As I was trying to decide on a data visualization tool for my last project, I was originally leaning towards Google Maps Engine Lite and Google Fusion Tables. I intended to use one of these software programs to analyze the data which my Digital History class had collected and organized in spreadsheet format from the Information Wanted ads in the Christian Recorder. During and after the Civil War, African Americans had placed hundreds of Information Wanted ads in the Christian Recorder and these ads could conceivably give us new insights into the movements and family structures of African Americans during this period. But then I changed my mind as I read ad after ad while extracting data for the spreadsheet. The stories of families torn apart and desperate to reunite pulled me in a different direction and as I changed course I decided to try my hand at a timeline using the Timeline JS software from knight lab at Northwestern University.
Why the sudden change of heart? The data visualization tool has to fit the project and neither geographic mapping nor representational charts would make much sense given the few data points available from a single ad. A timeline would allow me to investigate the history of a single family in detail by making use of various primary sources such as the ads in the Christian Recorder, census records, legal documents, newspaper archives and information gleaned from relevant secondary sources. A timeline can showcase relevant historical facts in accessible sound bites to non historians of different age groups and backgrounds.
My next step was to find an ad with enough drama to make my timeline project interesting. I expected to spend considerable time on identifying a promising ad, but it did not take me as long as I had anticipated. I started out by scanning the information captured on our spreadsheet with an eye toward interesting notes and unusual names hoping to thus improve my chances of finding family members in census records. I selected five ads and started with preliminary research in U.S. census records. In the end I settled on an ad which first appeared in 1870 and which was published again in 1873. With this single ad as the seed of my investigation, my primary goal was to find out as much as possible about the concerned family and I was confident that the questions would pose themselves as I started digging.
The Story Unfolds
The Information Wanted ad which I chose appeared for the first time in September 1870. In it Isabella Clay, née Hefford, asked for information about her son John Edgar Hefford, who had left home in 1866 in the company of a priest from Macomb, Illinois. Isabella paid to run the ad three to four times and then paid for three more ads in the same year.
Apparently the search failed and in 1873 Isabella tried again and paid for three more ads using slightly different wording. She or the typesetter also introduced a number of critical misspellings. I found two of the ads, but was unable to locate the third. Either it was never published or it no longer exists. Some of the Christian Recorder issues from this year are incomplete. Unlike many other families, the Heffords were not separated by the Civil War. John Edgar left home after the war ended. He also kept in touch with his mother for three years before communication ceased. In the meantime his mother had remarried and moved to Mound City, which may have contributed to the problem.
Initially, I only found records for the family in the 1860 and 1870 census records. When I was unable to find a record of the Heffords in the 1850 census records, I began to wonder whether the family already lived in Illinois at the time. However, the Heffords must have been in Illinois when the 1840 and 1850 censuses were taken, since Isabella was born in Illinois around 1833. According to the 1860 census records, Isabella’s father was from North Carolina and her mother from Virginia. There is a distinct possibility that both parents were brought to Southern Illinois to work as slaves in the salt works even though Illinois was a free state. The first Constitution of Illinois from 1818 included a provision in Article VI, Section 2 that allowed slavery in the areas around the salt works until 1825.  George W. Smith, the author of “The Salines of Southern Illinois,” met with two African American siblings around 1904, whose father was brought as a slave from Tennessee to southern Illnois to work in the salt works. Eventually he bought his freedom as well as that of this mother and two brothers. 
Were the Heffords fugitive slaves? This is not very likely. After all, they lived in a highly dangerous area for fugitive slaves. Shawneetown is right across from Kentucky which was a slave state. Authorities in southern Illinois frequently detained African Americans who were suspected to be runaway slaves. Although Illinois was a free state, African Americans there were bound with illegal indentures, abducted with impunity or chased out of state. Smith heard a firsthand account of three African American children who were abducted in Illinois and later sold into slavery in Alabama. 
Much can happen in the space of ten years and much did happen in the Hefford family between 1860 and 1870: Isabella’s father must have died, Isabella married and moved to Mound City together with her mother, but without her four children, the youngest of whom would have been only eleven years old in 1870. We know that John Edgar left home in 1865, but we do not know what happened to Isabella’s remaining children. Where they abducted and sold into slavery, were they living with employers or did they stay with relatives back in Shawneetown? I only located Isabella’s second son, John Edgar, in the 1870 census records. He lived in Macomb, Illinois, under the care of John Lamar, the priest with whom he had left Shawneetown in 1865. Isabella’s ad led me to believe that John Edgar had send letters during the first three years. The circumstances of his live in Macomb may explain why Isabella did not find her son. According to the 1870 census records, he lived in an all-white neighborhood apart from the African American community. There is no trace of John Edgar in later census records, nor are there any traces of the priest with whom he lived in 1870. While I learned much about nineteenth century southern Illinois and the Hefford family, I never did find out what happened to John Edgar Hefford. Much of the data which I gathered is captured in the Hefford family timeline.
