The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 20, 2007

Pension Paperwork

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:01 am

I Jonathan Sluyter of the
town of Esopus being duly sworn deposeth
and Saeth that the annexed leaf purporting
to be a record of the birth of the children
of Zachariah Burger and Elisabeth his
wife, was by this deposant cut out of
The new testament belonging to the
Said Zachariah Burger, and was the
family Record of said deceased—
Subscribed & Sworn this Jonathan Sluyter
13th day of October 1838
before me –
P Van Gaasbeck Jr.
Jus of the peace

So goes testimony before an Ulster Country judge in 1838—that the Burger family’s neighbor personally sliced out pages of the New Testament to submit as evidence to the court.

This statement is but one page of the forty-eight in Zachariah Burger’s pension file, which recently became available online. The file is in no order chronologically, so when I first encountered the miniature pages covered with scrawl, I didn’t realize what I was looking at. The two pages recorded some births in the family, and also one death: “Zachariah Burger died . . .”

When, a few pages on, I came across Sluyter’s deposition and learned that these little scraps were pages cut from the family Bible, I screamed out loud: a book defaced, a delicate remnant of my ancestor’s lives, plundered. And then, the recognition—these are the only two pages of that Bible that have survived in any form. Or forms: pixels on a screen, electrons coded on a whirling disk, photographic emulsion on celluloid reels . . . all versions of these leaves of wood pulp with their sometimes crude scrawl, these orphaned shards of paper, lying in an archival box somewhere in storage in the National Archives.

Such is the fate of the material culture of our past. Objects endure—only sometimes—and when they do, their ownership, purpose, use, their very identity, mutate. These slips of paper—endpapers or blank pages of a folio—became a place for Elizabeth in her uneven make-do hand to write the dates her babies came, the date her husband passed on—in no particular order, with misspellings, and skipped words.

Until: a time came when these end-pages became more important than the sacred book itself. They became official record, evidence set before the judge, sworn to and validated. They stood on their own, separated from context, from the hearth and fire of the family, to enter the courtroom and become witness for their author.

A hundred years passed, or more, generation after generation was plowed under, accompanied by the relentless branching of the family and the dispersion of the meager possessions of elders no one alive knew.

The New Testament of Zachariah Burger: who buried it, burned it, or simply discarded that old plain thing, falling apart and stained?

It comes to be that the quotidian of family life fades to a mist of imagined recollection, all except for this: the paperwork. The record of the pension issued in 1838 lies archived in the Capitol; preservationists with cameras open the boxes in the twentieth century and shoot the pages one by one, making each a particle of history. The end pages of a Bible are preserved and then put out of mind, forgotten as now beyond concern, saved and made national heritage with a capital H.

Then one more transformation occurs: a technological upgrade. In a matter of months or even weeks I find the digital images of my personal piece of the Revolution in cyberspace: heritage, small h: huge to me.


You don’t want to romanticize the scraps of bygone days. You try to be analytical, evaluative:


You can see here she tried for some elegance of script. As a whole, though, the letters are uneven and words bump over others and smash in the margin.

I say “she.” I imagine Elizabeth is the author of this page, for it records Zachariah’s death, and although Sluyter calls the book “the new testament of Zacariah Burger,” this writing cannot be Zachariah’s.

Elizabeth seems to have tried for the right solemn rhetorical register, but struggled to get the phrasing right:

John E hardenBurg
Burger the Was born
The 5 november 5
In the 1802

November the 15
In the 1805 then
William Clark Bur
Ger the Was Born

Does she mean “the son of“? “in the year 1802″?

More of this hand:


On this page, the information ranges from 1802 to 1814, with Zach’s 1822 death added in between birth entries.

The second sheet, apparently the other side (the ripped edges match pretty well) contains family data from the 1790s and is written in a prettier and more educated script. But this writer at one point adds a syllable to the family name: “Burriger.”


Is this the writing of a much younger Elizabeth? It is not likely Zachariah’s—for he signs his own pension deposition, made in 1832, with a mark. In fact, so does Elizabeth sign with a mark in 1838.

The circumstances that would lead a somewhat literate person to use a mark and not a signature are not obvious. Was she infirm or ill? Was she not possessed of a sufficiently literate or decorative signature for use on a legal document?

(The perplexity of a Bible record kept in the household of people who used marks to sign is never addressed by the court. Perhaps semi-literacy was usual; or perhaps it was common that a family’s record might be dictated from memory and inscribed by a family friend or even a child with some schooling. Something to look into.)

