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!

How to write your family history, part 1: develop a sense of place

So you’ve done the detailed work of proving your ancestors’ names and birth dates, and you’ve linked back a few generations.  And among the details you’ve discovered is the appealing idea that your family was not just a nebulous string of names on paper; instead, your family was part of a small town or a rural county or a thriving city – a place that had an important influence on your family’s fortunes.  The space we live in can make or break us, and it’s important that we place families in their geographic context.

It can be difficult to envision the terrain of our ancestors’ lives.  The terrain of 17th century mid-Atlantic America, for example, has been fundamentally changed by hundreds of years of political, commercial and natural modifications.  To take a specific example, the Maddox family‘s 17th-century settlement of Port Tobacco, Maryland, was once a thriving port town that attracted leading politicians and businessmen during its heyday, but deforestation resulted in over-silting of the riverbed, making it too shallow for commercial vessels from England.  The later establishment of the railway a few miles away meant Port Tobacco’s demise by the early 19th century.  To look at Port Tobacco now, it’s nearly impossible for the Maddoxes to imagine the place’s former vitality.  But explaining that vitality is crucial to developing an accurate narrative for posterity.

Researching geographic features can take a lot of time and patience.  Starting with two maps is a good way to begin to understand where your family lived.  First, find a map from the time of your family’s residence.  Second, compare that historical map with a modern map of similar scale.  Compare borders, transportation routes, place names and any landmarks.  If you’ve spent a good amount of time researching your family line and their close associates, there’s a very good chance you’ll find many familiar names on the maps.  The USGS provides a good guide to map use here.  Using the Maddox family example again, a map of the area around Abbeville, South Carolina, would include hints of the Maddox family’s 18th- and 19th-century presence there – such as Maddox Shoals along the Saluda River, Maddox Mill, and Maddox Bridge.  These landmarks tell a story of their own.

Plat maps, available in city and state archives, are the best resource for finding the precise location of your family’s former land or city property.  Colonial plat maps include sometimes fanciful descriptions of the land, along with hand-drawn maps.  More recent plat maps are much more precise, including clear perimeters and latitude/longitude details.  Compare the plat map with both your old map and new map to geolocate your family’s site, and then use Google Maps to zoom in on the land.  Record the Google Maps location in your records.  It will be useful when you want to visit the location.

A Maddox family member visited an ancestor’s 19th-century farm after locating it by comparing modern and old maps.

If you persevere, you’re likely to be surprised by existing research into the historical geography of your ancestral home.  Most libraries’ local history sections include such studies.  Another great place to look is in the digital library JSTOR, which houses an incredible array of studies.  A great example of a “good find” is the research done by Smithsonian archeologist C. Malcolm Watkins into the Marlborough Town, Virginia, Colonial site.  The archeologist definitively located Edward Maddox’s plot #15, which Edward bought in the 1690s, and it was easy to compare Watkins’ maps with Google Maps details despite the antiquity of the original maps.

The Maddoxes discovered their ancestral land in Virginia had been well studied, and could easily find their ancestor’s plot (#15, above) on modern maps, making the place accessible literally and figuratively.

As always, don’t expect immediate success with this genealogical research effort.  It can take a good bit of luck to bump into the right information.  But the more you know about your family, the more you can relate bits of seemingly disparate information to the geographic terrain of their lives.

And as always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help!