Top of page

Margaret Virginia “Maggie” Thompson. Photo: S. J. & W. L. Adamson. Cornerstone Genealogical Society.

Womens History Month: Filling in the (Almost) Lost World of Maggie Thompson

Share this post:

 This is a guest post by Candice Buchanan, a reference librarian in the History and Genealogy Section.

A teenage girl filling a photograph album with the images of family and friends.

Though the technology may change, the sentiment seems timeless. This girl was Margaret Virginia “Maggie” Thompson, who spent most of her life in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The photographs were cartes de visite and cabinet cards, so popular in the 1870s and 1880s. We turn the album’s pages to see the girl become a woman and her social circle expand. Siblings, neighbors and classmates are eventually followed by a spouse, in-laws and children.

It’s a thick volume of 42 cardstock pages. There are 58 photos, one or two per page with a few loose images in between, nearly all of them bearing a neat, handwritten caption. Since the handwriting appears to be in a more modern style and in a different ink than the dates written on the back of the photos, it may have been one of Maggie’s descendants who affectionately sat with her, late in her life, to pen the inscriptions. Doubtless, unwritten memories and stories were shared.

Then, somehow, the album was left behind. Years later, discovered in a vacant building, Maggie’s keepsake was rescued and brought to the Cornerstone Genealogical Society in Waynesburg for preservation. Though I’m now a genealogist at the Library, I grew up around Waynesburg (in Greene County, in the far southwestern corner of the state) and still run a volunteer digitization project for the community.

When Maggie’s album was handed to me, I was transfixed. Here was this unknown woman’s personal life story, summed up in a single volume.

Photographs are historical records, not merely illustrations. A personal album is a window into the vanished social life of a family and community. Scrapbooks are particularly valuable because they amount to a visual diary, with as much unintentional historical information in the pictures — clothing and hair styles, prices, cars, roads, stores, landscapes — as intentional information.

I was further compelled by Maggie’s album because it portrayed a woman’s personal history. Any genealogist can tell you that while researching centuries of archival documents, official records and narratives of public events, one sees just how often women have been minimized or omitted completely.

So I felt a personal responsibility and an almost compulsive need to decipher her story, to reconstruct the full life only hinted in the photographs. I began to research the contents of the album, digging through local cemetery, census, courthouse and newspaper records; federal and military records; and the kaleidoscope of archival material at the Library.

First, I built genealogical/local history profiles for every person in the album to understand how Maggie may have known them so as not to miss any clues or connections.

The biological family tree was no problem.

Maggie was born in 1855, the daughter of John Thompson and Maria Meegan, in tiny Waynesburg, where the population was between 1,000 and 5,000 for all of her life. She married John Flenniken Pauley and raised five children. She died in 1937.

It turns out that Maggie’s paternal grandmother — pictured in the album — was the sister of my great-great-great-grandfather. It also was easy to distinguish family names and relationships and to identify local friends. Photographer stamps revealed where the images were taken, filling in some of the geography of her life.

But there was a mystery here, too.

Several images were not from Greene County and seemed to have no connection to her at all. I focused on nine pictures taken in Trumbull County, Ohio, during the 1870s. What made that place and these people so important to her?

There was only one clue. One man, identified as “Chas. Bradley” in the Trumbull photographs, had a surname that was also found in Greene County. So I delved into the local records on the Bradley family to see what I could find out.

Sepia-toned head-and-shoulders of a young man wearing a suit and collar, looking to the right
Charles Bradley’s photo in Maggie Thompson’s scrapbook. Photo: O. Warren. Cornerstone Genealogical Society Collection.

Charles Bradley, it turned out, was a Greene County native about a dozen years older than Maggie. He enlisted in the Union Army at 18 when the Civil War broke out and served a little over a year as a musician with Company I, 8th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry Regiment band. His enlistment records at the National Archives list him as standing 5’7” with blue eyes and brown hair. He came home to resume his work with his father as a tanner and saddler and married a local woman, Mary Ann Cooke.

But he also apparently met a fellow musician in the Army, William Henry Dana, who had served with two units from Ohio. After his discharge, Dana pursued formal musical education and in 1869 founded Dana’s Musical Institute in Trumbull County (now known as the Dana School of Music | Youngstown State University).

Now, back at the Library, I went to the card catalog and looked up local histories of Trumbull County and bingo! There was the Dana family and the institute. Since the Library has extensive holdings in the nation’s music history, I checked the Music Division’s archives and was delighted to find original sheet music from the institute, which captures the spirit of the school’s compositions.

