While researching my family history, I made a scandalous discovery! Two pension claims had been filed for my paternal great-grandfather, William Byrd, by two different women, Mattie and Hattie, in two different states, Virginia and Illinois. I knew Mattie was my great-grandmother, but who was Hattie and why was she filing for William’s pension?
With this tantalizing bit of this information, I headed to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Because two women had filed for his pension, an investigation had taken place. The resulting file contained actual interviews taken of my great-grandmother, Mattie, her brothers, William’s half brother, and a couple of their neighbors.
It was a treasure trove of genealogical information! This is the story that unfolded within those records.
In Mattie’s interview she stated that in 1898, about a year after she and William had been married, she was recovering from an illness and went to her mother’s house to recuperate. She said, “He (William) took me to the train and assisted me in getting on the train and kissed me goodbye and said be a “good girl”, and I told him I would.” This was the last time Mattie ever saw him. Shortly after her arrival, she was notified by the railroad agent that he had shipped all of her stuff to her and she would have to pay the charges before picking them up.
William’s half-brother told the investigator that he went to West Virginia for a lumber job where he put together a stake and then went on to Illinois. There he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Spanish American War. Afterward, he returned to Illinois where he married another woman, Hattie, and he lived with her until he died in 1909. He was unaware if William had secured a divorce from Mattie or not.
Mattie claimed that William never asked for a divorce, they never got one, and she never knew that he had married this woman, Hattie, in Illinois. She learned of his death around 1921 and filed for his pension. This triggered the investigation and interviews into the matter, which took about three years to resolve. The investigation proved that William and Mattie had been married but never divorced. In 1924, Mattie was finally granted William’s pension, $30 per month.
As I began to read the last documents in the file, I suddenly realized I was holding a handwritten letter from my great-grandmother. The original letter. Mattie had held that piece of paper, that was her handwriting on it and now I was holding it! I was flooded with emotion and tears streamed down my face. The gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and said to me, “Oh honey, you hit the motherload didn’t you?!?” Yes, I certainly did!
She wrote several letters to the pension bureau from 1932–1934 asking them to increase her pension amount. In them, she discussed in detail how she was unable to get more work because she was ill (I later discovered she had tuberculosis (TB)) and she had to care for her disabled sister. The last letter she sent them simply stated, “Flour has gone up. I am not about to eat Bakers Bread. Yours Respectfully, Mrs. Mattie Byrd”
That is my favorite letter in the file. No matter what indignities she may have had to face in life, no matter how desperate, the one thing she would not do was buy commercially made bread from a store!
The letter did the trick and in May of 1934, they granted Mattie an increase in the pension amount. Unfortunately, Mattie lost her battle with TB a year later.
After discovering this incredible story about my great-grandparents at the National Archives, I was hooked! I needed to know more about the people who came before me and the lives they led.
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