Who are the stalwart individuals working with little fanfare to post period portraits, photographs of grave sites and other relevant information to Find-A-Grave pages? One of them, Bill Jones, has added a thousand photos over the last eight years—and he shows no signs of stopping. Bill’s contributions have brought great joy to family members glimpsing the face of an ancestor for the first time, and many others connecting to the past. An avid image collector and retired Air Force master sergeant, Bill shares his experience and knowledge in this interview, and, in doing so, puts a face on the legion of individuals working behind the scenes to keep Find-A-Grave vibrant and relevant.
Q: When and how did you become interested in history and the Civil War?
I’ve always been interested in history and I’m sure growing up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs developed that curiosity with frequent school field trips downtown to Smithsonian museums. I eventually ended up obtaining an undergraduate and graduate degree in history. As for the Civil War, my late mother’s family is from Pamplin, Va., (close to Appomattox) and childhood trips “down the country” often included visits to Appomattox National Park, and that led to family trips to places like Gettysburg.
Q: What inspired you to start collecting?
I’ve been collecting militaria since I was a kid. I was fortunate to grow up in the 1960s when there were still so many World War II veterans alive and willing to share war stories and souvenirs with young boys; that was probably the spark or impetus. However, it was much later and in college that I developed an interest in military-themed antiquarian photography.
Q: What do you collect?
I have a wandering attention span that leads my collecting tastes in many directions. With older parents I was often exposed to antiques in family settings, so it seemed natural to appreciate and collect “old stuff.” Living overseas, accompanied with travel, certainly compounded my areas of interest. Where photography is concerned, I collect images that focus on military and political history, social and labor history, plus immigration history. Despite being a Military Images subscriber, I am not a Civil War purist. In fact, I often go to Civil War shows primarily to find cartes de visite of European soldiers. Still, I have an acute interest in Danish-American Civil War veterans and compatriot studio photographers.
Q: How did you become involved with Find-A-Grave?
Some time ago, I stumbled onto Find-a-Grave while researching my own images. Using the site frequently, I recognized my own images should ideally be shared with others for wider appreciation. In the beginning it started out with a few dozen scanned uploads, and over eight years later I count nearly a thousand images uploaded, most of which are 19th century images. The main object of Find-a-Grave is to geo-locate graves and headstones in conjunction with archival information on Ancestry.com. To that end, I additionally volunteer to visit and photograph headstones at smaller cemeteries near me.
Q: How do you find images to post and how do you handle permissions?
By and large, I find images in the marketplace—everywhere from flea markets, to antique and paper shows, to traditional and online auctions. Since I’m dealing in mostly 19th century images there are few consensual or intellectual property issues at hand, still I try to be assiduous in citing marked photo studios in my descriptions to better inform the historical record.
Q: What kind of feedback do you receive on your Find-A-Grave postings?
Find-a-Grave allows for messaging, and I occasionally get a query from family descendants asking where I found images of their ancestor or if they can use my scans for their own genealogical pursuits. This often leads me to try to put the images back in the hands of families. There is a degree of romanticism in seeing a carte de visite that was once in the hands of a forebear returned to their descendant over 170 years later. My uploaded images also leads authors and researchers to contact me to gain permission to use my scans for their pending publications and that is very satisfying as well.
Q: Favorite story related to a post?
Several stand out, but all those where families thank me for the opportunity to finally see what their ancestors looked like are rewarding, and occasionally this is the case of a 4x-great-father or -mother. One story in particular involved a descendant who was astonished at how much her son looked like his 4x great-grandfather or great-grandmother, lighting the path of his genetic roots. Sometimes I find I have the only existing photo of a noteworthy person and adding it to our corpus of public knowledge is very satisfying.
Q: What have you learned from your Find-A-Grave experience? Tips or other advice to share?
People participate in Find-a-Grave for different reasons, mostly in the spirit of fun, and there is a certain synergy when multiple persons participate in populating missing information, making the website an ever richer resource for Civil War research. Sometimes that missing information comes from fuller names, birth dates and dates of marriage annotated on the backs of photos—showing how easily anyone can add editorial depth to listed entries.
Q: Looking to the future of Find-A-Grave, what improvements would you suggest to make it an even more valuable resource?
Improved moderation and arbitration on the part of Find-a-Grave could go a long way in resolving some of the tensions that exist in the contributor community between quantity versus quality in postings. For example, sometimes-repetitious images of the headstone can bar actual portrait photos of the decedent. Related, improved criteria on what constitutes a “famous” person could unlock many grave postings to better images and photographs of decedents. For Civil War researchers, especially, a name search option to search for only veterans could easily speed-up our more focused searches. Finally, the messaging system could use a way to reference memorial ID numbers in correspondence.
Q: Do you have ancestors who participated in the Civil War?
My mother’s family in Virginia had members who served, and my father’s family in West Virginia had members who served. I have a photo of my maternal great-grandfather wearing his Daughters of the Confederacy veteran’s badge; he was present at the Appomattox surrender.
Q: Anything else our audience should know about you?
I retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant with 32-years total service.
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