With a wrought-iron fence

My grandmother, Erma (Ehrstine) Hodson, left and grandfather with an unidentified woman.

My grandmother, Erma (Ehrstine) Hodson, left and grandfather with an unidentified woman.

Neither one is identified.

Neither one is identified, but I’m guessing they’re farmwives, probably around Brookville, Ohio.

We can assume is that the snapshots were taken on the same day, thanks to the fence and leafless tree – details that are more apparent in the wider, uncropped versions of the snapshots. Even enlarged and darkened, the images are more suggestive than definitive.

Naming patterns as clues to parentage

Becoming aware of the naming patterns used in particular cultures or regions can be a huge help in focusing your search for the parents in the previous generation. For instance, in some traditions, the first son was customarily named after his paternal grandfather, as happens in my Ehrstine generations of Peter/John/Peter/John. Sometimes it also means the first daughter is named after her maternal grandmother. A second son might then be named after his maternal grandfather, while a second daughter is named after her paternal grandmother. These aren’t the only customary patterns, but once you know the key, you can apply it in searching a particular community (or in our times, database) for likely ancestral links. In other words, a household wasn’t likely to show up with all new first names, not until the customs started fading out. (In the Quaker Carolina families, you can see the first names of the Pennsylvanians continuing apart from those of the Nantucket Friends before melding several generations later. And shortly after that, novelty boys’ names like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley – definitely not Quaker but rival Protestant leaders – start appearing, along with more “poetic” novelty names for the girls.)

As I discuss in another chapter, this has presented a challenge to my attempts to place Orphan George’s parentage. From what I see, he and his wife didn’t follow tradition. Who, then, were they honoring?


Where have naming customs helped your research? Have they ever led you astray? Any you care to relate? What advice would you offer?

Take a magnifying glass to handwriting

You don’t have to be a handwriting expert to draw insights on family members. A single mailed letter from each of my Hodson great-grandparents offers me enough information to challenge the conventional family view of their personalities. (The letters and my analysis are posted elsewhere on this site.)

How literate were they? What were their speech patterns? What did they observe around them?

You can go to the handwriting books and experts, but it’s easy to see the energy in big, even wild script, versus the control in tiny penmanship. Do the lines remain horizontal, or do they veer upward (positive energy, we’re told) or downward (depressive)?

Oh, how I wish I had more! How I lament the fact that my great-aunt Vera lost her correspondence from my great-great-grandparents only a few years before I undertook this research.


Has handwriting – or even letter content – ever told you something about your ancestors? Have you ever had access to personal diaries and journals? Or, better yet, love letters?

Camp Sherman

October 14, 1971. Looks like a visit from Anna.

October 14, 1917. Looks like a visit from Anna.

Reflecting a shift from Quaker faith to a more mainstream denomination, Leroy Hodson was the first of my Hodson family to enlist in military service since its arrival in America, as far as I can tell. His mother, however, who lost her only Bahill uncle in the Civil War, may have held other opinions. I imagine the decision led to family tensions.

Examining old photos

Photography can be its own genealogical specialty. Some workshops I’ve seen offered emphasize clothing styles as a way to interpret the family’s social status or regional placement or even to date the particular photograph.

I did something similar in examining a 1916 Ehrstine family reunion group shot presented on this blog, where members who were continuing the Plain dress of the faith posed at the edge of the group. Those of the more progressive styles of clothing and religion tended to cluster toward the center.

The kinds of photos themselves can help. Tintypes, for instance were popular in the 1860s and 1870s but lingered to the beginning of the 20th century. Commercial studio photography, presumably using large-format glass-plate negatives, thrived in the last decades of the 19th century. And then there are the snapshots, which became readily available once George Eastman launched his Brownie camera in 1900. (Once we’ve digitalized the images, though, we lose that hands-on awareness of the object itself — we’re often left to guess.)

With the commercial studio portraits, I find the folders useful in naming the photographer and location. Was the subject living in the same town? Or did the family travel to the city for something more prestigious? A local historian might have a lot to say about a particular photographer or the time span his studio was open. In trying to sort out one collection, I found the kind of chair used in the shot — to keep the subject still as much as to add an artistic touch — could provide a tentative connection for individuals.

In snapshots, I find the poses themselves can relate emotional content. Who’s looking at whom, how far apart are they standing or sitting, what’s the body language?


You get the idea. Have you done anything with family photos? Any insights you’d like to share? Have you ever attended one of these workshops? And what did you learn?

Courtship takes a turn

We have no clue who they were, but they obviously knew each other. We're left what other secrets they were keeping.

We have no clue who they were, but they obviously knew each other. We’re left what other secrets they were keeping.

Earlier family photos of courtship are more subdued. I’ll need to go back to see if there was any touching. Sometimes the young couple was accompanied by a horse, too – including our illustrious Prince. Maybe the introduction of the automobile changed everything.