I live in Rhode Island. You’d think the answer to that question would be easy. It’s the smallest state in the country with 8 cities, 31 towns, and only 5 counties. Yet folks that live here usually don’t give you the name of a city or town when you ask where they are from. They are more specific than that. According to Wikipedia there are 103 villages here. Some are no larger than a cross street while others are adorable seaside communities. That’s their identity. Even when mentioning a major city, people tend to claim their neighborhood.
It’s all about the importance of place.
Our ancestors and ourselves have a connection to geography. In Rhode Island, it’s personal. Those mill towns, fishing villages, and post offices were part of their identity. The larger municipal division is a governmental one, not where their hearts live.
Many of us have lost that sense of small places, but we can find it again by looking at the census and by studying maps.
Every ten years from 1790 to today the U.S. Census Bureau collected information on people who lived here. Have you looked closely at the page header for a census record? There may be a bit more information than you’d assume.
My Dad always remembered his time living as a child in the mill village of Saylesville in Lincoln, RI. His father didn’t work in the factory; they were house painters and paperhangers. Dad talked about swimming in the ponds of the town.
While my Dad recalled one place, the census enumerator recorded another. Lime Rock, another village in Lincoln, RI. Notice how it’s crossed out in favor of the larger community name.
Place names crop up in picture credits, too.
Think about the photos in your collection. We spend time figuring out a time frame for the images but what about the places where they were taken. It might be a studio or a family members backyard. Here are a few things to remember:
· There were more photo studios in larger cities. Our ancestors often traveled miles to have their picture taken.
· A place name on an image doesn’t mean they lived there, but where they posed for an image.
I have one image of my paternal grandmother as a toddler. A well-known studio in Providence, RI, took it but I happen to know that the family lived in a town next door. There were plenty of photographers in their town of residence, so why pose on a visit to the capital city? I don’t know except that she often spoke of visits to the city.
· There were itinerant photographers that traveled to their customers. The place name on the card photo could be misleading.
In my blog post, Finding a Home for the Hollenbergs, the whole family posed in front of their barn on their farm. The size and format of the picture confirm that it was taken with a box camera and printed from a glass negative. It’s proof positive that the photo studio came to them. Or that an amateur photographer had access to professional equipment.
· You can trace an ancestor’s travels by studying the place names on a picture.
Put ancestral images in timeline order to see where they lived and where they posed for pictures. You might gain a better sense of when they arrived in a particular area.
I have snapshots of my Dad taken outside. In the background are houses and landscapes. By inserting them into his life story, I’ll have clues to where he posed. Using geographic tools like maps and landscape photos, I may be able to discover where he stood.
I hope so. Place is part of his story. It’s in your photos and in your research too.