It took some doing to find this 1938 aerial photograph of my grandparents’ farm in Hancock County, Illinois.
The original images are located at the University of Illinois Map and Geography Library (https://clearinghouse.isgs.illinois.edu/webdocs/ilhap/county/). That web page was located via a Google search for historical aerial photographs of Hancock County, Illinois.
When using the overview of all the images for Hancock County, it was necessary to either know the geography of the county very well or have a map for reference. The images were in a countywide grid and it took some doing to find the location of interest. My grandparents lived on the highway a few miles north of the county seat. Their farm was located by finding the county seat on the digital images and following the highway north. It helped to be familiar with the local area and to keep in mind that the photographs were taken in 1938–not 2021.
The subdivision across from my grandparents’ home was not there in 1938. The railroad tracks that bordered the west end of my grandparents’ property were not abandoned and overgrown with brush in 1938. The images are not perfect as aerial photography was somewhat in its infancy in 1938 compared to today’s standards.
It’s often referred to as “correlation and analysis” in genealogical methods courses, but a certain aspect of it is fairly simple:
Is this record really my people?
When genealogists gather records, saving them in an organized fashion is crucial. How can you later find it otherwise? It is also important to capture enough information about the record in order to craft a citation. How can you know where you got it and what it really is?
But there’s more. There’s another piece of information that one needs to track as well. How do you know the record is your person?
Sometimes that question is easy to answer and sometimes it is not. That’s why this part of the process is called “analysis.” But it is important. If I find a 1800 census in Harford County, Maryland, for a household headed by James Rampley, why do I think it is the one who died there in 1817? The reason may be fairly easy: the location is the same as given on his will, the will suggests a man who at least is in his fifties (based on the number of married children and grandchildren) which is consistent with the individuals in James’ household, etc. The reasons do not have to be overly articulate and full of fifty-dollar words. They do need to make sense and be consistent with what is known about the person and what is contained in the record or reasonably suggested by the record.
Sometimes the record that has just been located may cause you to re-evaluate what you think you “know” about the person of interest. That is an important part of the correlation and analysis of information.
The “How do you know the record is your person” is a good question to ask whenever a new record is located.
Genealogists often lament errors in census records. I’m not certain census records contain any more errors than any other record where there’s not really a punishment for providing incorrect information. The errors are easier to notice and remember because virtually every American researching their ancestry in the US before 1940 has a census enumeration on at least one family member.
Most of us have seen or used significantly more. That frequency of use makes the probability we’ve seen an error fairly high. Genealogists tend to remember the errors more than the times they’ve seen things correct.
But there’s more to something being wrong that simply saying it is incorrect because we want it to be. If I think the 1930 census enumeration for my grandmother is “wrong,” I need to be specific, I need to have reliable information that goes against what is listed in the enumeration. Is it her age that is wrong? Is it her place of birth? Is it her occupation? How certain am I that that piece of information on her enumeration is incorrect?
“My gut tells me” is a reason to change my diet, not a reason a record contains an incorrect piece of information.
If it is her age that is off, how reliable is my information about her age or date of birth? The same goes for any other fact that I think is wrong. If the entry on Grandma is “really” off, how certain am I that the enumeration actually refers to her in the first place?
The years of birth for two of my grand-aunts is wrong on their tombstone. The date is not wrong because I say so. The date is wrong because in both cases because both women’s certificates of birth and census records between 1910 and 1940 all provide a consistent year of birth. In one case every record (including military records) continues to provide that same year of birth up through her death certificate. Then the tombstone has a different date. In the other case, after 1940 the age and year of birth move by two years and stay the same throughout her life.
But the tombstones are not wrong just because “I say so.” They are wrong because a variety of original records (some contemporary and some not) provide other consistent dates.
If something is wrong, it is wrong. But there needs to be reliable documentation and analysis to back up that statement that something is wrong.
“My gut says” as a reason is better left to a taste test of Grandma’s cookie recipe than it is for a discussion of her date of birth.
The search results for Ger* Miller in FamilySearch.org‘s “Illinois, County Naturalization Records, 1800-1998” lists several entries. The ones from Adams County, Illinois, were of particular interest.
But the year given is referred to as an immigration year. They are not. While some declarations of intention do provide a year of arrival in the United States, most naturalizations during this time frame do not. These records are not immigration records. They are records that were created during the naturalization process. The 1853 “immigration” document was actually a declaration of intention filed in that year. The 1855 “immigration” document was actually a naturalization.
I’m still trying to determine if these are for the same Gerhard Miller. At least the declaration of intention is before the naturalization. But these are not records of immigration for the year stated.
I just wish they were labeled correctly in FamilySearch.
As always, index databases are finding aids. Always look at the actual document. In the case of these records, it’s also suggested that the user browse the images to determine what volume the item came from. Otherwise it’s just a document served up on your screen.
Access to digital images at home with free indexes are great and I’m thankful for FamilySearch for providing this service. But the user still needs to make certain the index accurately reflects what is in the document.
I usually hate the phrase “Yes, but…” because the “but” is often followed by an excuse.
However there are times.
The image in this illustration shows that “Penn” and “Tenn” could easily be confused by a transcriptionist or indexer.
