Photos bring family stories alive

Every family historian can tell you about the value of old family photographs. Photographs bring back moments I would have otherwise forgotten, and do the same for ancestors. I was fascinated with my great-grandmother Kittie Gallagher because of the beautiful self-portrait/photo passed down through the family. The best thing about that old photo is that as a child I was able to associate the name and the stories with a face so they stayed in my mind.

That is probably the best reason I can think of to pair photos with your family story. It doesn’t have to be a portrait of an ancestor, almost any photo or document can help bring your story to life. The last couple of weeks I have told you about some less common websites for landscape photographs. How can you use an aerial photo of empty farmland to tell your story?
Many nineteenth century land deeds used features such as streams, large rocks and trees for boundary markers, and over time, trees are cut down or decay, streams dry up, rock walls fall. We cannot find many of those features now, even with, say, a current Google Earth satellite photo. But many of the aerial photos becoming available now are 60 or 70 years older, and while the rock wall may have disappeared under today’s housing development, in that older photo, the long gone wall may be found as a line of trees in the middle of a field. The old boundary tree may show up as a huge stump amidst younger trees, and while the stream may be gone, its bed may show up better in that older photo than it might in today’s aerial photo. Trees have filled fields even in my own lifetime, so an older photo may show much that has since disappeared.
Photos also allow us to “pass on” those one-of-a-kind family heirlooms to the entire family. An example of this would be a black glass plate Kittie painted as a Christmas gift back in 1897. There is only one plate and over 300 descendants. You can do the math. However, with the photo, I can tell the story of the young Irish Immigrant who took her place in the workforce by painting plates for a once thriving social custom in the 1800s. I can elaborate from there to tell other stories to pass on her strengths to a new generation of Kittie’s descendants.
Many of the documents I would wish to add are permanently in government custody, such as WWI draft cards. They are available to me, though, as a digital copy. So, you don’t need to count on personal family archives (which in my case rarely exist), sometimes even if it’s not the family heirloom, a photo of something like it may be available. Photos and maps fit easily into family history books too, whether you use a professional printing service such as Ancestry Publish or Snapfish, or whether you are creative enough to produce a scrapbook on your own. There is no end to the ways you can enhance your own family history with photos.
Columnist Nina Brawn of Dover-Foxcroft is a longtime genealogy researcher, speaker and teacher. Reader emails are welcome at ninabrawn@ Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at Cary Medical Center’s Chan Education Center at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.