The Generations Project.
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Take the following picture as an example. It is a well-known photograph of Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney—better known as Billy the Kid.
For years, historians, writers, and aficionados of the West used this image to argue that the infamous Western outlaw was a minority in the gunfighter community—a left-hander. This idea was so common that a film titled The Left-Handed Gun on the life of Billy the Kid and starring Paul Newman was released in 1958, and many history books note that he was a southpaw.
In this picture, the rifle Billy is holding is a Winchester Model 1873. If you look closely at the gun, the loading gate (where bullets are put into the rifle) appears on the left-hand side of the gun. (See highlighted area below.)
However, an observant historian eventually noted a problem with the picture: the 1873 Winchester didn’t have a loading gate on the left side—only on the right side. The picture was reversed! In the early days of photography, most negatives were produced backwards as a result of the technical process used in the first cameras. If the technicians were not careful when developing the film, they would produce a mirror image of the actual scene. This is what happened to the famous photo of Billy the Kid.
The correct image, depicting Billy as a right-hander, is shown below.
This example illustrates how important family photographs can be. Not only do they give us an image of our ancestors, but important clues about the past can be found in the details surrounding them. Clothing, hairstyles, pins, military awards, automobiles, even rocks and plants can all help tell our ancestors' stories, even if they have not left a lot of written information for us. Some of these details are easily identified; others are more difficult and may need a specialist’s eye in order to be fully understood. Regardless, a picture may be worth a thousand words of an ancestor’s life story, so don’t delay! Pull out those old pictures and see what they may tell you about the lives of your loved ones.
Have you found interesting facts from old photos? Tell us about it, leave a comment.
When I was a few months into my pregnancy and feeling alone, I came across this quote by Harriet Lerner:
“We are never the first in our family to wrestle with a problem, although it may feel that way. . . . Learning how other family members have handled their problems similar to our own down through the generations, is one of the most effective routes to lowering reactivity and heightening self-clarity.”
I thought, “Yeah, right. Who does this happen to? No one else in my family has been abandoned three months into a planned pregnancy.”
I kept reading:
“If we do not know about our own family history, we are more likely to repeat past patterns or mindlessly rebel against them, without much clarity about who we really are, how we are similar to and different from other family members, and how we might best proceed in our own life.” 
Since I was already passionate about genealogy and family history (I am president of a personal history company), I decided to test out this idea. I re-examined my family tree to see if I had overlooked any single mothers and to find out what, if anything, I could learn from them.
To my great surprise, there were more than a few, and the details of their stories left me in awe. For the purpose of brevity, I will share only two here:
The first was my great-grandmother, Ellen. She lived for a time in the Mormon Mexican Colonies (which explains my affinity for Mexico). She had four daughters with her husband, but after the fourth was born, he accused Ellen of cheating on him. He said that Violet was not his child. With this announcement, he left her and moved back to the United States.
Things in Mexico at this time (early 1900s) were tense. Pancho Villa, the revolutionary general in Chihuahua, was suspicious of the white Mormon settlers. According to the colony’s history, he threatened to kill the white people if they did not leave. So Ellen and her four daughters, and the rest of their colony, fled Mexico on foot after only a few days’ notice. Ellen returned to her parents' home in Cedar City, Utah, and lived with her family. Sometime later, she was reunited with her childhood sweetheart, married him, and had four sons—one of which is my grandfather.
The next story is from my father’s side. My father was adopted by his stepfather (meaning my grandmother was a single mom for a while, too), and I had been trying to track his biological father’s line for some time. A few years before, I had already discovered the big surprise—I (with naturally blonde hair and freckles) am of slave ancestry (which explains my love for African American heritage). I found Maria Johns, my third-great-grandmother, in an 1860 census that listed her as a single black woman living with her young mulatto daughter in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Maria's occupation was “washer woman,” and she was listed as owning property.
