Using Historical Markers in Your Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

We have all experienced the frustration of wondering what information was included on the roadside historical marker that we just sped past either because there was no place to pull off the road or no opportunity to exit the stream of traffic even if a place might be available. I used to keep a copy of A Guidebook to Virginia’s Historical Markers (3rd ed., University of Virginia Press, 2007) in the car, but invariably I was driving somewhere by myself and not only could I not stop to read the marker itself, I was equally unable to read while driving!

Historical markers, however, can prove helpful in adding background details to your ancestor’s life by documenting the location of an historic structure, event, or the life of an individual who made significant contributions to his or her community, state or the nation. As such, they are a little-used source of information for genealogical researchers who want to place an ancestor within a specific historical and/or geographical setting.

Virginia’s historical marker program was one of the first such programs in the nation. Begun in 1927, by 1934 the program had placed almost 1,200 markers.  These markers provide information about “facts, persons, events and places prominently identified with the history of the nation, state, or region.” To qualify for inclusion, the event must have occurred at least fifty years ago and the place or person must have reached significance at least fifty years ago as well. Wondering if Virginia was typical of other states across the country, I Googled “state historical markers” and received over 5,000,000 responses. (Clearly I needed to narrow the search terms!). From just the first three screens of results, however, I was able to learn that many web sites exist for state historical markers, including sites for the states of Texas, Virginia, Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada, Louisiana, Washington, New York.

The agency responsible for a historical marker program may differ from state to state. In Virginia, for example, the program began with the Conservation and Economic Development Commission, moved to the Department of Highways, then to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) for research and approval, and later to the Virginia Landmarks Commission, now known as the Department of Historic Resources. Installation responsibility remains with the Highway Department. Similarly, online access to marker content appears on different agency web sites.

In Washington State, marker content information is found on the Washington Department of Transportation web site. In Louisiana such information is part of the Encyclopedia Louisiana web site. I looked at the entry for Sgt. Abe Allen (1896-1941), the only soldier from Louisiana to serve in General John J. Pershing’s “one hundred heroes,” Company B, 28th Infantry, during World War I. Allen received the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. The entry also provides the marker’s??location (town, district and parish). By clicking on Sgt. Allen’s name, I was taken to a map of Vernon Parish in which the marker appears. Other links led me to further information about the town (Leesville) and more about Vernon Parish. If Sgt. Allen were a member of your family several avenues for further research are suggested by the contents of this marker. Wanting to know more about Pershing’s heroes, I Googled Sgt. Abe Allen. I discovered the web site of the Historic Marker Society of America. The entry for Sgt. Abe Allen on that web site provided not only an image of the marker itself, but also a map indicating the location of the marker at the gates of the Ferguson-Dennis Cemetery gates in Leesville.

In Texas, the Texas Historic Sites Atlas includes information about 300,000 records from the Official Texas Historical Markers and the National Register of Historic Places in Texas. While a search in the atlas can be narrowed to include just historic markers, I entered a broad keyword search for “Barkley” and received six records that included three historical markers for two homes and a ranch, a cemetery at a prison farm, and two National Register listings for homes. I chose the entry for the historical marker at the Armstrong Ranch in Sarita, Kenedy County. The marker’s text told me about “noted” Texas Ranger, John Barkley Armstrong, who in 1878 married Mary Helena “Mollie” Durst, the daughter of the ranch’s owner. “Armstrong had served with Captain Leander McNelly and played a major role in bringing law and order to South Texas. He participated in the arrest of King Fisher and gained national fame for his capture of the notorious Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin.” I also looked at the marker contents for the H. P. Barkley home at 709 East Dallas, in Ennis, Ellis County, Texas. The marker indicated that “local contractor B. F. Sargeant constructed this residence in 1892 for H.P. Barkley, a conductor and yardmaster for the Houston and Central Texas Railroad. Built in the Victorian style, it features elaborate gingerbread detailing. T.H. Floyd, a local businessman, purchased the house in 1905 and resided here until 1949. Later used as a church parsonage, the Barkley home now serves as a reminder of Ennis’ early days as a growing railroad town.” (Caveat: When I selected the “print this page” option, my browser ceased functioning and I had to reopen the site and search again to return to the marker contents page. If you have similar problems, you will need to cut and paste information from the site into your own document.)

An interesting variation in online access to historic marker information is a New York State site in which individuals have posted 1,044 photographs of historic markers. By selecting a marker from a series of thumbnail images, I was able to retrieve an enlarged image of the marker. A map is available that plots the locations of markers whose photographs are included at the site. Unfortunately, I could find no search capability.

In addition to online access, many books have been published about state historical markers. In a recent Amazon search for “state historical markers,” I received 1,222 results. In addition to the Virginia book mentioned in the first paragraph, other titles include Guide to North Carolina Highway Historical Markers (10th ed., North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2007); Why Stop?: Texas Roadside Markers (5th ed., Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005); Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan’s Historical Markers (rev ed., Univ. of Michigan Press, 2005); and Traveling New Mexico: A Guide to the Historical and State Park Markers (Sunstone Press, 2004). More specialized titles deal with markers in specific counties or cities.

State historic markers can provide information about a specific event, place, or person of interest in your research. They may help place your ancestor in a specific location at a specific time during a specific event. They should not, however, be used without supporting documentation and supplemental research on your part. Older markers may not have been developed under today’s more exacting research requirements. They may be installed in a location that does not quite fit the content. For example, in Halifax County, North Carolina, the marker for the Conoconnara Chapel (Anglican in 1747; Baptist after 1783; inactive after 1933) has been placed on Route 481 southwest of Tillery (presumably where it will be seen more readily). There is no indication on the marker that the Chapel’s cemetery is located in the woods down a country road reached either before or after passing the marker, depending on the direction in which you are traveling. Having found the marker, I spent a very fruitless day driving up and down Route 481 looking for some remnant of the church and/or cemetery. I found the cemetery only after the Halifax County Library staff referred me to an area historian who led me into the woods where a few stones are still visible. Luckily, I was able to find the several stones of interest to me even though they had long since fallen over.

So, you still have to put on your thinking cap when working with historic markers. When you do, you will discover, as I did, that state historical markers are rewarding sources to consult when researching the life of your ancestors.

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