I realize that reading the entire page of entries would probably make it clear how the writer of the document made his “P” and his “T.” The difficulty with that is, if I am using an index or a database created from this record then I am not looking at the entire page. I am using a transcription of this page. That transcription may have been created by someone who was not careful about determining whether it was a “P or a “T.” That transcription may have been made by someone who was not as concerned about looking at the entire page as I would be.
And if I am using a place of birth as one of my search terms, which is sometimes necessary, I may not think of looking for my person as having a place of birth in Pennsylvania if every document I have on them indicates that they were born in Tennessee.
And while there are standard abbreviations for the states today and census enumerators were to use standard abbreviations for the time the census was taken, that did not always happen.
What “wrong ways” could that location in your background be transcribed?
There’s a school of genealogical thought that essentially says “writing about the genealogy research process is not what matters. It is the finished product that matters.”
While the finished product (the compiled genealogy or the analysis and correlation of records to make the case that a conjecture has been established) is important, the research process matters. If the finished product was sufficient by itself, textbooks would have no need to explain anything. Seeing the process by which others have solved problems helps readers (and students) develop their own ability to solve problems. Pointing out when a process or conclusion was wrong is illustrative as well.
And so a search for a “little more information” on my great-grandfather Habben lead to the discovery of a probable “new to me” brother and sister for his wife’s great-grandfather.
The Quincy, Illinois, Public Library has digitized newspapers from the earliest issues through 1970 on their website. For reasons that are now lost to me (my memory is nothing if not short), I wanted to see if there were any references to Mimke Habben besides his obituary. Other than having to search for various renditions of his first name (Minke, Mimka, etc. all of which are on a master list to keep me from leaving any out) the number of hits is usually manageable.
A reference to in a 1935 edition of one of the newspapers on the site mentioned a reunion that had been attended by Mrs. Mimka Habben and her children. Great-grandpa was not in attendance. The Habbens had attended the Dirks and Adams families reunion. I had seen a handful of references to the Dirks family reunion in the newspaper and many of them were attended by Tjode (the “Mrs. Mimka Habben) and her children. This was the first reunion notice I had discovered that referenced the Adams family as well. The mother of the Dirks family was Heipke (Müeller) Dirks and her sister had married an Adams. The combined reunion made sense and I didn’t think much about it.
I realized I might have overlooked some reunion references and decided to search for the newspapers for “Dirks and Adams” in digital images. My search had to quickly be refined to include additional words. The newspapers were printed in Adams County, Illinois, and “Adams” as a keyword was none too effective.
A refined search led to a 1931 newspaper reference to a Dirks reunion in northern Adams County–Adams family members attended but the reunion was referred to as the “Dirks reunion.” The notice indicated that my own great-great-grandmother had become a great-grandmother for the first time since the last reunion (without naming the child) and that Ben Miller of Quincy, Illinois, a “cousin” of Mrs. Henry Dirks, Sr., had passed away since last year’s reunion.
At that point the gears started to turn. Mrs. Henry Dirks, Sr., died in 1924 and her husband well before that. Was the paper referring to her? Most likely it was since it did specifically mention Henry Dirks, Jr., by name (in the list of attendees). The cousin reference was significant. The only relatives of Mrs. Henry Dirks, Sr., that I knew of were her parents, Henry and Geshe Müeller, and her sister Anke Müeller Adams.
While “cousin” can be a vague term, it does suggest a biological relationship that needs to be explored further.
We will save those discoveries for a further post.
The drawback to writing about the research process is that sometimes it can mirror a trip down a rabbit hole. That happens because sometimes those rabbit holes (when travailed with some restraint) can produce results.
The discovery of Ben Miller began with a search for Mimka Habben. There’s another important reminder as well–Mimka Habben did not even attend the reunion of his wife’s family that got this whole chain of discoveries started.
I can almost see a barefoot Grandma Neill in the backyard of this picture, headed towards the chicken house to gather the eggs. But my favorite part of this image is my Grandpa’s truck sitting in the driveway. The magnified illustration focusing on the house and the truck is only a portion of the picture of my Grandparents’ farm taken “from the air” one year before my Grandpa Neill’s death.
The house no longer stands and there’s a Kirby machine shed due west of where the home was (and slightly south west of the chicken coop), but the larger barns and silo are still there. A few of the smaller outbuildings have been razed. Grandma’s garden can be seen north of her house and there appear to be a few chickens showing as well. Not everything that looks like chickens are chickens–a few of those white blurry images are flowerpots Grandma made from retired kitchen pots.
The images included in this post have been reproduced here with the permission of Vintage Aerial. Some of the outlying farmland where no buildings are seen has been cropped from the original photo. This image is one of millions that Vintage Aerial hosts from the era on their site. There is one difference: the overview of the farm shown in this post is not the image that can be viewed for free on the Vintage Aerial site. It’s the image that can be purchased from the site for personal use and personal printing.
The images document rural America at one brief moment in time. The images are not perfect as they were taking from a flying airplane with 1960s-era technology. They were not created with modern digital cameras and enhancement technology cannot improve what was not in the image. There’s just one challenge: you have to find the image yourself. This is not a genealogical database that has a names attached to every image and where you can type in a name and have a result magically appear for you.
