A Pension File Reveals a Family Tragedy

I spoke briefly, in a previous post, about the mystery my husband’s family has carried around for nearly one hundred years. Who was Harry G. Coad? From the first time I heard the story it intrigued me, and of course as soon as I began researching our family histories, I just had to find out all I could about this man. My husband has nicknamed me, “The Destroyer of Family Myths,” as it seems I have been crashing down all of his old family legends with (can you believe believe it?) proof. It keeps family visits lively and entertaining to say the least.

When I went on my field trip to the National Archives a few weeks ago, Harry was on the top of my list of files I wanted to see. Imagine my delight when I was handed over the folder and it was easily three inches thick! I spent four hours going through the file. It was my intention to just document the file and then read it all at my leisure at home. However, within the first five pages I was hooked and began reading every page. I could not stop reading. Even though I knew how the story ended (the pages were in order last to first) I had to find out what happened, who said what, who did what, and what was going to happen next. It was the best story I have read in a long time!

Harry G. Coad was born Henry Clay Thompson on Aug. 31, 1840, in Springfield, Ill. to George Washington Thompson and Sarah Dunn McChesney. He was one of eight children: Margaret Ann, Harriett Frances, Henry Clay, William, Elizabeth, two unnamed infants, and Joseph Marcellus. His family moved from Springfield to Burlington, Iowa and then onto St. Louis, Mo. where his father worked as a carpenter. St. Louis is where most of his family stayed, lived, and died.

The mystery of why he changed his name was a somber moment when I read it. The reason was not at all similar to what the family story was and the tragedy of it, as a mother, was heart wrenching. Harry made the following statement in his last deposition to the special examiner, dated June 25, 1918:

“My brother William was killed on Christmas day I think 1852, I am not sure as to the year. We lived at Burlington, Iowa, I and brother Willie were spending the day at the home of one of our uncles in the country. He went to the woods to get a load of wood and we boys went with him, we took some guns thinking we might get a wild turkey. When we had the wood loaded my brother got up on the load of wood and I handed him the gun I had been carrying, he took hold of the end of the barrel and in pulling it towards him the hammer caught and fired the gun, the load entered his body cutting an artery and he died. That was one reason, or the real reason, I could not get along with my father, he blamed me for my brother’s death and he would call me a murderer.”

Harry left home at age 13 and went to live with his sister Harriet (married name Altemus) who lived in St. Louis. Shortly after that, until he enlisted in the Union Army for the Civil War, he worked in the cabin of a steam boat that sailed on the Mississippi named the Adelia. It wasn’t until after the war that he decided he needed to have a fresh start and assumed a new identity. He took the name Coad for his brother-in-law, John Coad, husband to his sister Margaret Ann, a man he states he liked and respected. Harry’s wife didn’t even know his real name for 26 years.


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.


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10 thoughts on “A Pension File Reveals a Family Tragedy

  1. What an intriguing story! That is so amazing it was found int he pension files. I would love to visit the National Archives one day and search for my own stories. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is the reason I love family history. You’ve written a great column here.

  3. Thanks! He had to state the reason(s) why he assumed a new identity in the report, which is what I was hoping to find. This was not a legal name change, so there was no paper trail. To imagine that happening to him at 12, then a year later he ran away to live with his sister was hard to read. His mother never blamed him.

  4. Great idea to get your older girls to do some indexing. Pass on those research genes.

  5. One member of my Poore family line was a small boy when his father left for four years to fight for the Confederacy. The boy stayed angry at his father for leaving him through adulthood and eventually changed his name from Poore to Poe. But he failed to do so legally. When he died, his children were unable to inherit because there was no proof that Poore and Poe were the same man, or so the family story goes.

  6. There was a name change in my Mother’s family. Apparently it had to something to do with the Irish rebellion and an ancestor who was a “gun runner” who had a “price on his head” as the English didn’t appreciate his talents or religious beliefs.
    We haven’t been able to determine what the name was changed from; It may have changed more than once as they came to United States through Canada, to complicate matters the family adults died from a fever epidemic in Canada. Agh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I usually focus on my other lines as this just drives me crazy.The name is now Rogers a very rare name….NOT! :)

  7. Great article! Such a tragic story though! I love military pension files. They really can be treasure troves full of valuable and interesting information.

  8. Great storyline! And I love when people can actually post a photo of the person so we have a face to put with the name. Love it!

  9. I have a similar story in my family history. Although, I have not proven it, but all my leads seem to head in that direction. My great Uncle left and changed his name and never returned. I did connect with his daughter about 7 years ago, but have lost contact in the past 5 years. She had asked if I knew why he left. My dad asked me to not tell her, as she did not need to know such an terrible thing about her dad. I figured I was not going to tell her the story I have heard until I can prove it, because why have her think such a terrible thing when it may not even be true.

  10. Shannon -
    Catching up on my reading today and saw the result of your trip to NARA for pension files. What a story!!!!!! But aren’t they terrific? I found some tearjerkers in mine too.

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