The introduction: Place is a manifestation of my continued fascination with descriptive family names that are nouns, verbs and adjectives, my own nettles included. How did such names become attached to people and what might be their effect? Do people notice? Many names are explained by occupation (rider, roper, master) physical characteristics (brunette, dimple, blush), dwelling place (appleyard, grimwood, halfhill.) Other categories I found were food (corn, fruit, olive), birds, alcohol, animals, money…or its lack, weather, water, plants (nettles, cotton) and trees.

What began with a few photographs of gravestones in the fall of 2010 has grown to a collection of over 2,500, primarily taken with my cellphone and managed and searched digitally. My first project was Stonecipher: A Book of Seasons in which I used these stones to write poetry about the passage of a year. In this first case, I had limited my search to my home county.

On my travels,  I continued to seek out cemeteries, walking countless miles up and down the rows. I decided to create another book, this time featuring the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west.  It became apparent to me that I could write an interpretive history of the United States using the names of some of the families who immigrated here. Each story begins with the settlement of the region and ends with contemporary families headed home.

I set up several parameters for this project, correct grammar in the construction of the narrative being one of them.  I used only last names (yes, Victor and Jack are surnames too) and and did not crop or add letters to them. The one instance where I broke a rule was to include the word sisters, which was not a last name that I found although I know it exists. This was due to the difficulty I was having including the history of women. The occupations that I could find were primarily male ones (with the exceptions of cook, baker, housekeeper, nurse, and milliner)  Also our naming conventions are primarily male with the use of “son”(jackson, johnson) and “man” (fishman, fineman, waterman, westman.)  To keep the project a manageable size, the stones had to be made quite small so the photographs were retouched digitally for clarity and to remove first names and dates. You will have to trust me about this. Indeed, among the common names that we no longer think about at all, these wonderful and curious names exist.

Bea Nettles

Urbana, Illinois


Place is a new project based on the cardinal directions: North, South, East and West. American history is told through the use of surnames from gravestones that are nouns, verbs and adjectives. Each slipcase contains four folded booklets.

Place, 10 x 10” slipcase with four booklets opening to 9 x 18.”

Digital color offset on 80lb cover stock. $40 plus $4 shipping using Paypal from: