My question regards my great grandfathers pension file, general index to pension files, 1861-1934, image number 3738.

The name of soldier is: Buchert, Malone alias, George W(ashington) Heffelfinger. I know my GGF as GWH.

The name of dependent is:

  • Widow - Catherine E.
  • Minor is blank
  • BUT in the blank under Minor, there is a space for a fill in and it lists Widow cont. Heffelfinger, Catherine F(rances) my great grandmother.

So, does Widow cont. stand for Widow contested? Did great granddad have a second family no one knew about? Can anyone tell me what might of been going on? Or was this a case of late nineteenth, early twentieth century pension fraud?

The first date of filing is July 16, 1890 next to Invalid. The second date of filing is, April 30, 1903 next to Widow. The last filing is, March, or it may be May, 1925, which is when he died, next to Widow cont.

  • Welcome to G&FH SE! As a new user be sure to take the Tour to learn about our focussed Q&A format which is quite different from bulletin boards, discussion forums and other Q&A sites you may be used to. Yours certainly sounds like an interesting question and one that I am confident will attract potential answerers.
    – PolyGeo
    Feb 23, 2017 at 4:21
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    Is this the card you were looking at? familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDPG-2Y1
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 23, 2017 at 7:49
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    I haven't found an authoritative source, but several discussions on RootsWeb (like this one) suggest that a "contesting widow" was indeed a rival claimant to the pension. At a guess, Catherine E was his first wife (abandoned or divorced perhaps?), and claimed in 1903 thinking that "Malone" was dead, while Catherine F was his second wife and claimed in 1925 knowing that "George" was dead. But that's not the only possible explanation. (There may have been Catherines A through D first!)
    – AndyW
    Feb 23, 2017 at 13:54
  • @AndyW, if you can find other links like the one you found on RootsWeb, it would be useful to add that as another answer -- once you write it, I will edit my answer to refer to your finds. I understand you wanted to do better than a one-link answer, but that's okay as long as you plan to come back to it later and improve it.
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 24, 2017 at 7:09

2 Answers 2


As already mentioned in the comment by AndyW, there were "contesting widows" -- cases where two women applied for the pension of the same veteran. One article examining these cases is Beverly Schwartzberg's article, "Lots of Them Did That": Desertion, Bigamy, and Marital Fluidity in Late-Nineteenth-Century America" in the *Journal of Social History, *Volume 37 (Spring 2004) Issue 3, which is abstracted on several websites, including here at George Mason University.

The abstract says, in part:

This study of "contesting widow" applications, where two wives applied for a single soldier's pension, in Civil War pension files demonstrates these fluid marriage patterns among working-class couples.


The article demonstrates and illustrates the common use of alias names, the importance of geographical mobility, the practice of informal divorce and separation, the uses of deception, common understandings and uses of family law, the prevalence of bigamy and serial marriage among men and women, and the economic circumstances of abandoned wives. Pension records help reveal significant marital histories that are otherwise hidden from view.

But before you run out to find this article in a library near you, or order the pension file to see what's in it, it might be easier to step back and address one of the other questions you posed, namely:

Did great granddad have a second family no one knew about?

The same-name, same-place problem

I'd like to caution you that even with what you might think is an unusual surname, it is possible to have more than one person with the same name, married to a woman with the same first and middle name. Many of us who have studied family history for a while have collected examples of "frankenfamilies" where we or others have muddled records belonging to multiple people and put them all together as if they belonged to just one person, or one husband and wife.

So before you conclude from reading one index card that your great-grandfather was a bigamist or that the other widow is committing pension fraud, consider this:

Are you sure that the George W. Heffelfinger in this record is your grandfather? If so, how you do know? What evidence do you have that this card refers to your G.W.H. and not someone else in the same place with the same name? Have you investigated Malon(e) Buchert?

Maybe you've already done all the legwork -- we can't see that because all you mention in your question is this one index card. If you haven't already, do a review of your previous research. Make a timeline for your great-grandfather and his family, and any known siblings, friends, neighbors, and associates. List all the source records you have, and re-evaluate them.

Next, take any of the records you have and learn more about the history of the record itself. When we write a source citation, it's not simply to remember where we found something, although that's important. We also need to understand what we're looking at so we can understand what it is we're looking at. Do you know who created the record, and for what purpose? If you saw the record online, do you understand the sequence of steps that happen in between the original record in its repository, and the online database that brought it to you? If this is all new to you, then take a look at Elizabeth Shown Mills' QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map. If you and the 3 x 3 are old friends, then dive in at the US National Archives' site to learn more about pension files, so you'll know what these index cards refer to. The easy way to answer the question would be to order the pension file and see what's in it, but before you spend that money, here are some things you could look into.

Pension files and the application process

Claire Kluskens, a senior reference and projects archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, has written many articles on the records pertaining to Civil War veterans held at NARA. In “Anatomy of a Union Civil War Pension File.” NGS NewsMagazine (National Genealogical Society) Vol. 34, No. 3 (July-Sept. 2008): 42-47., which was one of the handouts from her presentation at NARA's sixth genealogy fair (2010), she writes:

The pension file will contain records for all claims relating to one veteran—the soldier’s, the widow’s, the minor children’s, and the dependent father’s or mother’s. If a Civil War widow later became the widow of a second Civil War veteran, all records relating to both veterans may be consolidated in one file.

Her article explains all the documentation which might be found in a veteran's pension file, depending on when the claim was submitted (the requirements changed over time, depending on what the law was, which is why you see so many references to the law and their dates on the index cards).

