Law and History Review


“Petitions Without Number”: Widows' Petitions and the Early Nineteenth-Century Origins of Public Marriage-Based Entitlements

Kristin A. Collins 

In 1858, Catharine Barr wrote to the Pension Commissioner in Washington, D.C., seeking reinstatement of her widow's pension. Barr explained that she had been married to two men who had died in the service of the United States: first to George Bundick, “a young and beloved husband” who had died in the War of 1812; then to William Davidson in 1835, who had died in 1836 of injuries sustained while serving on the USS Vandalia. She acknowledged that she was not, strictly speaking, a widow, as her current husband, James Barr, was still living and they were still married. She nevertheless sought reinstatement of the pension she had been granted as Davidson's widow. Pursuant to the terms of the relevant pension statute, Barr's pension had terminated upon her remarriage to James. However, as Barr explained to the commissioner, James “has neither been with me or given me one Dollar for my support since 1849, and I know not his whereabouts.” Having also lost her father in the War of 1812, Barr saw herself as particularly deserving of the federal government's assistance and believed that she and other widows in her position had a claim on the national coffers. “I for one,” she implored, “have no Dependence on Earth only what comes through my relations.”


Kristin A. Collins is a professor of law at Boston University School of Law <>. This article has benefited enormously from suggestions generously offered by numerous colleagues, including Nancy Cott, Nan Goodman, Sally Gordon, Linda Kerber, Andrew Kull, Gerry Leonard, Melissa Murray, Jim Pfander, Robert Self, Kate Silbaugh, David Tanenhaus, and the anonymous reviewers of Law and History Review. An earlier version of this article was selected for presentation at the 2010 Law & Humanities Junior Scholars Workshop at Columbia Law School, where the author was given extraordinarily thoughtful feedback. She also received helpful comments from participants at the Boston College Legal History Round Table; the Boston University School of Law Faculty Workshop; the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities; and the Emerging Family Law Scholars Conference. She is indebted to the archivists at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Georgetown University Library Special Collections Research Center for their expert help navigating those collections, and to Emily Cardy, Stephanie Hoffman, Eric Hsu, Jarrod Schaeffer, and Regina Won for excellent research assistance. Finally, she owes special thanks to Norman Lewis, a great-great-great-great grandnephew of Catharine Barr, who helped reconstruct Barr's marital history by sharing family records. The research for this article would not have been possible without the support of the Peter Paul Career Development Fund of Boston University.