Photographs and Stories Bring Family History to Life

November 18, 2013  - by 

Photographs and stories are the seeds from which our family histories grow. Family historians and genealogists love them because they add so much to the bare bones of dates and place names.

I began developing an interest in family history research when I was 17. I had little to start with, so for the next few years, I wrote some letters and made phone calls. Little by little, I began building my tree. With time, there were lots of names and dates, but I didn’t really know much about these people. Eventually, I lost interest and put everything aside.

When I was a sophomore in college, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Oregon. An aunt told me that the last remaining sister of my grandmother was living in Portland. Her name was Grace, and her father was Jacob Eli Vail.

I recognized the name of Jacob Vail. I knew he was my great-grandfather, that he served in the Civil War, and that he and his wife had 13 children. I had no idea what he looked like or anything more about his life. Now that I knew that Jacob’s daughter lived only 45 minutes away from where I would be working, I knew I needed to get in touch with her and see what more I could learn about him.

Grace invited me to spend a day at her home. I got a tape recorder and made the trip with a bit of excitement for what I might learn. I discovered that Grace was an 87-year-old widow who was singlehandedly running a 10-acre farm right in the middle of the suburbs of Oregon. Developers had been trying to get her land for decades, but Grace refused even to consider any offers. I knew that this was a woman I would enjoy talking with.

Grace and I spent hours talking about Jacob and his family. I discovered that he was the last of 15 children. He helped his father farm and built wagons in New York until the Civil War started. Jacob saw the war as his chance to get off the farm. I learned that he was not old enough to volunteer, so he took a piece of paper, wrote “18” on it, put it in his boots, and swore in all honesty that he was over 18. It worked, and Jacob Vail joined the 50th Regiment of the New York Engineers.

Grace shared some fascinating stories about Jacob’s war adventures. With each new story she told me, I felt a bond of appreciation growing for my great-grandfather whom I had never known. She showed me several of his personal artifacts that she owned, including his prayer book that he carried with him throughout the war.

When the war was over, Jacob moved to the plains of southern Minnesota. He started working as a farmhand for a man named William Sowles. William’s daughter Ella and her two sons lived at home with her parents. Apparently, Ella’s husband had murdered someone and was in prison, so she moved back home to have help raising the boys.

Jacob eventually bought a farm of his own and took Ella and her sons under his care. He trapped animals along the river to make more money and started a wagon making business, which did well. When Jacob was 66, he and Ella moved to North Dakota to homestead a new farm. While digging a well, their 19-year-old son Clarence caught pneumonia and died. Jacob was so heartbroken by this loss that he died a week later. Both were buried on the farm in a grove of trees.

The highlight of my visit with Grace was when she took me to a guest room and showed me two entire walls covered from ceiling to floor with old family photographs of Jacob and Ella and their family. Before I left Grace’s house, she gave me a promise that she would get copies of all of the old photographs and send them to me. She also gave me Jacob’s old prayer book that he carried with him through the Civil War. She felt that since I showed such an interest in Jacob’s personal life, I deserved to have it.

I went to Grace’s house knowing almost nothing about Jacob Vail. I left that afternoon with a deep love for a man whose life story I now had and could pass on to my children. I continued to research Jacob’s life and learned many more wonderful things about his life. I developed such a love for this man that I named my first born son after him. Jacob’s portrait hangs prominently on our front room wall where my children see him every day.

Photographs and the stories are what create the bonds that tie generations together. We cannot love someone we do not know. Stories of our ancestors coupled with photographs of these people are what help us know our ancestors. Photographs of Jacob Vail and his family are now posted on FamilySearch’s Family Tree. Stories of Jacob’s and Ella’s life are currently being put to writing and will be posted along with new photographs that have been recently discovered. All of the Vail descendants will be able to enjoy these pictures and stories just by going on to Getting to know one’s ancestors has never been easier.




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  1. I sarted my family history as a school project. My freshman year of high school we were studying about the American Revolution, our techer started a class project to discover where our families lived and what they were doing in this time period.Those early days of research were harder than research is today. The LDS church records had to be ordered on micro film from Utah which took about two weeks, we had only one film reader at our school and that presented another challange. To make this long story shorter, I have never looked back sense that time in 1955.

    Thank you, it has been a wonderful adventure,

    Dale Key
    yDNA, I1-M253 member

  2. This is a very motivating , inspiring story. Thanks for sharing. We can do many things we didn’t think we could if we are motivated.

  3. Great story Steve! This blog helps keep me in touch with my old nFS team. You guys are doing awesome. So many of these features were just in the planning stage when I was there; wonderful to see them come to life now.

  4. Hi Steve, I think we’ve corresponded once before; Jacob Eli is my great-grandfather also. I remember visiting Aunt Grace out on the farm when I was little.