Sequencing Events: The Google Spreadsheet
Data kept piling up as my investigation progressed and I needed to make decisions about what I wanted to include and how I wanted to present the information. The underlying structure of the timeline was a Google spreadsheet which was the grid which guided me in the data organization process. It had only two required fields, dates and titles. These were easy enough to deal with even though I did run into some display problems with dates until I figured out how to re-format the date cells on the spreadsheet. The optional fields were an altogether different story. Without images and text blocks, my timeline was unlikely to draw and keep the attention of potential readers. I downloaded the template and set to work. The various census records, newspaper clippings, and text notes were difficult to sort, because each event consisted of multiple data points: date, title, a description of events or a transcription of a primary source, an image, image credit, image title and a thumbnail. Selecting images was time consuming and difficult. The image needed to be relevant to the event and I needed to be sure that I had the right to display it online. I eventually discarded the thumbnails because my original selections did not display well. As I worked through my data pile, the process became easier and the spreadsheet made it easy to re-sequence and insert events. When late into the project I found a record of the family in the 1850 census records, it proofed easy to go back and add the necessary elements to the spreadsheet. As I plotted along I gained a deeper understanding of relationships and events in the Hefford family and I became more aware of how personal milestones related to bigger historical events.
Would I Create Another Timeline?
The short answer is YES, the long answer is more complicated. A timeline is not a good fit for every project. One of the biggest advantages of the process was the chronological sequencing of events, which focused my attention on details which I may have missed otherwise. The chronological sequence of a timeline helps potential readers to mentally organize the information which is delivered in clear sound bites. Online timelines make it easy to skip forward and backward to clarify questions which may arise. Were there any disadvantages? There certainly were. The project was time consuming and it was not always easy to integrate data in a meaningful way into the timeline. I picked the wrong platform to host my images which was one of the major reasons why I abandoned thumbnails. Fortunately, I discovered early on that direct links to images in Wikipedia did not work as I thought they would. Overall, I should have used the preview option more often. It was a good way to determine how the data displayed in the timeline. I found the ample amount of space reserved for text in Timeline JS appealing, because it gave me room to develop the story. However, there are limits on the amount of text which can be displayed. A combination of digital storytelling with an integrated timeline could resolve this issue.
What I had assumed to be a simple and well defined project, constructing a timeline of the lives of members of the Hefford family, morphed into a complex and intricate puzzle which led me in some unexpected directions. Although I struggled with the limitations imposed by the spreadsheet which generates the timeline, the end product, as it stands now, delivers what I had hoped for: snapshots of an African American family in nineteenth century Illinois surrounded by historical events and facts that influenced their lives.
So what happened to John Edgar Hefford? After learning so much about his family and circumstances, we have to accept that paper records about him and his family may have come to an end in 1870. My timeline remains open-ended and incomplete, but should I uncover further evidence about the whereabouts of John Edgar Hefford, I will revisit the spreadsheet and the Hefford Family Timeline will be updated in a snap. After all, one of the advantages of digital projects is the ease with which we can revise them.
Constitution of the State of Illinois. November 16, 1818. Read and Ordered to Lie Upon the Table. Printed by Order of the House of Representatives (Washington City [D.C.]: Printed by E. De Krafft, 1818), 15, https://archive.org/details/constitutionofst00inilli.
George W. Smith, “The Salines of Southern Illinois,” in Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1904 (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois Historical Society, 1904), 240, https://archive.org/details/transactionsofil1904illi.
Christopher P. Lehman, Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011), 36; The Staff of the Mitchell-Carnegie Public Library, “A History of Saline County,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 27, no. 1 (1934): 38; Smith, “The Salines of Southern Illinois,” 258.
Constitution of the State of Illinois. November 16, 1818. Read and Ordered to Lie Upon the Table. Printed by Order of the House of Representatives. Washington City [D.C.]: Printed by E. De Krafft, 1818. https://archive.org/details/constitutionofst00inilli.
Lehman, Christopher P. Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011.
Myers, Jacob W. “History of the Gallatin County Salines.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 14, No. 3/4 (1921/1922): 337-350. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40186845.
Pendleton Lyles, Stella. “Shawneetown.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 22, No. 1 (1929): 164-191. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40187615.
Smith, George W. “The Salines of Southern Illinois.” In Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1904, 245-58. Springfield, Ill.: Illinois Historical Society, 1904. https://archive.org/details/transactionsofil1904illi.
The Staff of the Mitchell-Carnegie Public Library. “A History of Saline County.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 27, no. 1 (1934): 31-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40187821.