The Archive Lady: Trains, Planes and Automobiles – Researching Your Ancestor’s Transportation

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her strategy for researching how our ancestors traveled including trains, planes, and automobiles!

Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her strategy for researching how our ancestors traveled including trains, planes, and automobiles!

Michael from Nevada asks: “My ancestors seemed to have traveled a lot. As I have traced their travels through records, it got me to thinking about documenting how they traveled. What advice can you give me about researching my ancestor’s transportation?”

Michael asks an interesting and fun question that is something we should all be thinking about if we have ancestors that traveled a little or a lot.

As genealogists, we should be documenting every aspect of our ancestor’s lives. It’s just not enough to only document their birth, marriage and death. Researching and documenting the events and aspects of our ancestor’s lives that come between those vital events is what tells our ancestor’s life story.

Wilson Averitt and Pearl Adams, ca. 1900, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Wilson Averitt and Pearl Adams, ca. 1900, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Have you ever thought about documenting your ancestor’s transportation? From the horse driven buckboard to the family station wagon, from the train to the airplane, our ancestors had many avenues of transportation and documenting this part of their lives can add to their life story.

My Grandfather, Cody Lee LeMaster (1909-1972) never learned to drive. He always made sure the family lived near a bus station, bus stop, near a streetcar or lived close enough to everything so he could just walk. His philosophy when it came to family members wanting him to come visit was “If they want me to visit them, they can come get me and bring me back home.” Knowing my Grandfather’s thoughts and actions when it came to transportation has helped me understand why they lived where they lived.

L & N Railroad in Houston County, Tennessee ca. 1950s, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
L & N Railroad in Houston County, Tennessee ca. 1950s, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Researching all the different types of transportation for my ancestors has been fun. I am fortunate in that I have photographs dating back to the 1940’s of my family members with their vehicles. Talking to family members about the different kinds and makes of those automobiles, especially those that belonged to the person I am talking to has been interesting. Whether your ancestors lived in the big city or on a rural farm, the transportation they used was important to their daily lives.

Danville Ferry, Houston County, Tennessee, ca. 1930s, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Danville Ferry, Houston County, Tennessee, ca. 1930s, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

First and foremost, I would encourage Michael to look at any family photos he has with new eyes. Instead of looking at the people in the photos, look and see if there are any transportation vehicles in the photos. This is a great way to document your ancestor’s mode of transportation, with photographs. Some of us have photos of our ancestors sitting in their horse and buggy, those horses may even have names. Or maybe you have a photo of your Mom standing next to her very first car. These photos could tell the story of what types of transportation they used and owned.

Another avenue to locating information about your ancestor’s transportation is old letters, diaries and scrapbooks. These resources can be invaluable for a lot of our ancestor’s information, but they can specifically tell us what types of transportation our ancestors used and at what times in their lives they use it. These records resources could also give you a sense of changing times. For instance, maybe your ancestor documented in an old letter when they stopped using a horse and buggy and bought their first motorized car. Or when they bought that train ticket to visit Aunt Bessie in Oregon. If you have old letters, diaries, and scrapbooks, go back and scour them for any details about the use of transportation and how it affected your ancestor’s lives.

Clara Virginia Lockridge and Bob Finley (unnamed children), ca. 1900, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Clara Virginia Lockridge and Bob Finley (unnamed children), ca. 1900, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Whether you have ancestors that traveled a lot like Michael or your ancestors stayed in the same area all their lives, they could still have used various means of transportation to move from one place to another.

If you are not already researching your ancestor’s transportation, consider adding it to your genealogy research to-do list. You just might be surprised by what you find!

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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