If your hair isn’t already blown back, here are a few more details. Maria was born in Virginia, so she was almost certainly born into slavery. Her child was mulatto, and she was never married, so I can only speculate about what master may have impregnated her and whether she was willing. I can only speculate about how she escaped or earned her freedom. But I do know that 1860 was pre–Emancipation Proclamation, and it was a time when even white women rarely owned property.
What this tells me about Maria Johns is that she was awesome.
I found a few clues and rumors that indicate that Maria was a Quaker, which I believe; Quakers lived in her area of Pennsylvania and were the only group that would be accepting enough to embrace a black woman in their community and let her own property.
After learning these stories about my ancestors, I felt much less alone. I felt connected to and inspired by these powerful women. I looked to what Ellen and Maria (and others I found) did in their times of trial, and I saw that those who turned to their family and their faith were the most successful. I knew I would be wise to do the same.
By meditating on these and other strong women in my life stream, I felt them draw nearer to me. They helped me and lifted me up. When my daughter was born, I felt them all surrounding me—my mother, my grandmother, Ellen, Maria, and many more I didn’t even know, but who knew me and knew my daughter.
This was the first time I had really applied what my ancestors' stories taught me.Since then, during each major struggle in my life, I consult my family history to see what I can learn. The results continue to amaze and humble me.
Felice Austin is (among other things) a freelance writer and president of Memoirs, Ink, a company who shares The Generations Project's ambtion to rediscover, share, and preserve meaningful family legacies.
Ah yes, the old farm, where every day was filled with chores, fresh air, and E-I-E-I-O. Or so I thought. A few years back, I traveled to Wheeler Historic Farm in Murray, Utah to get a “grip” on the “udderly” demanding job of my ancestors—a dairy farmer.
The first myth I busted when I walked onto the farm was that of “fresh air.” “Ripe” would be a more accurate descriptor. And just when you got used to the smell, the wind would change direction and bring a whole new array of scents. I learned from my father that this smell was commonly referred to as “the smell of money” on the old farm.
The second thing I noticed was the noise. My old See ‘n Say toy told me that farm animals made noises. What it didn’t warn me about was how startlingly loud and frightening these animal noises could be.
I took a tour of the old farmhouse, barn, and chicken coup, where I learned about the daily life of the farmer, early mornings, backbreaking labor, and the overall lack of hygiene.
Finally, my tour group was led into a warm brick shack with a cement floor. The floor had a trench about 8-inches deep that ran right through the middle of it.
Suddenly, two large sliding doors opened, letting in the natural light. Silhouetted in the light was a man in a grungy baseball cap. Behind him, being led by a leash, was a lumbering black and white spotted cow. Ripples shook through its plump body with each step that it took.
The man in the cap led the cow to a trough, plopped a tin bucket under the udders, positioned a short stool next to the beast, pointed at me and said, “you first.” I nervously sat onto the stool and was soon face-to-gut with what looked like a fat horse. I started to contemplate about my grandfather and wondered how many times he had taken in a similar view.
After some brief instruction, I reached under the cow and began to milk it. After a few tries I heard a long “ting” sound echo from the tin bucket. I immediately felt a sense of family pride and accomplishment. My pride was validated when the man in the ball cap told me that I was “a natural.” I then heard a gurgling sound coming from one of the cow’s four stomachs, shocking me out of my genealogical moment. The cow lifted its tail and I realized what the trench in the floor was for.
So, in the end, I got to connect with my family history in a physical and emotional way, and although I understand the appeal of life on the farm, I prefer the city life.
On an upcoming episode of The Generations Project, college professor, Andrea, retraces her ancestry back to her Irish homeland. While in Ireland, Andrea visits a period-style potato farm to experience, firsthand, what life would have been like for Andrea’s strong-willed great grandmother.
How well do you think you could perform the labors of your ancestors? Did you take over the family business or did you make your own way in the world? Leave us a comment and let us know.
The Generations Project is a television series about discovering your roots. It takes ordinary people on a hands-on journey to learn about their ancestors and in the process discover more about themselves.