Case File: A Soldier's Fortune

Mission

In researching my family tree, I discovered one of my great-great-great grandparents fought in the Mexican-American war. I'd love to know more about this.
F & K Smith, Muncie, Indiana

Briefing

All I had to go on was his name, Horace Stretton, and we weren't quite sure where he lived. We believed he was from Illinois. I also had heard rumor that he had fought during the 1846-48 Mexican-American war. First I did some background research to actually understand what the war was about, as no textbook I had ever read in school talked much about it.

With a little background understanding of the conflict, I did a quick search online, typing in "Illinois + Mexican-American war." I was surprised at how many responses there were. I was able to read first-hand accounts from Illinois veterans at the front in 1846. If indeed old Horace had been there, he would've been lucky to survive considering the harsh conditions and rampant disease. From my quick online search I also located the Illinois State Archives Web site. I was hopeful they could help find out if Horace had really been there.

The comprehensive listing showed me there was a database of war veterans, created not by a professional archivist, but just a dedicated history detective. He'd donated it to the state archive.

A trip to the state archives was easier than I imagined. I gave the reference number to the archivist and soon found myself reviewing reels of microfilmed Mexican War records. There was Horace! I learned everything from his rank and company to where he enlisted and where he was discharged.

I was disconcerted to read a note by the archivist that said: "Unfortunately the report originates from the 1881 transcriptions which have been found to be 'grossly inaccurate.'" Ho-hum. So I turned to the National Archive in Washington, D.C. and ordered a record of his military pension. I received it a few weeks later and his service was confirmed.

From my research I learned soldiers were given land rights upon their return (widows and orphans were, too). Land grant deeds left a huge paper trail and are stored in the Illinois archives. Maybe Horace took advantage of this.

I used up a few more vacation days with a return trip to the archives in Springfield, Illinois. There I found it on the microfilm! Horace Stretton's application for a military land grant. I could see his handwriting and find out his wife's name (we'd been spelling it all wrong all these years, it was Rosaline, not Rosalind). I also found out where the 160 acres was-and that it was complete with apple and plum trees. We located the general area of the site using a combination of old land grant maps (thank-you state archive once again) and a modern map. Then we drove there. It was now a new housing development. Sigh.

My next adventure: to journey back into the local archives of that community to find out how long it was a farm — and what else there is to learn. I've already contacted the archivist and asked him for advice on searching out the history of the property!

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