Mary Van Horn and Joseph Starner
Monroe County, Pennsylvania

copright 2003 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Mary Van Horn Starner was born in Jackson Corners, Monroe County Pennsylvania on 7 June 1819. She was the daughter of John Van Horn and his second wife Susan Sterner, and the granddaughter of Revolutionary War soldier Benjamin Van Horn. Following the war, Benjamin settled in Jackson Corners in what today is known as the village of Appenzell, where he erected a saw mill that was operated for many years. Mary's paternal ancestors also include the 17th century Van Horns who settled in what was then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, later New York. On her mother's side Mary was descended from old Jacob Sterner, another pioneer settler of Monroe County, who arrived in Hamilton Township around the time of the American Revolution. Although the book, "The Van Horn Family History," by Francis Marvin, states that Mary was born in 1826, original handwritten baptism records from St Mark's church in Appenzell indicate that Mary was born 7 June 1819, and was baptized at the church on 20 July 1820. Copies of these original records are on file at the Monroe County Historical Society in Stroudsburg.

There is little doubt that Mary Van Horn spent her childhood with her mother and father in Jackson Corners, where she attended St Mark's church. Her father John Van Horn died sometime between 1845 and 1850. We know this because although he is included in the 1845 tax assessment for Jackson Township, the 1850 census lists his wife Susan as a widow. The 1850 census is also the next official record we have of Mary. In 1844 she married Joseph Starner and by 1850 they had moved to Coolbaugh Township in Monroe County and began raising a family. Some of what we know about Joseph Starner comes from a short biography of his son William, contained in a book published in 1900 by J.H. Beers Co. titled, "Biographical Record of North Eastern Pennsylvania."

"His (William's) paternal grandfather, a native of Germany, came to America as a young man, and located in Hamilton Township, Monroe county, where he married and reared his family of seven children. Joseph Starner, our subject's father, was born in Hamilton Township, and there married Mary Van Horn, a daughter of John Van Horn. After their marriage they settled in Coolbaugh Township where Mr. Starner engaged in lumbering until his death, on August 19, 1875, when he reached the age of seventy-seven years, nine months and ten days. His widow, now age seventy-one years, makes her home in Tobyhanna (Mills), Monroe County. To them were born the following children: William H., our subject; Jane, who married John Borom (Boorem) of Cresco, Pa, and died at the age of twenty-eight years; Stewart, who lived in Stroudsburg, Monroe county, and died in 1894; Catherine, wife of John Decker, of Stroudsburg; Joseph, a resident of Coolbaugh township, Monroe County; Ellen, deceased, who married John Van Horn and lived in Tobyhanna; Mary, wife of Osman Beers, of Scranton, Pa.; Freeman, who was killed on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroad at the age of twenty-one; and Lucinda, wife of James Crooks, of Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania."
The problem with the family group above is that Mary's daughter Jane was born prior to her marriage to Joseph Starner. The identity of Jane's father has always been a mystery, although there are indications that he may have been a man named Simonson. Given that Joseph Starner's Civil War pension file contains several affidavits stating that Joseph was Mary's first and only husband, it seems likely that Jane was Mary's illegitimate daughter from a pre-marital affair. Although Jane may have spent some of her childhood with her Starner half-brothers and sisters, census returns from 1850 and 1860 indicate that she lived with her grandmother Susan Van Horn, rather than with her mother and stepfather. In the aforementioned 1850 census for Jackson Township, Jane was living with the extended family of her grandmother Susan Van Horn, and is listed as Sarah J. Simonds, while in the 1860 Census for Paradise Township, she is listed as Sarah Van Horn, again in her grandmother's household. Although certain family records such as the biography above indicate that Jane was the daughter of Joseph and Mary Starner, other evidence makes it clear that Joseph Starner was not Jane's natural father.

At this point we have few clues about the ancestry of Joseph Starner. If he did grow up in Hamilton Township, then it seems likely he was connected with the Sterner/Starner family that appears frequently in the records of Christ Church, Hamilton, however as of yet no such connection has been established.

