As any guide to genealogy that you find on a book shelf or the web will tell you, the first step to researching your family history is to start with what is known about your ancestors and fill in the missing details. The best way to ensure that you have wrung every last drop of information from your family is to round them up and interrogate them, each and every one. In the past, this was called kidnapping, but today it’s called a family reunion and the rewards you will reap from planning one will be well worth your effort.
Pershing Family Reunion – Library of Congress
If the words “family reunion” conjure up images of crying children, feuding cousins and prickly parents, fear not. With some careful planning and a few tricks up your sleeve, your next family gathering will be a major success.
One of the first (and most important) decisions you’ll have to make is where to hold your reunion. There are several things to consider when choosing the location:
How far will your guests be traveling to attend the event? It is best to choose a place that is central to the majority of relatives. If you are lucky, like me, your family is concentrated in one small area. If they’re scattered far and wide, consider a location that provides the easiest access for the largest number of attendees, or is closest to those that are mobility impaired. If your aunt Agnes doesn’t get around so well, it is a nice gesture to plan a reunion close to her home and leave the traveling to more spritely folks.
Accommodations and Expense
Failing to provide guests with affordable options for where to stay is the biggest blunder that you can make. The fastest way to alienate potential attendees is to pick a posh location with over-the-top amenities and outrageous prices. Try to locate an area that provides multiple rooming options and if possible, find a few family members that have extra rooms in their homes for people who simply cannot afford the hotel high-life. This is especially important for large families who have traveled long distances so aunt Agnes doesn’t have to.
Perhaps your great-grandfather was a mason and helped build the train depot, or your grandmother was a school teacher in the one room schoolhouse – incorporating historical sites that are significant to your family’s heritage creates a perfect backdrop to your event. If it is a historically significant venue you may be able to rent the space to have your gathering there, otherwise, consider researching the building’s history and giving a guided tour.
If your reunion will include children (and it almost certainly will), try to plan for some outdoor space where children can safely play. Parks with playgrounds make particularly suitable gathering places and many have buildings with dining tables and chairs that can be rented for a minimal fee. If you live somewhere in the warm and sunny south, the time of year is less important, but if you are north of the Mason-Dixon, like my family, planning your reunion in the Summer is the best bet. In any case, take into account the types of activities available and the projected seasonal temperature when picking your location and date and make sure attendees know what to expect.
Fried chicken, potato salad and corn on the cob are traditional favorites. Food doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be stress-free. If your budget allows, having a simple catered event is by far the easiest option, if not, consider a potluck or bbq with kid friendly foods like hotdogs. If there is a recipe that has been in your family for years, like Agnes’ famous apple pandowdy, be sure to include it. If you are having a picnic or potluck be certain that the space you choose has a place to sit, grills or stovetops (if serving hot food), and refrigeration.
By carefully considering and researching these various options, you’ll be sure to pick a location that gives your reunion the best chance of success.
On April 21, 1865 Abraham Lincoln’s mortal remains were placed on a train to make the 1654 mile journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. His funeral procession lasted 14 days and his open casket was viewed by more than 1.5 million people.
Despite the astounding number of people that viewed Lincoln’s body, only one photograph is known to exist depicting his corpse. This photo was discovered in 1952 by Ronald Rietveld, then a 14 year old boy who was leafing through a collection of papers belonging to Lincoln’s secretary, held at the Illinois State Historical Library (click here to view the photo).
Currier and Ives sketch of Lincoln’s casket – Library of Congress
The photograph, taken by Jeremiah Gurney, Jr. shows the embalmed Lincoln lying in state in New York City on April 24, 1865. An excellent 2009 History Channel documentary, “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” details the discovery of the photograph as well as a counterfeiting ringleader’s attempt to snatch Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
Memorial portraiture, or “memento mori”, the practice of capturing the image of the deceased, was once accepted custom. During the 19th and early 20th century, funeral photos were commonly taken as the final memento of one’s life, often showing mourning family members surrounding the coffin.
As our attitudes towards death and dying have shifted, memorial portraiture is largely a thing of the past, sensationalistic acts not withstanding, such as the leaked photograph of Whitney Houston lying in her casket recently published by the National Enquirer. Whereas mortal remains were once lovingly cared for and preserved by family until time of burial, we now outsource this task to an entire industry of undertakers, and funeral homes.
