Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Our oldest photographs and 'The Last Muster'

I thought that photographs from the Civil War era were old. That is, until I saw Maureen Taylor’s latest book, “The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation.”

The Revolutionary War? We didn’t have photography back then, did we?

Well, no. Aside from a few experiments in earlier years, photography as we know it started about 1839 and quickly spread around the western world. Itinerant photographers appeared in the major transportation centers of North Carolina, such as Fayetteville and Raleigh, in the 1840s. A father-and-daughter team opened up a gallery in Greensboro in 1851. And in those years, people who were born in the mid- to late 1700s were still alive.

People who lived through and remembered the American Revolution.
People who had their pictures taken.

Who better than Taylor, nationally known as “The Photo Detective,” (@PhotoDetective) to seek out those early pictures of older Americans? For her book, she verified the subjects and painstakingly documented their lives.

The photographs include several Quakers, which give us a connection to the religious group who settled Bush Hill (now Archdale). Unfortunately the book does not include an index of place names, but connections to North Carolina include Waxhaw, an unnamed Moravian community and Dolley Madison, who was born in Greensboro.

Most of Taylor’s subjects, however, lived in New England. So I set off on a quest to find one of these early photographs of someone from our region. I figured that the Friends Historical Collection at Guilford College, one of my favorite repositories of local history, would be a great starting place.
I found several photographs of early settlers around the Randolph-Guilford county line, such as William B. Hockett (1799-1880, Centre Friends area) and Allen U. Tomlinson (1802-1879, Archdale), but they were too “young.” Finally, I came across a file about Nathan Hunt. I’d seen a large portrait of Hunt many times in the library, but I didn’t know much about him.

Hunt, who was a young man during the Revolutionary War, was a Quaker minister who lived next to Springfield Meeting. Even though some of his journals were accidentally burned, there’s a wealth of documentation and stories about his life. Not only was he an interesting man who traveled extensively and witnessed a lot of history in his 95 years, he was also my kinsman: my first cousin, seven times removed.

Guilford had another painting of Hunt in storage and several sketches. I also found what looked like a very old, deteriorated photograph in the file folder.

It was heavy, like glass, but it didn’t look like glass. Like an ambrotype, the faded image could be seen better when placed on black paper, but the image was positive and ambrotypes are negative. And it wasn’t thin enough or the image sharp enough to be a daguerrotype.

I felt pretty silly when, weeks later, I found out the picture was actually an early 20th-century printing plate, probably used for a newspaper article. Here I was, trying to figure out which type of old photograph it was — no wonder it didn’t meet up with the historical descriptions!

Images obtained courtesy of the Friends Historical Collection, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C.
No use or distribution without permission.
I suspect that the large, intriguing portrait of Hunt from the 1930s was painted from a daguerrotype, but I couldn’t find any evidence. Perhaps if I searched for a long, long time, as I do in my own family genealogy quests, I could find out. But I’m on deadline and the paper must go out.

That doesn’t mean I came home empty-handed. As modest as Quakers were — they didn’t even write names on their tombstones until the 19th-century — I am amazed that we have so many likenesses of Nathan Hunt, who saw the American Revolution first hand. His life is wonderfully documented, including letters and part of a journal that still exist. A summary of Hunt’s life is found here.

But the hunt for that one daguerrotype, without success, shows me just how hard Maureen Taylor must have worked to pursue 70 of these photos and the stories behind them for her book. She found additional images of people who lived through our “unillustrated war,” but finding documentation about each person was an even greater challenge than finding the photos.

“The vast majority of these individuals were not wealthy, could not write, and left no written record of their life,” Taylor wrote in her introduction.

I like the variety of the people she did find — different nationalities, races and economic groups. A few of her subjects lived to be more than 100 years old. The colorful stories of their involvement in the Revolutionary War even include a few women.

And it’s the stories that give life to the faces.

“The Last Muster” is available through www.kentstateuniversitypress.com and amazon.com. Taylor’s previous book, “Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs,” is on display at the Heritage Research Center at High Point Library.

Update: I received a copy of the Last Muster to review for the Archdale-Trinity News. I was under no obligation about the content of the review, nor to include it on my blog.


Jayne said...

I had that "wow" feeling when I read about Brian May's new book about stereoscopic images. Brian May: Queen Guitarist, astrophysicist and stereoscopic image expert. Seriously, I am in awe of the guy!
The book is called "A Village Lost and Found."

The Photo Detective said...

Thank you!! I'm glad you blogged about my book.

Elizabeth said...

Jayne: That is pretty awesome! Interesting guy.

Maureen: I enjoyed the book and know you put a lot of work into it. I sent the tearsheet to KSU press.