One of my most favorite places visited was Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. At one of the taverns, there was a gentleman portraying an elderly resident of Williamsburg- he looked like Benjamin Franklin. He was probably in his seventies, and surprisingly got out of character a bit with the kids. He told them that when a young boy, his elderly neighbor had told him stories of the Civil War that he witnessed growing up. The neighbor’s parents had told their son stories of the American Revolution they lived through- and here this reenactor was, just 2 skips from the founding of our country, telling our children of those days in the voice of a Colonial Williamsburg resident. It made me realize that I was closer to my ancestors than it sometimes seemed.
I was not the only one realizing that those times were closer. About ten years ago, Maureen Taylor, who specializes in old photos and deciphering their clues, realized that there were photographs of persons who lived during the Revolutionary War! Photography was invented in 1839, so anyone over 80 years old by then would have been an adult during the Revolution; those who were children during the Revolution would have been at least 50 years old when he or she sat for a portrait after 1839. There were even surviving widows of Revolutionary soldiers in the 20th century: Esther Sumner was just 21 when she married 75 year old Noah Damon, and she died in 1906. So there are more close connections than seems possible, and Maureen has gathered some of this information and many photos into two books:
Maureen is also working on a documentary called “Revolutionary Voices”: A Last Muster Film. See her website, http://www.maureentaylor.com, for details about this project, as well as her books that can help you learn more about your family through their photographs.
The idea for this post came about during my internet ramblings- a fascinating article called, “‘Rasputin Was My Neighbor’ and Other True Tales of Time Travel” by Robert Krulwich is on the NPR website. The website includes a video of an elderly man who was attending Ford’s Theatre the fateful day that President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Yes, a video- that is just amazing!
Thinking about our ancestors, and what they witnessed in their lives, is a way to time travel while still enjoying indoor plumbing and air conditioning ;). A diary or letter, even a photo, can help us go to times past. Adding a timeline to family history research will help us to understand the story of their struggles and their lives, and if older relatives are still around, may be a springboard for stories not yet heard.
During the 1970s, as a young college woman, I was working for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.). My grandmother kept up with current events and watched PBS regularly for the news shows. (She did love the gardening shows too.) One day I realized that she had been a young college woman during the time that the 19th Amendment, ‘giving’ women the right to vote, was passed and ratified. I was excited about our parallel lives and couldn’t wait to get the opportunity to ask her what she remembered- did they have a support group at college, did she write letters, debate, or even march? What did she think of the women who were beaten, jailed, starved, and force-fed because they were protesting that 51% of the American population-women- did not have civil rights?
I was dumbstruck when my incredibly hard-working, frugal, level-headed grandmother answered, “I don’t even remember that. I was so busy with my sorority and dances and clubs. And I was always having to ask my father for more money for clothes and other expenses.” Years later she showed us her college scrapbook, full of dance cards, programs, and other mementos of her busy college life that didn’t include momentous political changes.
I must say though that she DID study- and earned a degree in biology in 1922, highly unusual for a woman at that time. So she worked for equality in her own way.
So do your time travel through wonderful historical sites, like Colonial Williamsburg, but also try to place your own ancestors in the time and place they lived their ordinary lives. Try to decipher the small clues in photographs- maybe a house number on a door, or official documents such as a draft registration or passport application that gives details about color of eyes and hair, and build. Walking the farmland they ploughed, the streets they tarried on as they chatted with neighbors, and stepping foot into that one-room schoolhouse or the actual home they lived in will give you insight into what they experienced. It will bring you one step closer to their lives, and a big step closer to understanding who you are and how you became that person.
Notes, Sources, and References:
1) Maureen Taylor’s website: http://www.maureentaylor.com
The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation. Kent State University Press; 1 edition (July 1, 2010) ISBN-13: 978-1606350553
The Last Muster, Volume 2: Faces of the American Revolution. Kent State Univ (July 8, 2013) ISBN-13: 978-1606351826
2) “‘Rasputin Was My Neighbor’ and Other True Tales of Time Travel” by Robert Krulwich
3) 19th Amendment:
4) Sadly, women in the United States do not yet have equal protection under the law, as they do in most democratic countries- even third world countries. The Equal Rights Amendment was written by Alice Paul, a suffragist leader, right after ratification of the 19th Amendment. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but the US Constitution still did/does not offer women equal protection under the law. (And no, “men” is NOT meant to include ‘women’- if it did, women would have had the right to vote Mar 4, 1789 when the Constitution went into effect.) The Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced into Congress every year since Alice Paul wrote it, with passage in 1972 but ratification fell short 3 states in 1982. In August, 2013, a slightly altered version of the law was introduced to Congress. An excellent website concerning this issue is http://www.equalrightsamendment.org. While on that website watch the video for the upcoming film “Equal Means Equal” – it is an insightful video for this generation to understand the void in our Constitution.
Copyright 2013 by Heritage Ramblings Blog and pmm, except for the images included in this post.