The shift in attitudes towards memorial portraiture is a bit of a loss for the genealogist. Family photos are often a first step in identifying relatives. Major life events that bring families together generate the photos that become the critical clues and starting points for future family historians. After all, not everyone can make it to a confirmation, graduation or wedding of a loved one, but just about everyone makes it to the funeral.
Just as a memorial service can be thought of as a celebration of someone’s life, so can funeral photographs and albums be thought of as ways to capture and honor the memory of a loved one. While open casket photographs may not appeal to everyone, a photograph of funeral attendees gathered around the burial site or a guest book where attendees can sign their name and write a favorite memory of the deceased will be meaningful keepsakes for future generations of family historians.
Shown here are funeral photographs in my family’s collection.
The family home before it burned to the ground
In 1997 a home that had been in my family for 56 years burned down. My great-grandfather purchased the home in 1941 and my grandmother was raised there. Even after my great-grandfather moved out of the house, it remained in the family, a safe haven for my mother and her siblings when they needed a place to stay. Family treasures filled the top floor of the house; an old Victrola, military medals, numerous old photo albums filled with tin types, and nearly every memento from my grandmother’s childhood.
The culprit was the wood burning stove and chimney and what started as a small chimney fire, quickly grew out of control and engulfed the house in flames.
After the fire, my family sifted through the remains, pulling half-burned heirlooms from the ashes, and photographs that crumbled in their hands. Nothing is more sickening than a half-burned photograph. It is as if someone tore it in half and gave it back to you. Worse, the unburned faces on the remaining half of the photo are distorted in their hazy grayness, nearly impossible to make out.
Photo damaged by 1997 fire.
It isn’t practical for everyone that has a precious family photo or heirloom to rush out and buy a fire safe box or storage unit, but there are steps you can take. The single most important thing you can do to prevent photos and documents from perishing is to digitize your collection. Store your images online where others in your family can get access to them, or, make multiple digital copies of the images and distribute them to members of your family. The more people who have the images, the greater the chance that they’ll survive for many years to come.
I store my family photographs online both at Ancestry.com and at Elephantdrive.com. Elephant Drive allows you to store large files, Ancestry limits the size of photographs to 15 MB. Whatever method you choose, storing photographs digitally, and outside of your home, is the best way to mitigate the risk of losing priceless memories to a tragic fire, flood or other natural disaster.
Fire is a genealogist’s worst nightmare. It is a constant threat — capable of quickly and mercilessly consuming the precious photographs and heirlooms that we hold so dear. In 1921, a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington D.C. robbed us of the 1890 Federal Census, creating a 20 year gap in one of our greatest research resources. Countless courthouses have been destroyed due to fire and natural disasters, forever eradicating birth, marriage, death and land records that are often the only surviving documentation of the people who lived in those communities. And yet, with the ugly truth staring us in the face, how many of us have stopped to consider how fire and its henchmen, smoke and water damage, can affect us today?
Photograph courtesy of Isanti County News.
Last year, Isanti County Historical Society burned to the ground. Isanti is a sleepy town just north of Minneapolis, and you probably haven’t heard of it, but for many people, including myself, Isanti is where our ancestors made their lives. Isanti County Historical Society once housed an important collection of records dating back 150 years that detailed the lives of Scandinavian immigrants, many from Hälsingland Province in Sweden, including my great great great grandfather, Olof Jonnson Svärd. The fire wasn’t caused by lightning or wildfire or even faulty wiring, it was deliberately set by an arsonist, and it has robbed Isanti County and all the descendents of the people who lived there of their history.
As Kathy McCully, executive director of the ISHS said in an interview at the time of the catastrophe, “It’s just devastating… It’s literally 150 years of archived collections, photos, archival donations…It’s all gone… It’s not just one family’s family photos that were lost; it is everyone’s family photos that were lost.” (Kyotonen, Rachel. “Isanti County Historical Society building destroyed by arson.” Isanti County News on the Web 8 Jul. 2011. 14 May 2012 <http://isanticountynews.com/2011/07/08/isanti-county-historical-society-building-destroyed-by-arson>.)
