Documenting History


by Terry Hogan


One of the many problems of genealogy and trying to be a genealogist is that history gets in the way.  Historical tangents, like briars, ensnarl you. You find yourself researching an interesting historic event that might add color to your family history.  Or worse yet, it just might be an interesting event that has no justifiable, plausible connection to your family research.  This can be called a temporary distraction, a tangent, or just poor self discipline, depending upon who is making the characterization (you or your spouse).  But it can be fun.


One of my more recent side investigations has been old stock certificates.  I bought my first two at a rare book sale in Indianapolis.  One of them was a CB&Q stock certificate issued in the mid-1800s.  It was still bearing the Civil War tax stamp that was imposed by the North to raise money for the war.  Like all taxes, it didn’t end with the war.


Stock certificates are collected for various reasons, I guess.  Some folks collect them as items of art.  Some of the printing on the older stocks is fantastic.  Some show old wood burning or coal burning locomotives steaming across the plain, with a river in the background showing a steamboat. There may be a cow or two grazing in the scene as well.


Others, like me, tend to collect stock because of a family or geographical or local history connection.  For example the CB&Q stock was issued over a number of years, in different denominations, different colors, and may have a variety of revenue tax stamps applied to them.  If you are lucky, you might also find a famous signature on them, such as Forbes, who was President of the CB&Q.   If bitten by the bug, you can even expand the collection to include early stock of railroads that the CB&Q “consumed” during the rapid 1800’s expansion period. An example would be the old Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, or the relatively short-lived Galesburg and Rio Railroad that was only around for a few years before it got consumed. The latter was a name that I had not heard of until I saw unissued 1860’s stock for sale on EBay.  A quick internet search confirmed it was real.


If you are prudent, patient and diligent, you can buy these beautiful and old historic documents for just a few dollars.  Or if you are independently wealthy and impatient you can buy them from a stock certificate retailer and pay about 10 times the price you would pay with more patience and work at internet auction sites. 


Of course, once you start, it is hard to contain yourself.  You start seeing really old railroad stock certificates for other railroads that may have been involved in the Civil War or have some other inherent attraction to you.  Collecting can be a difficult thing to control. Once we were “hunters and gathers” and the desire still lies dormant, ready to spring forward and lead you to the “purchase now” button.


But don’t forget to look around home and to talk with your relatives.  Old family photos and old family keepsakes are not likely to be found on the internet. They are more likely to be found with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Now they may not be very willing to give away or to sell these old family relics, but they may be willing to let you photograph them.  And document the stories about them – When? Where? Why? How? What kind of?  Ask now or regret latter. 


Also remember that some photos may not have to be old to be special and worth keeping with your family history.  For example, there is a photo that my mother took of my father and I about ten years ago.  We were standing on a bluff, looking over a lake in northern Minnesota. The photo is important to me.  Our backs were to the camera. It was as if we were looking to the future. It was our last trip to Minnesota together.  Minnesota was an important part of his life.  Such items photos can provide insight for great grandchildren who never had the change to know him.


Documentation can, of course go beyond paper.  If you have an ancestor who was a bank president or owned a company, then documentation could include the collecting of “stuff” related to that company.  For example, I collect miscellaneous items related to Lucky Boy Bakery and the People Trust and Bank Company, both of which used to occupy Galesburg’s once busy downtown.  Neither exists now.


The advantage of collecting paper documents such as old stock certificates is that they are easily incorporated in the family history.  But with digital cameras, a good close-up photo of an item, such as an old marketing item for a company, can easily be dropped into the family history, as well.


Now at the risk of sounding like an old guy, I must comment on the new risk to genealogists.  That is the fast evolution of information technology.  Despite all the above comments about digital photos and the electronic ease of writing family histories, given electronic software and lightning quick computers, be cautious. Remember the family photos on Beta video tapes?  They weren’t a good choice for long term storage.  The same is true now of VHS tapes; the old large floppies and now the small floppies.  How long are CDs and DVDs going to be around?


But paper has been around for a long time.  At some point, drawn the line; print it out; and make copies. New data may always come, but don’t trust existing technology to be the long term storage of your thousands of hours of research.


Paper documents have stood the test of time.