How to write your family history, part 3: the importance of imagery

Hopefully you’ll agree genealogical research is about much more than describing a relative’s descent from royalty.  The extraordinary effort that genealogists put into their family history should result in deep context of relatives’ lives.  One of the best ways to build compelling context for your subjects (your relatives) is to find images from their lives – and to present them in a way that is accessible to current and future generations.

Imagery can supply a deeper understanding of our ancestors’ lifestyles than many other forms of documentation.  A map of an ancestor’s hometown can help us understand the dimensions of his or her life, but a hand drawing or a painting of that town from the same time provides a cache of environmental information that might otherwise be unknowable.

A great example is a hand-drawing of the tiny 17th-century settlement of Moore’s Lodge, Maryland – a place that served as the first Charles County courthouse.  We might conclude from our stereotype of Colonial life that Moore’s Lodge would somehow resemble a Colonial Williamsburg reenactment, but the map of Moore’s Lodge presents a much rougher lifestyle for the settlers.  The illustrator made a point of depicting larger-than-life stockades, allowing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about their importance at the time.  The tiny trails leading into town speak of the limitations on commerce at the time.  An orchard implies the settlers’ efforts at permanence.  These implications were a real eye-opener for one Narratio Vitae customer, whose family owned the courthouse in the early 1700s.

Moore’s Lodge was the center of courthouse life in the mid-1600s, and a singular illustration provides important insights into Colonial life at the time.

Another great example of an image supplying context to a relative’s life is the one we found of John S. Quinn, an early 20th-century track star in Boston.  While the Quinn family knew their grandfather was a runner, they did not understand the extent of his fame. When Narratio Vitae discovered his image in the Boston Herald archives, the family was thrilled.  Not only did they have documentation of John S. Quinn’s stardom, but the image provide something more tangible to hand down to generations.

John S. Quinn as he appeared in the 1901 Boston Herald.

A third example – and the kind of image that is becoming increasingly accessible to researchers on the open internet – is one we found of a customer’s ancestor’s World War II ship.  Narratio Vitae not only discovered the ancestor’s military service information, but paired it with an image of the actual ship the ancestor served on.  An image of the ship allowed the customer’s imagination to run wild.  They could envision their ancestor’s life aboard the ship, and could begin to understand what he might have gone through.

A customer’s grandfather served aboard the USS Boreas, pictured here.

It’s getting easier to find historical imagery, but it still takes a lot of time and effort to find specific subjects, since the subjects of photos and illustrations were not frequently listed by the original photographer/artist.  With persistent, broad searches (instead of trying to find your relative alone, try to ind his or her military unit, for example), online search engines can return a trove of images if they’ve been appropriately curated.   Beyond a broad online search, serious genealogists will pay for access to newspaper archives and other periodical archives, which retain well-tagged and well-dated images. The Library of Congress,  and national and state archives have amassed collections of unique imagery, and new efforts like claim to be making headway with genealogical imagery curation.

And as always, Narratio Vitae is here to help!

Leave a Reply