“The damage is very extensive. Much of what the fire didn’t consume was damaged by water from the fire hoses. Anything wooden, textile and most paper documents have been destroyed. The handles even melted off the file cabinets.” (Kyotonen, Rachel. “Minnesota Historical Society provides disaster assistance to Isanti County Historical Society.” Isanti County News on the Web 11 Jul. 2011. 14 May 2012 <http://isanticountynews.com/2011/07/11/minnesota-historical-society-provides-disaster-assistance-to-isanti-county-historical-society>.)
There is a lesson for all of us in this devastating event. Many genealogists have donated their photographs and heirlooms to local historical societies in the hope that they will be preserved for future generations. However, if those collections have not been digitized and archived, those photographs and heirlooms are at risk of being lost, forever. Inquire whether local historical and genealogical societies important to your family history have digitized their collections. Many of these societies house incredibly important collections but do not have the funding or technology necessary to preserve them. You can help by donating your time or resources to the effort. If you are a skilled writer, you can help by writing grant proposals to obtain funding. You can also write to the editor of your local newspaper to bring attention to this need and rally the local community. Whatever your contribution, don’t wait until tomorrow, when it may be too late.
To donate to Isanti County Historical Society’s disaster relief, please visit www.ichs.ws.
A much overlooked and extremely valuable source of information for genealogists is the obituary. Yet, there really is no greater source for information on the social lives and accomplishments of an ancestor. For most people, this is the only biography of their lives ever written and there are often genealogical gems like surviving relatives, church affiliations, occupations, military service and civil service to be found. Last Friday I received the following obituary for my great great great grandfather’s brother, Isaac Parmenter Jr. (1833-1903) of Mt. Carmel, Wabash, Illinois. This is extracted from the Wabash County Register, 5 Feb 1903.
Was the death of Isaac Parmenter.
His friends were totally unprepared for the announcement of the death of Mr. Isaac Parmenter, none knowing that he was ill. He had been up in the city, the day before, and on Wednesday, the day of his death, had worked until eleven o’clock in the forenoon. About that hour he was noticed to be acting a little querrly, and to have partially lost the use of his hands.
Mrs. Parmenter prepared his dinner and he ate as usual. In the afternoon he was unable to resume his work, and gradually grew worse, and medical skill failed to relieve him. He died at four o’clock, Wednesday afternoon, of paralysis.
Isaac Parmenter was a member of a family prominent in the early affairs of Wabash county, being a son of Major Isaac Parmenter, an officer in the Black Hawk war.
Isaac was a native of Wabash county, and was born in Bald Hill Prairie, February 10, 1833, and lacked but six bays [sic] of being seventy years old at the time of his death. The greater portion of his life was passed in farming. A few years ago he removed to Mt.Carmel, and his death took place at the family residence on East Fourth street.
Mr. Parmenter was twice married. His first wife was Miss Jennie Brines, to whom he was married, September 11, 1854. There were nine children of this union, two sons and seven daughters. The surviving children are Mr. E. Parmenter, Lancaster; Mrs. Anna Glouser, this city; Mrs. Laura Sawyer, Wayne county; Mrs. Ella Sawyer, Bellmont.
September 20, 1899, he was married to Mrs. Katharine Peterson, who survives him.
Mr. Parmenter was a man of strong convictions, but his odd conceits and quaint expressions made him a general favorite. He was a great reader, and kept well posted on the events of the day. Polictically he was an independent, and voted for his friends, regardless of their party affiliations.
He was kind-hearted and generous, and his death causes his friends sincere sorrow.
He was a member of the Christian church, and had taken quite an interest in the meetings which have been in progress there for some weeks.
The funeral services will be held at the Christian church, Saturday morning at 10 o’clock, conducted by Elder Lee Tinsley. Burial will take place in Hallock’s graveyard.”
There are such are amazing details in this obituary. It’s easy to get caught up in the race to go back as many generations as possible, but often the generations in-between become lonely names and dates in a file. Whenever possible, I urge you to search for information like this that will put the history of your family into context and make your genealogical quest much more rewarding.
After 16 years of researching my family’s history, I have decided to make a career out of one of my greatest loves. Having collected countless records, photographs and heirlooms, I’ve noticed how few options there are for genealogists to display and share their research. Nothing is more interesting to genealogists than their ancestors and it’s my mission to provide beautiful art quality displays to capture and preserve their tireless efforts. I’ve created this blog to share my experience as a genealogist, offer inspiration for those of you just embarking on this journey, and products that will make your quest all the more rewarding.