About 15 years ago, I noticed an old photograph that had seen better days on my grand-aunt's wall. The picture featured a dark-skinned woman who wore a white cap, collar, cuffs and a very long apron.
I asked my aunt who the woman was and learned she was my great-great-grandmother, Flora Watson Scott. The baby she held in the photograph was a cousin I had met at a family gathering the day before. The toddler who stood at her right is my mother's big sister.
I've looked at my copy of that photo many times since that spring day in 1993. In a way, it's been as valuable to me as reading how her family composition changed over the Census years or the many pieces of information found on her death certificate.
Genealogists sometimes get so focused on finding what is written about an ancestor, they forget that family history also is recorded in images. We forget that a photograph tells us more than what a person looked like, even when it has no documentation.
The style of clothing ancestors wear in a picture can tell us when they lived, their occupations or their hobbies. Fraternal or civic group insignia can shed light on their causes or lead us to biographical sketches that have new details. Old pictures sometimes include family members or close friends we had not known about. Papers in the background that are read with a magnifying glass can yield surprising tidbits.
For years I regretted the photo did not provide a sharper view of my great-great-grandmother's face. A shadow prevented me from looking into her eyes. But over the years, I've learned about the things I could see, but did not understand.
The clothes my great-great-grandmother wore in the picture was the uniform for midwives trained at the Penn School, founded on St. Helena Island during the Civil War to help freed slaves make the transition to self-sufficiency. The cottage seen behind her supports a family story that the photograph was taken at Penn.
Over the years, the picture has been a starting point for conversations about the way she delivered babies; how she added rooms to her house for sick relatives to live in; her measured way of speaking; and, by contrast, her pipe smoking.
I'd like to be familiar with every wrinkle in her face. But that picture has led to my knowing so much. Honestly, her face seems to get clearer all the time.
The following Web sites are helpful in conducting genealogical research. The lists of resources available at each site are partial.
-- state.sc.us/scdah/ -- South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Historical state and county records and some historical manuscripts.
-- schistory.org -- South Carolina Historical Society Library. Colonial records, biographies, genealogies and personal manuscripts.
-- ccpl.org -- Charleston County Library. Local government records and other documents in the South Carolina Room.
-- familysearch.org -- Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A database of names, dates and residences from many sources and a listing of public records on film and available for rent through the church's family history center on Sam Rittenberg.
-- ancestry.com -- a subscription service for historical records, vital records, military records, probate and other court records and newspapers.
-- footnote.com-- original documents, city directories, Confederate amnesty papers and Southern Claims Commission files.
-- genealogybank.com-- a subscription service for historical newspapers, historical documents, obituaries and social security death index.
-- worldvitalrecords.com -- a subscription service for smalltown newspapers, international marriage records, burial records, world gazetteers and Everton's Online Library.
-- usgenweb.com -- county and states information that is digitized by volunteers.
-- genealogy.rootsweb.com -- digitized information that is of value to genealogists.
-- cyndislist.com -- inks to genealogical Web sites.
-- linkpendium.com -- links to genealogical Web sites.
-- bcgcertification.org/associates/ -- Board for Certification of Genealogists, an independent certifying authority, not a membership organization.
-- apgen.org/directory -- Association of Professional Genealogists, an independent organization that supports professional genealogists and seeks to upgrade the profession and protect the interest of those hiring professional genealogists.
-- icapgen.org/Programs/aglist.htm -- International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists tests individuals' competence in genealogical research and is administered by a board of commissioners.