She says that widows had to prove their legal marriage to the veteran, and if either had been previously married, they had to prove the divorce or death of the other spouse. Competing claims were investigated by Special Examiners -- to learn more about their work and some of the kinds of cases they examined, see Kluskens' article “Special Examiners: Records of the Bureau of Pensions’ Efforts to Combat Waste, Fraud, and Abuse, 1862–1933.” in Federal History Journal (Society for History in the Federal Government) Vol. 8, pp. 109-120. That documentation should be in the applicant's pension file.

Both of these articles plus other publications by Kluskens on records pertaining to Civil War veterans and other records of the period are worth reading in their entirety so you can get a sense of the "big picture" and better understand the information contained inside, even for something as simple as a humble index card.

In the "anatomy" article, Kluskens refers her audience to two series of index cards available online:

She writes:

These indexes will yield the pension file numbers relating to a veteran’s file. While both indexes will indicate the unit in which the man served, only T288 identifies the man’s widow. Although the index card in T288 and T289 will show that the file was assigned several different numbers over the years, there is only one file. When the veteran applied for a pension, his file was filed under a Soldier’s Original (SO) number; when it was approved, it then was filed under a Soldier’s Certificate (SC) number; when the widow applied, it was filed under a Widow’s Original (WO) number; when it was approved, it was filed under a Widow’s Certificate (WC) number, and so forth. Longer-lived veterans later had their files renumbered to C- or XC-file numbers. Files with numbers assigned to dependents, such as minor’s original (MO), and minor’s certificate (MC) were, as a practical matter, interfiled with WO and WC files. The last number used by the pension office for a file is the number under which it is filed.

But there is another series of index cards which is worth looking at (it may not have been available when Kluskens wrote her article). That series is from RG 15, NARA Microfilm publication M850, Veteran's Administration pension payment cards, 1907-1933. available at FamilySearch, described in United States, Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards (FamilySearch Historical Records) in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

The card for Malon Buchert / George W Heffelfinger gives details of payments to widow Catherine F Heffelfinger (certficate 962090) up until her death (Dec 27th, 1929), which was reported to the VA on Jan 11, 1930, according to this card.

Some cards in this series contain the street address the payments were sent to; that information can be compared to other records to help confirm the right family. I try to collect all the index cards from each series and gather all information I can from the veteran's compiled military service record (CMSR) and other records, so I can make sure the records I've gathered belong to my research subject and not someone else with the same name.
More resources:

Records pertaining to this question can also be found at FindMyPast from the record sets listed below:

  • M686, General Correspondence Of The Record And Pension Office, 1889-1904 (two search results, one from an investigation in 1896, another in 1901)
  • T288, United States Civil War Pension Files Index 1861-1934 (as discussed above)
  • M850, Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933 (as discussed above) for both the veteran himself and for the widow's pension

I like to collect the same information and images from all possible sites because the image quality and information about the collection can vary depending on the website. More information about the microfilm publications is also available at archives.gov and in The National Archives Catalog. If a website gives you the National Archives' catalog ID number, you can find out more about the scope and content of each set of records by looking at its catalog description.

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    Hatchet and Jan Murphy Thanks so much for your enlightening and thorough answers and taking the time to write to me. Feb 24, 2017 at 5:59
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    Check back @MargeArnold in case I find more stuff and refine my answer! I got interrupted in the middle of writing it and haven't gotten all the links in yet. Also, please let us know where you found the index card you looked at so we can link that into the question. Thanks for an interesting question!
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 24, 2017 at 6:06
  • Eureka! books.google.com/books?id=jI8zAAAAYAAJ Card Records in Use in the Bureau of Pensions, 1916
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 24, 2017 at 7:59

I think the pension file has a clerical error that has somehow combined two different people. In PA Civil War unit rosters, you find both George Heffelfinger and Mahlon Buchert (or Buchard). In the 1870 census you can find in Penn. Mahlon, wife Catherine, and two children born not long after the civil war. Mahlon was born 1840/41. George Heffelfinger has a later family, and his birth date is 1845. The two did live in the same area of Pennsylvannia though. What clinches it, I think, is this findagrave entry. It shows Mahlon R. Buchert as dead and buried in 1871. One of Mahlon's census records also had the R. initial. Unless the first wife also created a fake grave for a husband that skipped out, and then changed his name, this really looks like two different men.

The existence of what seems to be pre 1865 census records for both men in question is fairly strong evidence they are not actually aliases for the same person, but were two different people.

More information: Mahlon R. Buchert was the son of Daniel Buchert/Buchard and wife Susannah (he is in that family in the 1860 census). Mahlon married Catherine Prince. 1860 Census, 1870 Census, 1880 Census (widow and children), 1900 Census (Catherine E. Buchert, and children) Private, 19th Regiment, Co. E, Pennsylvania Militia Sep. 1862

George Washington Heffelfinger Death Cert. (lists George Washington Heffelfinger as father) 1850 Census, 1860 Census, 1900 Census

I'm not posting military and other non-census links for George because it would take more time to be sure they are for this George W. Heffelfinger. Surprisingly, there were several men with this name in Pennsylvania that were of age to serve in the civil war, and it would take more in depth research to ensure the records you find are the correct one. With the census it's easier, because there are other family member names to provide corroboration.

  • One caution about Find A Grave. The website was not set up with robust ways for contributors to cite their sources, so we don't know where the information in your linked memorial comes from. Memorials without photos of a marker are about as useful as someone's un-sourced tree on Ancestry. Even when memorials do have photos added, there's no guarantee that the MI belongs to the person who is described in the memorial. (And sorry to harp on the obvious, but the presence or lack of a stone doesn't mean that someone is actually buried there.) So we have to be careful with that info.
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 24, 2017 at 19:31

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