Again, in 1850 we find the family of Joseph and Mary Starner living in Coolbaugh Township in Monroe County. This, and later returns indicate that Joseph Starner was born in about 1818, not circa 1800 as his son's biography indicates. By 1850 the Starner family included their children William, Stewart and Susan. The returns list Joseph's occupation as "Lumberman." By the 1860 census the family had grown to include children Joseph, Freeman, Ellen, & Mary Etta. The family is again shown as living in Coolbaugh Township, with Joseph Starner's occupation given simply as "Day Laborer."

Before the next census year in 1870, the country would undergo dramatic changes and suffer through a bloody civil war. Joe and Mary Starner's son William would serve proudly during the war, and, ironically, Joseph Starner's alleged service in the war would create a valuable family document, which is discussed below.

In 1870 we get our final look at the family of Joseph and Mary Starner. Again, the family was living in Tobyhanna Mills in Coolbaugh Township. Joseph's age is given as 52 years old, occupation, "Laborer." By this time children William, Stewart and Susan had married and started their own families. The one addition to the family in 1870 is a 9-year-old Lucinda Starner, who is identified in the census and other records as "Melinda." Joseph Starner died 19 Aug 1875. In the 1880 census we find his widow Mary living with her daughters Mary Etta and Lucinda (Melinda) in Tobyhanna Mills, next so son Steward and his family. There are no other family records of note until the mid-1890's when Mary Van Horn Starner applied for a Civil War pension based on the alleged service of her husband.

As mentioned above, the documents that make up Joseph Starner's Civil War pension file are filled with valuable family details and insights into the lives of our ancestors. The file includes affidavits from Mary herself, as well others from family, friends, and neighbors in the community. After the documents contained in the file are examined, the seemingly inescapable conclusion is that Joseph Starner did not serve in the Civil War as alleged by his widow. The primary details gleaned from the pension file are discussed below.

The first problem with Mary's pension claim was the fact that no one by the name Joseph Starner is mentioned in the Army's roster of soldiers. To overcome this considerable obstacle, Mary claimed that a soldier the army had listed as John F. Steiner was really her husband. She claimed that her husband's real name was John Joseph Starner, and that the Army had somehow gotten his last name and middle initial wrong. Unfortunately most of the affidavits from people who knew the Starners said that they were unaware of Joseph having a middle name or middle initial; they all knew him simply as Joseph or Joe Starner.

One member of the community, a R.B. Dailey, testified that he always understood that Joe Starner had been a soldier, and that he had been away during the war, although he didn't recall ever seeing him in uniform. Joseph's son William, who did serve in the war, testified that he always understood that his father had been a soldier, however he could not recall his father's regiment. In his deposition William said that he understood that his father and some men from the town had gone away about the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, and he assumed they had enlisted in the army, however he was unable to identify any of the other men. William also admitted that his father was a bit lame, although he said that this "handicap" would not have prevented him from serving. His testimony was labeled "doubtful" by the Pension Board examiners.

Interestingly, although William Starner's short biography goes into great detail about his own Civil War service, not a word is said about his father's alleged service. Nor in his deposition does William ever come out and say that he knows his father served in the war; only that he understood that he had served. By the late 1890s William's health was deteriorating badly as he was nearing the end of his life, and perhaps he didn't want to jeopardize his own wife's future pension claim by presenting false testimony on behalf of his mother.

Damaging testimony against Mary's claim was delivered by some of Tobyhanna Mills' leading citizens. Instead of the mild handicap described by William Starner, William Case claimed that Joe Starner was a cripple who walked with a considerable hitch, making it unlikely he could have been a soldier. (What should be mentioned here is that such a disability would have disqualified a man from serving in the war because of the endless marching required of most soldiers.) Case went on to state that he never heard of Joseph serving in the army, nor was he ever away from town for any great length of time during the war. Another man identified as J.S. Case went on to state that one of Joe Starner's legs was shorter than the other, and that "he walked decidedly lame with a hitch." Further, he said that he had assisted when men from the community enlisted in the local regiment, and Joe Starner had not been among this group of men. The testimony from these two individuals was rated as "good" by the examiners.

