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My Research Adventures

Finding Hattie

When out of town for work in 2014, I explored the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC) website one night from my hotel room. While working full time, I tended to do research like this in the hotel since there wasn't a lot else to do, and I needed a break from my audits. While perusing the VMHC database, I noticed it was possible to search their photograph collection. This peaked my interest, and I switched gears from what I was originally researching to search this collection. I first searched for different versions of Hattie's name like, "Harriet Lee Powell" or "Harriet Powell" or "Harriet L Powell," etc. I didn't have any hits, which wasn't a big surprise since the search was a long shot. But as I played with the search function in different ways I found that I would have better luck simply searching for "Powell" and wading through all the hits that came up. So I did. But there were 195 hits as shown below. I took a screen shot at the time, which is fortunate because the search function at the VMHC has now changed.

A few of the search results had an electronic image available (as shown above). But most did not. And I found it was necessary to click on each item individually to read additional information describing the image. This was tedious, and I occasionally took a break to do something else. I found several of Hattie's ancestors including grandparents, great grandparents, great uncles, etc. This began to feel a little silly because the odds of finding one of "my" Powells was extremely low. But I kept returning to the search that evening.

Finally, I reached the last page of images and nearly fainted when I saw the title of image number 192: "Harriet Powell Smoot." It had not occurred to me to search her married name since she was married for such a short time before she died. I couldn't believe it. A photograph of her exists? I could see her? Of all of her immediate family, somehow HER image exists at the VMHC? What were the odds of this? Could the image even be accurate?

In disbelief, I made another screenshot demonstrating that she was number 192 out of 195. Perhaps history rewards the diligent.

When I clicked on the link to read more about the image, it read, "young woman with dark hair smoothly pulled back. Subject wears heavy earrings and a brooch at the neck." I'd known Hattie at this point for approximately 2 years. And she'd been far more than an interesting hobby. Reading her letters had helped me through a traumatic tragedy at a time when I was in a new city and lacked a support network of any kind. No one I knew had been through anything like this under similar circumstances. And those who were helpful were scarce. And so Hattie's letters played a critical role during a catastrophic time. Her circumstances were so similar to mine that her advice had an authenticity I was seeking. The thought of seeing her for the first time was not something I would take lightly.

When I was ready, I scheduled an appointment with the VMHC to see the image. Appointments are necessary when an item is a part of the museum collection (which includes photographs). I went on December 11, 2014. A few months had passed, and the timing was close to my trip home for Christmas when I would have plenty of time to think.

When I arrived, the museum archivist handed me a folder that contained her image. I took a deep breath and opened it. I was relieved to see such a sweet and kind face. The fact that the image survives at all is a miracle. And its even more fascinating when considering the inscription on the back. The first line reads, "Hattie Powell Smoot." The second line adds clarity with, "Harriet Lee Powell." The third line reads, "Uncles 2nd wife." Then there is an arrow drawn from "Uncles" down to the words, "James Rector Smoot." Lastly the location of "Alex, Va" is noted. Therefore, a niece of Hattie's husband (to whom she was married only a short time before her death) found this image, knew who it was, cared enough to write that down on the back, made sure her identity was clear, and then donated it for preservation. It's a miracle. And of all of Hattie's 8 immediate family members, the only image the VMHC had was hers.


The image of Harriet Lee Powell is courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, accession number 1999.40.43 in the museum collection.

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