing herself of the provisions of an Act of Congress approved March 3rd 1873, giving an increase of pension to the widows of officers at the rate of $2 per month for each child under the age of sixteen years, such increase to begin on the 25th day of July 1866 and to continue until said children respectively become of the age of sixteen years.

In order to claim this money Catharine had already handed in her original Widow’s Certificate to the Bureau, and given an affidavit with respect to the birth of her children. However, the Bureau informed her this would not be enough to obtain the payments, and she had to provide additional evidence with respect to both her children’s existence and dates of birth. The Family Register was the key piece of evidence she supplied in this regard. To supplement it, she also gave more detail on each of her children. She revealed that her eldest, Mary, had been born in the house of her brother-in-law James Phelan, in Buffalo, an indication of why they had likely made their initial home in that city. In addtition to that, she had Dr. Norman Baker, a physician, give testimony that he had attended at the birth of her other six children in the village of Lucas between 1853 and 1862. (3)

The harsh realities of 19th century child mortality was another facet of her story Catharine related to the Bureau. She divulged that she had another child, a baby boy, who was not on the Register. He had been born in Lucas in September 1854 but had died within the hour. She also noted that her son John R. Phelan had died in Mansfield on 14th August 1864, a few months shy of his 6th birthday- Dr. Baker, who had attended the young boy at his birth, was also there at his death. John’s fate was recorded in pencil below that of his father on the Register. (4)

Catharine had to explain a few discrepancies between the information presented on the Register and that which she had provided previously, such as the fact that the clergyman named as having married them on the Register was not in fact the officiating priest. However, her claim appears to have been ultimately successful. Shortly after her husband’s death in the Civil War the Irish widow moved her family to nearby Mansfield, Ohio. In 1870 she was living there with her children while operating a Boarding House in the city’s Third Ward. Catharine passed away in Ohio on 10th April 1899, and is remembered with her husband at Mansfield Catholic Cemetery. Her fine Family Register survives to provide us an insight into the births, marriages and deaths of one Irish emigrant family, and also allows us to gain further knowledge of the lengths even officer’s widows had to go to in order to satisfy the Pension Bureau. (5)

Memorial to Catharine Phelan and her husband Patrick in Mansfield, Ohio (Image; Tracey Harry, Find A Grave)

Memorial to Catharine Phelan and her husband Patrick in Mansfield, Ohio (Image; Tracey Harry, Find A Grave)

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Patrick Phelan Widow’s Certificate; (2) Ibid., 1860 Census; (3) Patrick Phelan Widow’s Certificate; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid., 1870 Census, Find A Grave;


Widow’s Certificate WC10267 of Catharine Phelan, Widow of Patrick Phelan, 120th Ohio Infantry.

Catherine Phelan Find A Grave Memorial.