Nevertheless, Mary was able to produce a soldier named Abraham McKeel who said he had served with her husband in the 67th Pa.. McKeel testified that he had met a soldier in his regiment in Philadelphia known as "Joe Starner" and had heard his name called several times in the company roll. He claimed that while still in Philadelphia this soldier became sick with typhoid fever, although he testified that he did not know what happened to him afterwards. The reliability of McKeel's deposition was rated as "fair" by the examiners. Unfortunately for Mary, the war record of John F. Steiner makes no mention of this incident and notes that Steiner was simply discharged by general order June 20, 1865, while Mary claimed that her husband was sent home immediately after the illness and did not return to the army.

One thing that was not mentioned was Joe Starner's age. Assuming a date of birth of 1818, Joe would have been in his forties by the 1860s. Although there were certainly men of this age in the union army, this was way past the normal age of the average foot soldier.

Mary filed the all the necessary documents and affidavits, and then sat back and waited to hear from the Bureau of Pensions. There were problems with her application right from the start. She first had to explain how Joseph Starner, John Joseph Starner, and John J. Steiner were the same individual, and the affidavits she filed attempting to do this are not very convincing. In addition, in her own affidavits Mary had signed her name three different ways, Mary Starner, Mary E. Starner, and Mary A. Starner. The documents tell us that Mary could not write because all of her affidavits are signed with her mark, usually an "X". Because of the discrepancies in the spelling of her name, she was required to give further testimony explaining these differences before the examination of her claim could proceed. She was also informed by the Bureau of Pensions that she had to supply the name of her husband's company captain, something that caused yet another delay.

The best synopsis of Mary's Civil War pension claim is found in a later affidavit taken May 10, 1898. By this time she had gotten most of her facts straight regarding her husband, which she detailed by responding to a series of questions:

Age 75 or 76, so far as I know. (Mary's response to the likely question of how old she was at the time of the deposition.) My correct name is Mary Starner, and my maiden name was Mary Van Horn. Never had any middle name and cannot say how the letter "E" & "A" got in my name. I am unable to read and write and did not know how my name was written on the papers in my claim.

I am the legal widow of John Joseph Starner, who served in Co. D, 67th Pa. Vols, Aug 29, 1862 to June 20, 1865, and died Aug 24, 1875 from paralysis at Tobyhanna Mills, Monroe Co., Pa. I am unable to tell how is the correct way of spelling the soldier's last name. Soldier was generally called Joe, and I am called Polly about here.

The following is the soldier's description: height cannot say but should think that he was taller than (5'8"). (Several people testified that Joe Starner was between 5' 10" and 6' tall.) Fair complexion. Light blue eyes, hair dark brown. Was just seven years older than myself as both of our birthdays came on the same day, June 7. (He) had no scars or marks about him, was not very stout but pretty tall, weight about 180. I have no photo of soldier as he never had his picture taken, objected to having any photo of himself.

I was married to the soldier long before the war by John E. Edinger "deceased" at Barton's Mill, Monroe Co., Pa. I know of no public or church record of my marriage but have filed the affidavits of persons who were present at my marriage, Juliann Edinger "deceased" and Joseph Wolbert. P.O. Appenzell.

I had a son, Wm. H. Starner P.O. Tannersville, Pa. (William died in 1899) who served nearly three years in the late war. I had two children, Malinda and Marietta, who were under sixteen years of age when soldier died, but none under sixteen at the time of filing my claim. I have never remarried since the soldier's death and have always conducted myself in a lady like manner.

I do not know of a person now living who served with the soldier in the army. Oh yes, I remember now. Abraham McKeel was with soldier in the army. His P.O. is Clifton, Pa. and is living so far as I know. I have not soldier's discharge for I sent it to my attorney Birch McNeil of Washington D.C. several years ago.

No sir. My husband the soldier never was captured or later prisoner during the war so far as I ever knew. Neither did he join the G.A.R. (The G.A.R. or Grand Army of the Republic, was a post Civil War veterans patriotic organization.)

No sir, I have no idea how long soldier was in the army; no he was not there a year before he got sick with typhoid fever and was sent home and attended by Dr. Walton "deceased". No sir. Soldier never had any prior or subsequent service. Soldier was born in Hamilton Township, Pa.

