Monday, September 6, 2010

On Becoming a History Detective - Part 1

William Jennings Bryan
As with many of my genealogy friends, I enjoy History Detectives on PBS. There's nothing quite as exhilarating as the hunt.

I have an heirloom plate that features Nebraska's William Jennings Bryan, who ran for President of the United States three times, 1896, 1900 and 1908. The plate has been in our family for at least 100 years.

I've decided to try my skills at becoming a History Detective to see what I can find out about this item and its role in my family history.

The story from family lore was that my Kelly ancestors were supporters of William Jennings Bryan and that this plate was presented to the Kellys by Bryan during a visit to their farm near Greenwood, Nebraska. At one time, I had in my possession two photographs of Bryan that were supposedly taken at the time of the visit to the Kelly farm. These were the typical sepia toned photographs that were printed on postcard stock so they could actually be used as a postcard and mailed.

I believe it was in junior high school when I carefully wrapped up the plate and the photographs and took them to school for show and tell when we were studying this era of American history. I may have written an essay on Bryan, but I don't remember. What I do know is that the two Bryan photographs are no longer with my family photographs. I always took responsibility for losing them, but I really have no idea how, when or why they disappeared. I can still visualize what one of the photographs looked like and I am quite certain I would recognize it if I saw it. I think that one of the photographs was Bryan with a horse, one that supposedly belonged to my great grandfather, Dan Kelly.

Doesn't this sound just like some of the family lore that is shared when the History Detectives come in to find out the real story?

Several years ago, I listed the plate on eBay with a very large reserve price on it, just to see if I could find out anything about the plate. Someone wrote to me and indicated the plate was quite common and the estimated value in the late 1990s was about $20 - $25. I took the plate off eBay and have held on to it ever since. One other time I found a photograph of a plate like this on the internet, but I haven't done any further research. About 12 years ago, I contacted someone at Fairview, the Bryan residence/museum here in Lincoln, Nebraska and was told they did not have this plate in their collection and they would welcome it as a donation. I wasn't ready to let go of it yet.

So, as a good History Detective, where do I begin?

  1. Determine if the plate was associated with one of Bryan's presidential campaigns and, if so, the year.
  2. Visit the Nebraska State Historical Society and go through the microfilms of the Greenwood Gazette newspapers of that era to see if I can find any news reports or social columns that mention Bryan visiting the Kelly farm. Also check their archives for Bryan photographs to see if there is one of him with any of my family members.
  3. Visit Fairview and see if I can find out anything from the Bryan archives about the plate.
I'm not overly optimistic that I will be able to prove that Bryan personally gave the plate to my family, but I have a feeling that the search will be interesting.

Stay tuned.


  1. What a cool idea Susan!! Looking forward to hearing what you find out.

  2. This was a unique post, very clever. I hope you solve the mystery of your plate, and may it be valuable!

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