How many times have you heard that a “picture is worth a thousand words”? Finding old family photographs is every genealogist’s dream. Ancestry users understand the priceless value of a picture from the past, even a faded or damaged one. With the tools we have today, they can be repaired right on the computer screen and saved in an electronic file. Old photos will become an integral part of your ancestor’s story should you ever decide to write one. Historically, photo images are fairly new. Prior to photos were oil paintings, portraits, sketches, and woodcuts which are historically useful today but family portraits were rare for the common man and woman. Mainly, only the wealthy, the famous and those of royalty had the means and the time to have them done.
The concept of a camera image harks back to the 16th century with the first actual image created in 1790. The ability to preserve an image permanently came around in 1826 and was not much more than a crude wooden box with a tiny hole in one side, developed by Charles and Vincent Chevalier, using bitumen (a tar-like substance) on a plate that hardened when exposed to light. So, if you locate a family picture anywhere near 1826, you’ve found a rare document. Both the camera and film went through an evolution from tin plates exposed to light and collodion dry plates to wet glass plates. Focusing was a problem too. There were only two exposures, black and white or cinnamon brown and white. Pictures became quite popular by the mid 1860’s when the new “profession” of photography began to record historical events such as the Civil War (Mathew B. Brady), famous landscapes (Ansel Adams), and of course oils of landscapes (C. A. Treadwell), families and individuals.
If you’re like me, I’m always fascinated with old photographs and often wonder what happened to the people depicted in those in the pictures. Have you ever been curious as to why they rarely smiled? Once, while reading a history on dentistry, I learned that in the early days of our country, dentistry was not a thriving profession. By their late teens and early 20’s, many people had such bad teeth they didn’t want to show them. Mystery solved! Of course, any type of movement during exposure blurred the image. A magnifying glass may allow you to see the obscure parts of a picture that aren’t obvious at first glance. A key element is paying close attention to the detail in an old photograph. The point of this mini-discussion is that, to a genealogist, every ancient picture is not only valuable and “worth a thousand words” but can also “generate a thousand words”. And that’s the challenge when writing about your ancestors. It can reveal fascinating details about life in those times.
GAINING INSIGHT INTO YOUR ANCESTOR’S CHARACTER
As you begin to write about your ancestors, old photographs, if you have them, can provide some clues to the creation of what is referred to as “character”. Building character around your subject requires some imagination as well as curiosity about the times. Character consists of the various qualities or features of a single person, group or thing that distinguishes them from one another. You may be in possession of an abundance of information or precious little. After describing the times and the location of events, there is always room to add character to the story by having a list of possible characteristics in mind. For instance, nicknames, physical appearance such as eyes, hair style, clothes, unusual facial features, height and build, ethnic and cultural background, nationality and language roots, education, job skills, political leanings, religious beliefs and many other possibilities. Of course, the relationship to you of your subject is imperative. Answering as many of these types of questions can bring your character to life. If your history is of more recent origin, you should have much more available information such as color photos, military service records, and other sources from which to draw. Ancestry can even provide a timeline of historical events for you to use in your narrative.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
“Other than skin and bone, life is composed of what we experience every day”, so says Bill Roorbach in his excellent book on “Writing Life Stories”. Events and thoughts get stored in our memory which itself becomes a databank from which we draw information throughout our lives. From it, we make decisions and interpret current events. Even our internal cells create antibodies that guard our brains from biological harm, most of the time seamlessly, but events like sickness, disease, plagues and killer epidemics were common throughout history. Every generation possesses its own unique set of circumstances which are somewhat different from previous generations. Each individual born in that generation passed through a personal learning curve accumulating a trove of unique experiences. Their brains worked the same as ours today in keeping up with what was going on. Thrown together, people managed their small part of the world as best as they could, regardless of what the rest of the world was doing. Thus, every age has its own set of uncertainties, quirks, customs, epidemics and challenges while adjusting to changes, but the bottom line of all human activity has almost always been preservation of self, family, heritage and country. It still is! Your challenge will be to capture the times as best as you can.
So, you might want to risk an excursion inside their mind and speculate on their thoughts. Remember, they wrestled with many of the same things we do today regarding raising families, eking out a living and coping with a constantly changing world. What experiences do you think influenced the way they were? An example is my father who was a very frugal man, even though somewhat successful in his chosen career as an entrepreneur and restaurant owner. One of his quirks was that he hated throwing anything away that could possibly be used again. And why not since he was raised during the depression years? It became integral to his pattern of thinking and thus his character. Also, if you happen to have an example of your subject’s handwriting, there are several good books on handwriting analysis which may add a bit more to your understanding of your ancestors. Maybe you know someone who is an expert at this. If so, give them a call.
There are at least three categories of past records that can provide valuable information into what people were doing and probably what they were thinking so long ago. The first are the solid, touchable artifacts that may have been passed down through your family such as an old gun or sword and perhaps clothing and personal items. Secondly are the portraits, sketches or photographs that have somehow survived the tumult of history. The third type of record consists of the written accounts of events as they happened and these are also scarce in many family records. Most of you are aware of the almost unlimited information that is at your fingertips. Much of it has been put there by hundreds of others who, over time, have sorted through and collated piles of related information and passed it along. We should truly be grateful they took the time to do it. But, be warned, records are often contradictory so handle with care. Also, extra-written records can come from various government sources such as those created through military service records or books written during those times. When viewed as parts of a whole, you may be able to get a feel for what their concerns and struggles were; what appeared to be important to them and at least some insight as to what was going on in their minds. I suggest that you consider them all.
As chroniclers of the lives of our ancestors, we have an opportunity to try and step inside their minds. What were they thinking? Why did they make certain moves or chose sides in a conflict? This is in addition to capturing the events surrounding them rather than using only the straight, benign facts from records, pictures and artifacts. Be patient as you write and you may find that their story has a lot in common with your story.
To wrap this up, always bear in mind that whatever story you create and share with others will have its own ripple effect, the total of which you may never know, but it’s there anyway. Keep plugging away, writing from what you know and gain some personal satisfaction that you are participating in creating a document that will live and be appreciated long after you are gone. It’s your footprint in the sand. Happy hunting and writing!
About Earl Armstrong
Earl spent the first nine years of his life growing up in Oklahoma City. His family moved several times after that and they spent time living in California, New Mexico, Kansas and Arkansas before returning to Oklahoma. As a teen, he moved to Dallas, Texas and then back to Oklahoma where he graduated from high school in 1959. He wrote for his high school newspaper and created cartoons. In 1960, he joined the U.S. Air Force and trained as a weather observer at Chanute AFB in Illinois. The last thirteen months of his Air Force enlistment was in Seoul, Korea. After mustering out, he tried different occupations and finally settled on being a draftsman. Eventually, he became a supervisor for a design department and eventually earned a degree in Industry and Technology from East Texas State University and three years later his Master’s degree. He began a rewarding career as a mechanical design engineer and ended his formal working days as a supervisor for a major pharmaceutical company where he was responsible for company-wide document distribution, software storage. He retired in 2000. Along the way, he wrote numerous short articles for various small publications.Earl and his wife, Pat, have traveled to every state in the U.S. and have visited several areas of the country doing genealogy searches. She is an avid user of Ancestry. He’s a published author in several genres including children’s stories, newspaper articles, a short booklet on spider webs, a book on cellular health issues, and recently authored a personal history and biography for a retired surgeon plus many other miscellaneous writings. For over five years, he has taught a very popular senior education class on memoir and life story writing at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. In addition, he also periodically teaches a class on weather.