The information on these two pages is fragmentary— not all children are recorded and the order is random. Zachariah’s death notation in the Bible must date from shortly before Elizabeth’s widow’s pension application, and you wonder if some entries were written from memory later, that is, not contemporaneously, with the events they record.

The larger pension file contains lists of the children’s birthdates, suggesting that perhaps there were other pages of proof that are no longer in the file; perhaps a second tiny page of family notations was lost. There is a mention of “pages not properly annexed” in another place in the file.

Analysis is necessary, but I still retain the awe at discovering the images of these papers from a book once kept in a safe place, a special nook, in the house of Zachariah. Perhaps they vaguely realized, putting down their family ties on the endpages of the testament to life everlasting, the evanescence of their lives. Now, these scrawled birth notes of each long-dead person is the rough draft of a tomb.


At first I was confused about the time delay in awarding the Revolutionary War Pensions—decades had gone by and surely many who fought had already died by the time my Zachariah applied for his at age seventy-three. The history of the Revolutionary War pensions, however, shows the evolution of the country’s mindset about its responsibility for those who served. Early on, before the adoption of the constitution, only the disabled and officers could collect; their widows and orphans were taken care of after 1780, and numerous bills extended the benefits.

At the time of the Constitution’s adoption in 1787, it appears that the time frames for all of the pensions previously granted had expired, except that awarding life-time pensions to the disabled. The new government extended invalid pensions and soon allowed additional disabled veterans to apply. Not until 1806 was the issue of veterans again taken up, in an act extending the federal pension program to state troops and militias.

It took until 1818 for the government to provide pensions for enlisted men, those who had served for nine months or until the end of the war could be granted lifetime pensions if they were in need.

Within two years the swell of applications caused the passage of a law requiring firmer proof of need and giving the Secretary of War the right to reject claims. But then, an act in 1823 awarded pensions to those who had proven need in the interval. After five more years, the Congress gave the officers and disabled soldiers covered in the 1778 act a full-pay lifetime pension.

It seems as time went on and the number of surviving veterans dwindled, Americans became more aware and grateful for their service, and benefit regulations were loosened.

Under none of these acts would Zachariah have been eligible: he was an enlisted man and he wasn’t disabled, and apparently he had not served up to the end of the war. But in 1832 the last veterans’ pension-granting act gave full life-time pensions to all officers and enlisted men in any Revolutionary service who had served two years or more. Those who had served more than six months but less than two years were eligible for pensions of less than full pay. No longer was there a requirement to demonstrate need. And the pension to the date of death could be collected by a widow or surviving children if the pensioner had died previous the to act. This was the law under which the seventy year-old Zachariah applied.


The documents in Zachariah’s pension file segment into three groups, once they are arranged in chronological order: Zachariah’s application, soon after the Pension Act of 1832 which gave pensions more broadly to all who had served in any military capacity for at least six months.

The second batch support Elizabeth Burger’s application for a widow’s pension in 1838, two years after Z’S death and quite soon after the July 7 act of that year awarding pensions to wives married to soldiers before 1794.

The third collection of papers pertains to the application of the surviving children of Elizabeth and Zachariah, after their mother’s death in 1847. The pension act of 1832 permitted surviving children to receive any unissued pension payments.

Much of the weight of the file is the direct result of Zachariah’s not appearing on any of the Revolutionary War rolls of soldiers. He had to prove his eligibility through the testimony of witnesses, all of which appears in the file. Each time someone was deposed, affidavits had to be prepared in which someone attested to the person’s identity and credibility and the clerk of the court attested to the identity of the judge. So, mixed in with the informative depositions are boilerplate legal forms.

I hope to add more as I dig into the file.



  1. Fabulous depth of research; your writing brings the events to life.

    Comment by Sandy — September 20, 2007 @ 10:14 pm |Reply

  2. Very impressive and interesting topic. At least it’s really broaden my knowledge.

    Comment by g00db0y — February 18, 2008 @ 10:07 am |Reply

  3. You are truly a gifted writer! I would really like to have correspondence with you concerning the Burger line; as it is my maternal family line. I’ve done quite a bit of research on the family, even managing to visit the final resting place of Zachariah and Elisabeth in Esopus. I took several photos and will be adding them to an album which I am making for my grandmother in hopes of presenting it to her in time for Christmas.

    Please feel free to send an e-mail to let me know if you’d like me to send you any photos that I have taken, via jpeg files.

    Here’s to your continued excellence in writing and giving face to our common ancestors!

    Harry Scott
    New York

    Comment by Harry SCOTT — November 18, 2010 @ 8:40 pm |Reply

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