There are any amount of Starners about here but I never knew any John Joseph Starner except my husband. I do not know who to refer you to other than those who have already testified for me as to the requirements of my claim. I do not care to be present or represented by an attorney in any further examination of my claim. Birch McNeil of Washington D.C. has assisted me in my claim. (I) have paid no fee or any part of a fee, neither have I any contract as to the amount to be paid. I never received but one letter from soldier during the war but that has long since been lost or destroyed.

I understand the questions asked and these answers are correctly recorded.

Mary Starner

Although in this final deposition, Mary mentions her husband's alleged illness, the one that caused him to be sent home, she had failed to do so in her earlier testimony. On the surface it appears that Mary added this important detail only after talking to the soldier Abraham McKeel, who testified on her behalf and in her favor on the same day her own deposition was taken. Prior to this Mary had been uncertain about how long or even when her husband had been away, and knew of no other soldier who had served with her husband.

Having finally complied with all of the various requests from the Bureau of Pensions, Mary followed up by writing a series of letters to the bureau asking about the status of her claim. In these letters we again hear Mary's own voice:

Tobyhanna Mills, Pa.
April 9th 1898
The Bureau of Pensions
Washington D.C.

Dear Sir,

I am a poor widow with no one to help me and have to work myself and earn a living. I am trying to get a pension and I don't see the reason why I don't get it. It has been seven years since I applied for it and as I greatly need it I thought I would write to you and see if I could get it. If not let me know. I am the widow of John Joseph Starner. His captain's name was Hiram Travis. Hoping to hear from you soon and hope that you will aid me in trying to have a pension for the ? years of my life.

I Remain,

Mary A. Starner

She again writes to the Bureau of Pensions on July 11, 1898:
I would like to know if I am going to receive my pension or not for I am in great need of it. The pension agent was to see me and I have not heard anything of it since. I gave him all the information he asked for and everything was correct so I cannot see why it is delayed so long. My husband has been dead over 22 years and I have been trying for a pension for several years. Please answer and tell me if there is any hope of my getting it very(?) soon, and please be kind enough to use your influence to try and help me.

Yours Truly,

Mary Starner

Mary finally received a response from the Bureau of Pensions in a letter to dated September 22, 1898:
Bureau of Pensions
Washington D.C.
September 22, 1898
Mrs. Mary A. Starner
Tobyhanna Mills, Pa.


In response to your recent inquiry, you are advised that your pension claim No. 504,767, as widow of John J. Starner, late of Co. D, 67th Pa. Vol. Inf., requires further special examination in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, to determine its merits. The case will be taken up in its regular order, and the examination completed with the least delay consistent with the demands of the service.

Very respectfully,

(name illegible)

Acting Commissioner

The fact that the case was being referred for special examination was the first sign of real trouble. It meant that there was conflicting testimony from those filing affidavits, and therefore insufficient evidence to support Mary's claim. True to the acting commissioner's word, however, the results of the special examination were communicated to Mary in a timely manner, via a letter from the Bureau of Pensions dated November 3, 1898:
Mary A. Starner, wid(ow).


You are hereby informed that your above entitled claim for (a) widow's pension under the Act of June 27, 1890, is rejected on the grounds that the records of the War Department fail to show that John Joseph Starner served as alleged in Co., D, 67 Pa. Vol. Inf.

Very respectfully,

(name illegible)


Given what we now know about the contents of the pension file, the conclusion reached by Bureau of Pensions was predictable, however Mary was undeterred by this curt rejection. In early 1902 she filed a Brief for Reopening the case based on new testimony from her daughter Susan Decker and another woman named Anna Cublerson(?), however these new depositions added nothing to the case, and the Brief for Reopening was rejected on April 26, 1902. The reason for the rejection was because the new evidence was not deemed sufficient to reopen the claim.

My own conclusion is that Joseph Starner never served in the Civil War. Despite her efforts, Mary was unable to demonstrate that her husband was the same individual as John F. Steiner who served in the 67th Pa. In her various depositions she gives conflicting testimony as to her husband's movements during the war, which also apparently failed to match what the army had recorded in the service record of John F. Steiner, the man Mary claimed was her mislabeled soldier-husband.