More importantly for my research, I discovered that the division also holds an 1875 edition of the Catalogue of Dana’s Musical Institute. It’s more or less the school’s yearbook.

Sure enough, familiar names popped up. Dana shows up as “Teacher of Theory and Organ; Conductor of Oratorio” and Bradley as “Teacher of Cornet and all Instruments in Brass Band Department, and Band Master.” In the graduates list? None other than “Maggie Thompson, Waynesburg, Pa.”

A scanned image of a short list of typset names
The Dana Institute’s list of graduates includes Maggie Thompson.

So that was the connection to the Trumbull photos — she’d studied here and made friends. Four more graduates appear in her album, all of whom graduated between 1873 and 1875. Three were men. The one woman, Hettie Jones, was no doubt a friend, as she hailed from Waynesburg, too.

Charles Bradley was likely the common thread. It’s not hard to picture that he started working at the institute and told friends and acquaintances back home. In such a small town, no doubt the young women heard of this and, perhaps since a familiar and trusted face was there, decided to attend.

I obtained fantastic evidence of this from the National Archives in Bradley’s Civil War records. Bradley died in 1891, at just 42 years old. His widow, Mary Ann, filed for a military pension. Maggie, then 33, was such a close friend that she filed a handwritten deposition on Mary Ann’s behalf with the pension board.

“I have been well acquainted with Mary A. C. Bradley since 1873,” Maggie wrote in a clear, strong hand. “I was acquainted with her husband Charles R. Bradley, now deceased, before I knew her. I boarded with them from September 1874 till June 1875 … (their) son ‘Joe’ was born in February 1875 while I was boarding with them.”

Scanned image of several lines of cursive writing on a yellowed sheet of paper.
Maggie Thompson’s handwritten deposition. National Archives.

She goes on for a few lines, saying how she’d played with Joe when he was an infant, adding that the couple later had a daughter, Sarah Mabel. Mary Ann Bradley’s pension request was approved and one can see that the two women had a bond that would have lasted throughout their lives.

The connections with the Bradley family illuminate Maggie’s life in ways that could have easily been lost. Family history is always human history, and humans like to do and see and go. Full histories can rarely be assembled. But in this case, Library collections, together with resources from Maggie’s hometown and Civil War files scanned at the National Archives Innovation Hub, made it possible to reconstruct this chapter of Margaret Virginia Thompson’s story.

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!

Comments (7)

  1. Thank you sharing Maggie’s story. The research process was fascinating. Hooray for libraries, archives and talented researchers!

  2. Thank you for this evocative report! The Civil War pension records at the National Archives are indeed a treasure. I have found depositions — not unlike Maggie Thompson’s — that pertain to pensions, including widow’s or mother’s applications, associated with African American veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops. These testimonies illuminate lives for which there is little else in writing, save census enumerations. I hope that, in time, those records can be digitized for easier and broader access.

  3. I was immediately struck by the woman’s photo. It’s the same time period of my great-grandmother’s photo. I found her photo in a box of letters to/from (her son) my great uncle to his wife while he was in the US Navy WWII. They wrote to each other at least weekly. I have gained so much fun and family knowledge/photos from these simple letters. What a find! There are 4 large boxes of them in my father’s garage. I have only gone thru part of the first box. I look forward to doing more research, as you have, to find more connections. Thank you so much for writing this post! I am so motivated! Enjoy the day, Andrea

  4. Wonderful work. It took special dedication, knowledge, and patience to unearth these connections. I also appreciate the powerful and elegant summary of why this kind of investigation and preservation is important.

  5. This was very informative to read as to the possible data to be found in archives.

  6. This title caught my attention and I found it very interesting because my paternal grandmother was Maggie Thompson Jury. When I consulted my computer file I discovered my Maggie was indeed related. Your Maggie’s father John was a brother to my Maggie’s father Samuel so the two Maggies were cousins. It was very interesting to read of your process of uncovering her life’s story. Wonderful work!

  7. Thank you so much for your wonderful research and write up on the family history of Maggie. I have been keeping lots of family artifacts from my children, my parents, my grandparents and I even have photos from great grandparents. Recently I was wondering, “Will anyone else be interested in all of this?” and now I know! I have my Dad’s sermons and a 78 recording of him singing in his beautiful baritone voice, a stage photo of my Great Aunt Janet who sang in the San Francisco Opera at the turn of the century, essays written by my paternal grandmother when she was in graduate school earning her MA in English. Getting a graduate degree in that era was unusual for women. You have inspired me to carefully document these things and make sure they go to the right place when I’m gone. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *