14 September 2021

Add Context to Your Family Tree With Historic Photos

You might say my family tree is all business and no flavor. The media in my tree are vital records, military records, censuses, and ship manifests. I have a few images of places where my ancestors lived and worked, but not nearly enough.

You may recall that I'm building an extensive family tree for my son's girlfriend, V. Her family has been in one part of Pennsylvania for centuries.

I decided to browse the Historic American Buildings digital collection from the Library of Congress. I was focusing on V's part of Pennsylvania. As I browsed the collection online, I saw some buildings I know from my years of living there.

Then I noticed the Friends Meeting House and Cemetery that played a huge role in her family history. I downloaded a few images from the website for free. The plan is to use these images in the large family trees and book I plan to create for her.

Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.
Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.

When I visit my ancestral hometowns in Italy, it's very moving for me to visit my ancestors' churches. It was also moving for me to visit the railyard in Hornell, New York, where my great grandfather worked.

Why not add some historic photos of places from your ancestors' lives to your family tree? Start by going to the collection on the Library of Congress website.

Select a state or county from the list on the page, then narrow down your search. When you find a subject you want, view the images and download your favorites. I recommend downloading the jpeg format in the largest size available. It's still a relatively small file size.

I found old photos taken inside a steel plant where my grandfather worked in Youngstown, Ohio. One photo shows eight smokestacks that seem to match an old photo from my aunt's collection. I found photos of a silk mill where my great grandmother's relatives worked in Western New York State.

It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.
It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.

If your family lived in New York City, also try the New York Public Library's digital collection of photos.


Even better for my ancestors are the 1940 property tax photos of addresses in the Bronx. I've added photos of each of my parent's childhood apartment buildings to my family tree.

Even better for my ancestors are the 1940 property tax photos of addresses in the Bronx. I've added photos of each of my parent's apartment buildings to my family tree.

Don't forget to search Google for an ancestor's place of work or street address. First search for the place, then click Images to show only pictures in your results. Don't forget to also view the address on today's Google Maps. Is the building still there? How much has it changed?

I searched for a San Francisco address where my husband's relative was a private cook in 1917. I found a one-of-a-kind house on an upper-class street. My search showed me that Zillow.com values the house at almost $10 million. Seeing the house helps put this relative more firmly in context.

You can add context to your family's story. Search for and add old images of the places they lived, worked, and worshiped.

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07 September 2021

3 Little Fixes for Your Family Tree

In 2019 the worst possible scenario happened to my family tree. A routine synchronization with Ancestry.com corrupted my Family Tree Maker file. For whatever reason, the file became damaged at a particular person.

My only option was not a great one. I had to download my existing tree from Ancestry to FTM as a new file. Mind you, I do all my work in FTM, and Ancestry handles a few things differently than FTM.

This new tree wasn't bad, but:

  • All my carefully crafted source citations "blew up"
  • My thousands of media files were no longer assigned to categories.

Those citations and media categories were important to me!

Ever since then, I've been fixing my citations and adding back those media categories.

I'll bet you have a handful of things you'd like to fix. Here are 3 different fixes that will strengthen your family tree.

1. Find and Replace

My family tree is about 95% 19th century Italians. When I record a person's occupation from an old Italian vital record, I enter it in Italian. For example, falegname. I have an Excel spreadsheet with 910 Italian occupation words and their translations. I've memorized some (falegname = carpenter), but I have to look up many others.

I decided it'd be better to include the word in both languages in my family tree file. To do this, I used Family Tree Maker's Find and Replace function. I searched my tree for a word like falegname and replaced it with this: falegname (carpenter).

If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.
If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.

Once in a while I'll see a typo as I begin typing something and the program offers suggestions. I saw one typo where a word (I couldn't remember which word) had a double letter a instead of a single letter a. I used Find and Replace to search for "aa"—skipping over a couple of men named Aaron until I found the word I wanted. Then I replaced that double a with a single a.

Do you have any inconsistencies in your tree notes that you'd like to fix up?

2. Make Your Media Easier to Find

FTM lets you assign a category to each media item in your family tree. These categories were all erased when I downloaded my tree from Ancestry. I'd been fixing them as I found them, but it's been a long time, and they weren't done.

Then I found the shortcut. You select multiple images in FTM's media library, right-click and choose "Categorize Media." Then you choose the right category from your list and you're done.

Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.
Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.

Did you know you can create custom categories? In the window where you select a category, you can click the Add button and create a custom category. My family tree has a handful of documents from the Japanese "internment" camps of World War II. I never knew how to categorize these, so I created a new category called Internment.

You can also delete standard categories that you don't want to use.

3. Put Your Places on the Map

I've spent a lot of time fixing the place names in my family tree. Long ago I saw how FTM creates a hierarchy with every address or place in your tree. There's a folder, if you will, for each country. You can expand each one to see:

  • folders for states or regions
  • then counties or provinces
  • then towns, and
  • each place you've entered.

If the program can't find a place on the map, it will have a question mark on it. This means something is wrong and needs your attention. I have three question marks at the top level of my list, but they're on purpose. I also have a couple of towns that FTM's mapping system does not recognize. Those street names are loose in a province folder, instead of being in their own town folder.

Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.
Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.

I recently updated a list of very old street names from my grandfather's hometown in Italy. Those old names don't exist anymore. Luckily, I have a reference book that helped me translate those old names into streets I can find on today's map. I keep a list handy that tells me what to enter in FTM when I see one of the ancient names on a document. Now I can find these places on my next visit.

Which of these family tree fixes resonates the most with you? I do have a fourth fix I need to do, but there is no shortcut. Downloading my tree from Ancestry wrecked my source citations by separating them. If I had one source for a census form that and shared it with six different people, I now have six separate citations. That's not how I want it to be.

That particular crisis led me to change and improve how I make source citations. Because it's an overwhelming task, at first I fixed only my direct ancestors. I fix others as I find them. Did I mention my family tree has more than 30,000 people and almost 15,000 vital records? It's a big task.

For more clean-up tasks for your family tree, see "Your All-in-One Family Tree Clean-up List."

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.