If Joseph Starner didn't serve in the war, what then were the circumstances of his alleged service and what were his motivations behind claiming he had been a soldier? It appears that old Joe was probably away from home during the war, but for no longer than a few months. Perhaps he did leave with the intention of joining the army, and either changed his mind or was rejected, or perhaps he simply left home for a while and upon his return told people that he had been in the war. What is unclear is whether Mary knew or actually believed that her husband had been a soldier. Regardless, Mary fought for her husband's pension for many years, and the resulting documents created a valuable family record for future generations.

In 1900 Mary Starner makes her final appearance in the census. The returns show that she was living alone in Tobyhanna Mills in Coolbaugh Township, close to her brothers George and Hiram Van Horn and their families. She is shown as the mother of 11 children, only 4 of who were still living in 1900. The identity of the 11th child is not mentioned by any other known source. She is also shown as the owner of her property (farm), a fact that would seem to be at odds with affidavits from the pension file claiming that Mary owned no property.

One of the final records regarding the life of Mary Van Horn Starner is a remarkable deed from Mary to her son Joseph Starner dated June 2, 1909, on file at the Monroe County Courthouse in Stroudsburg. In it, Mary sells all her property in Tobyhanna Mills, some 50 acres, to Joseph, "in consideration of the sum of one dollar and natural love and affection." The deed goes on to describe the land in question, stating that it was, "Being the same premises to which the said Mary Starner, grantor hereof, has acquired title in fee by forty six years continuous, uninterrupted, open and notorious adverse possession and occupancy thereof." This one sentence is quite revealing. It tells that Mary (and Joe) were living on the same piece of land in Tobyhanna Mills for the census returns of 1860, 1870, 1880, & 1900, and that Mary eventually obtained title to the land by simply "squatting" on the property for several decades.

Just a few months after the above deed was signed, Mary Van Horn Starner died in late September 1909 at the age of ninety. She was buried on 1 Oct 1909 in "Jones' church cemetery," today known as St Paul's in East Swiftwater, Monroe County. The church and cemetery are quite a distance from Mary's home in Tobyhanna Mills. Why she was buried here has yet to be explained, as her obituary indicates she was still living in Tobyhanna at the time of her death. Unfortunately there is no stone to mark her final resting place. Her obituary appeared in the Monroe Democrat a few days later on 6 Oct 1909, and reads as follows:

Was 94 Years Old

Mrs. Mary V. Starner Who Died Last
Week Leaves Many Descendants

Mrs. Mary V. Starner who died at Tobyhanna the first part of last week and was buried at Jones' church cemetery on Friday, October 1, the funeral services being preached by Rev Francis J.S. Morrow, of Tobyhanna, was 94 years, three months and 23 days old.

Ten children were born to her, four of whom are still living; 30 grandchildren, 32 of them living; 68 great-grandchildren, 59 living. One brother, Barnet Van Horn of Harvey's Lake, Pa., and one sister, Mrs. Julia Lewis, of Providence, Pa., still survive.

Mary Van Horn Starner lived a long and eventful life, during which she had witnessed the transformation of Monroe County from a mostly rural wilderness into a collection of thriving communities. Her death in 1909 marked the passing of our final Van Horn ancestor, bringing to a close a chapter in our family's history that began when Christian Barentsen Van Horn emigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam in the mid 1600s. Mary was born and raised in Jackson Corners, a small community her grandfather Benjamin Van Horn and his sawmill had literally helped build. She married and raised a family in then-remote Tobyhanna Mills, saw one son serve proudly in the Civil War, and another die in his prime as the result of a tragic train accident. She fought long and hard for her husband's Civil War pension, and although she ultimately failed in her efforts, her determination during the application and examination process at least says something about our ancestor's tenacious character.

Jeffrey L. Thomas
August 2003

Below: St Paul's Church, Swiftwater, Monroe Co., Pa. Final resting place of Mary Van Horn Starner

The Hunt for the Van Horn fortune: A Family Folly
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