A Different Perspective
The geographic organization of the photographs is as specific as the county. After that (with an exception we will discuss), searchers will have to manually search for images. This can be a time-consuming process and is not necessarily as easy as you think. Looking at things from above is a different perspective and takes a little adjustment. Think of it as getting used to reading someone’s handwriting. Even when one is familiar with the area, as I was with my paternal grandparents’ farm (shown in the illustrations) and my parents’ farm (located only a half mile from each other), it takes a while to start recognizing houses or barns. The occasional picture is taken from “the back” of the property. This, at least for me, makes recognition somewhat more difficult–especially for farms that I only ever saw from the road.
Things can be a little more challenging if your memory does not extend to the year the photographs were taken. Things change. Buildings are torn down. Buildings are put up. Tree lines are bulldozed. Timber is cleared. Time marches on. The model year of vehicles shown should not present a problem.
Order of the Pictures
Fortunately the pictures are in the sequence they were taken by the pilot, so there is some geographic ordering to them. Pilots tended to fly along roads, likely because it made identification of the locations easier later. The problem is there’s always the time when they have, so to speak, flown themselves into a corner and there is a geographic jump in the images. Users of the site may find it helpful to have a contemporary plat book handy. Even if one is familiar with the area it helps to have one so that located places can be marked with the roll and image numbers used on the site.
The home I few up in was only a half a mile from my Grandparents’ farm, but it was quite a few images away–simply because of how the pilot flew and took pictures. One has to turn around somewhere. The location of these farms is two dimensional and pilots (and census takers) do their work in lines. Those lines may be criss-crossed, but every so often there has to be a point where one turns around and goes back. Do not assume places that are “close” will be “close” in terms of image location. That is not necessarily true.
When I viewed the home I grew up in and the nearby images, I could see how the pilot flew north from the town of Carthage along the road my home was on and took pictures of every home on the east side of the road for about two miles. He then turned around and took pictures on the west side of the road. This is easier to notice if you have a map or are familiar with the area. My maternal grandparents lived seven miles south of where I grew up and I’m not as familiar with that area–which has made locating their home more difficult.
The website that hosts the images allows users to interact with them and post comments. These comments are searchable. I would start my search by searching the images of the county of interest for the last being searched for. If that does not locate the family of interest, search for nearby families, churches, schools, etc. in an attempt to pinpoint which section of the images contain the area of the county in which your family lived. Keep in mind that anyone can tag images and that there can be mistakes.
Perspective will throw you off when viewing these images. Some pictures were taken “from the back” and if the only view you ever had was “from the road,” recognizing a place with which you are familiar can occasionally be a challenge. Additional challenges are houses and barns that were torn down between the photography and your personal memory, vegetation that has been changed significantly, etc.
Lastly, consider letting others who may know the area know about the site. They may be able to help. Relatives, former neighbors, classmates, etc. who are not necessarily interested in genealogy or family history may find it a challenge to find their farm or property in the image set. Any images that can be identified may help you find your own people.
Reminders and Suggestions
Have a plat map of the area showing landowners as close to picture time as possible.
Search the database of located places for last names of neighbors, landmarks, schools, churches, etc.
Keep track of places that you have located–preferably on a map.
Track image sets that have been viewed.
Ask for help from locals familiar with the area.
Add identifying information to any images on the site that you know.
The list of burials in the Vicksburg National Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi, testifies to the number of soldiers whose final resting place is in that cemetery. The number of entries marked as “unknown” silently memorialize the large number of remains that were unidentifiable. Not all burials in the Vicksburg National Cemetery have identities that will forever remain a mystery.
Such is the case with James F. Rowe, a young soldier from Davenport, Iowa, who died at the age of approximately nineteen in July of 1863 in Louisiana. Unfortunately Rowe was one of the thousands of young men who did not return home at the end of the war. The register serves as a reminder of the large number of unidentified soldiers who are laid to rest in Vicksburg.
Rowe’s complete entry in the burial register indicated that he was buried in section H, number 596. Many of the entries contain scant information and little more than the word “unknown” filling in the boxes–not Rowe’s.
Rowe’s body was found “On Widow Groves plantation in Madison Parish La. one half mile above the head of Grants Canal about (4) Four miles west of Vicksburg.” Red lines separate his entry from the others.
The hospital steward’s date of death is given as 13 February 1863. It is written in a different hand and ink from the main information contained in the register and may have been written by the individual who made the lines around Rowe’s entry indicating where his body was found.
Identification of Rowe’s remains was made based upon a quinine bottle found on his body which gave his name, rank, and his regiment–the 31st Iowa.
The words “on paper” are crossed out, but something enclosed in the bottle had his information on it. The section of Rowe’s entry under the “Epitaphs, Remarks, Etc.” also contains a red notation that ends with the word “Office.”
The identification of bodies during the Civil War was a significant problem. Those with an interest in military dog tags, which came about as a result of body identification may wish to read Katie Lange’s “Dog Tag History: How the Tradition & Nickname Started” on the US Department of Defense website.