Using Ancestry: Mining Rich Content, by Juliana Smith

AntietamFor the past few weeks we’ve been reviewing search techniques at Ancestry (see the links at the bottom of this article if you missed past columns). This week we’re going to focus on “rich content”–that is, images, video, maps, and other content that adds depth to our family history.

A while back Ancestry split some of the searches off into different tabs, or “buckets” as they like to call them at the home office. If you look at the search on the homepage, you’ll notice that there are four tabs: Historical Records, Family Trees, Stories & Publications, and Photos & Maps. Since you probably wouldn’t search for photos or maps in the same way as you would a family tree or a historical record, this allowed them to create a search portal geared toward each record type. Much of the rich content we’ll be exploring today resides in the Stories & Publications tab and the Photos & Maps tab.

Searching for People
A few years ago, when I would talk about searching photograph collections at Ancestry, I would probably have mentioned that chances may be slim for finding actual photographs of your ancestors, but the odds are steadily improving. There are currently 2,711,737 photographs available on member trees that are searchable. In addition, the U.S. School Yearbook Collection; African American Photo Collection, 1850-2000; Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000; U.S. Family Photo Collection, c. 1850-2000; and U.S. Civil War Photos, 1860-1865 could contain a photograph of one of your family members. So my advice today is by all means, search these image collections using an ancestor’s name. High profile figures (e.g., military officers, politicians, etc.) may have a slight edge, but with more and more people adding photos to trees, you never know when a cousin may load that elusive photo of great-grandpa. All of these databases and several others can be searched through the Photos & Maps tab, and if you don’t find an ancestor in there this week, check back later.

Searching for Historical Context
If you’re still unable to locate a photograph of an ancestor, don’t worry, there’s a ton of historical background material available that can really help you flesh out your family tree. For example, try a search for a military unit in which a family member served. I did a sample search for the “Irish Brigade,” a military unit, which during the Civil War was comprised largely of Irish-Americans from New York.

In this search, I used the term “Irish Brigade” in quotes in the keyword field. That tells the database that those terms have to be found exactly like I typed them. This search turned up six hits in the Library of Congress Photo Collection, three in the U.S. Civil War Photos, 1860-65, and one on a Member Tree. The image on the tree is on a private website, so if I wanted to view the photo, I would have to contact that person and ask them to grant me permission to view their tree.

The first hit in the Civil War photo collection is of Lt. Col. James J. Smith and officers of 69th New York Infantry (Irish Brigade). It’s a neat group shot with what appears to be their camp in the background. When you select that hit, the image you see is a larger version of the thumbnail on the database results page, but if you click through to “View Original” (link on the top, left corner above the image), you will be able to view the image in the Advanced Image Viewer and have a lot more flexibility.

By clicking through I now have the option to zoom in on the photograph and view it at 200 percent. Click on the drop-down box where it says “Fit Width” and choose how much you’d like to zoom in, or click on the magnifying glass with the plus in the middle until you get the desired size. Even when it is maxed out at 200 percent, you can get a little closer by clicking the icon that says “Magnify.” With magnify selected, you can click and hold on an area of the photograph and a box will magnify that small portion. If you try it on this photograph, you’ll see you can get a much better look at the faces this way. In looking at this photograph of the Irish Brigade, the magnify tool makes it evident that facial hair was in at the time! Check out the third guy from the end in the back row. Quite the set of whiskers he has there!

Another image, this time from the Library of Congress Photo Collection, is a sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper titled, Grand requiem mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, Friday, January 16, for the repose of the souls of the officers and men of the Irish brigade killed in the war. Neat sketch, but perhaps I could find more.

A Bridge to Newspapers
By clicking on the Stories & Newspapers tab, I see that my search terms have carried over to the next tab and I have a whole new set of results. There are 182 hits in the “New York Times” database, but I have a date from the image of 16 January 1863 for that requiem mass, so I scroll down to refine my search and put in a date range of “1863 to 1863.” Now I have eleven hits and one of those is from 17 January 1863–an article describing the mass “held for the repose of the souls of all the dead of the Irish Brigade since the beginning of the war.” It tells that funds were collected for the families of Irish Brigade members killed in battle and even describes the music that was played. I couldn’t help but think that it would be neat for anyone who had an ancestor who fought and died in the Irish Brigade to have that music playing in a multimedia presentation of that ancestor. The following page lists excerpts from some of the speeches made.

Another article from January 13th New York Times, was also interesting and poignant. It was a resolution from the Board of Councilmen stating that:

Whereas, Francis Kavanagh, of the Sixty-third Regiment, Irish Brigade, while nobly fighting for his adopted country, was mortally wounded at the battle of Antietam, and from the effects of which he died on the eighth day of January, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, leaving his wife and family in destitute circumstances; therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Comptroller be and he is hereby authorized and directed to draw his warrant in favor of the wife of deceased, Mrs. Mary Kavanagh, in the sum of ninety-six dollars, for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the burial.

There are tons of newspaper articles like these, that can give us a real feel for the effects war and other events had on our ancestors. You might not find them by searching by name, but by broadening your horizon to include military service, communities, churches, and other affiliations, you’ll be surprised at what you can find.

Searching for Maps
Maps can also provide great insights in military and other matters. We just read about Francis Kavanagh who died of wounds suffered in the battle at Antietam. Entering “Antietam” in the keyword search of Photos & Maps, I found a couple maps, including one with detailed information on the battles that took place there on 16-17 September 1862.  (Click on the map in the upper right of this post to see a portion of that map. Unfortunately the blog won’t allow me to post the original size because the file is too large, but Ancestry members can view the full size version by clicking here.)

Maps showing the area in which your ancestor lived can also be enlightening. Water and other natural barriers may have forced your ancestor to go to a neighboring town, courthouse, or church to conduct business, worship, simply because it was easier to get to. Look for county, railroad, and other local maps from the time period to get a better feel for where the records your ancestor created may be located.

Browsing Through History
Some of the rich collections at Ancestry, like the WWII United News Newsreels, 1942-1946, are fun to just browse through. While you can search for terms, the descriptive text is brief so it may be more difficult to find exactly what you’re seeking. By spending time browsing through them though, you will find some unexpected gems.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

2 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Mining Rich Content, by Juliana Smith

  1. Pingback: Genealogy Information » Using Ancestry: Mining Rich Content, by Juliana Smith

  2. Juliana,
    Great set of articles! As a professional you have helped me get the best value for my subscription. You make me look really good to my clients, thanks.

    Susan Koelble, CG

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