Monday, August 26, 2013


Genealogy: Ancestor photographs are important links to the past

By Barry Ewell
For the Deseret News
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT
Updated: Friday, Aug. 23 2013 4:42 p.m. MDT

Photos of ancestors can offer clues to more information about their lives.
One day, I was looking through a series of photographs of my ancestors taken in the early 1900s. For the first time, I noticed the writing on the window behind the row of carriages. I took out my magnifying glass and looked closer to find the name of the company (Spanish Fork Co-op), date it was established, and related information. I took time to learn more about the co-op and found that my great-great-grandfather was president. That piece of information was just the beginning of the stories and documents that helped me build my knowledge of that generation and their place in my history.
Now as I look at photographs of my ancestors, I see important clues that are so prominently displayed but so innocently overlooked. Next time you look at your ancestors' photographs, search for the following clues to help in your research:
Photographer's imprint. Photographers placed imprints in different places, depending on the type of image. The imprint can be on the front cardboard mount, the back of the image, or in the lower right corner of some images. Imprints include the photographer's surname and sometimes the location where they operated their business.
Try these resources for additional help researching photographers. With this information, you can do a Google or other online search. On one of the photographs in my collection, I saw the imprint of George Anderson. I did a Google search on the name and included the location of Utah County, Utah. My search results included a listing for the Brigham Young University archives, which houses more than 12,000 images taken by George Edward Anderson. As I searched the database, I found more than 200 images relating to my family, most of which were not in the possession of anyone in my family.
Following are a few ideas of how your photographs can yield rich clues to aid your research.
Military uniforms. Pay attention to the hats, braiding, patches, shape and style of pants and jackets and any props included in a military uniform. Consult one of the many encyclopedias for military dress. With the help of a shoulder patch from a World War I photo, I was able to secure details about the individual's unit and military records.
Work or trade dress. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, uniforms were an important part of defining individuals and who they were the world over. Even today in many countries, the uniform is as important as the job itself. In many of the photos I've seen, men wore loose shirts, work pants and sometimes hats. Tradesmen were known to wear more distinctive clothing that identified their occupation, which can help place them in a geographic context. Look for individuals who posed for portraits with the tools of their trade.
Ethnic or regional variations. Many ancestors were proud of their heritage. Look for ethnic and regional dress reflecting the local culture. Pay attention to any details in a person's dress that does not reflect contemporary fashion.
Postal clues. Family pictures were often used as postcards. I've used the postmark and stamps to define time periods and location. Don't forget to check the back of the card for a message.
Props. Many photographs of ancestors include props. A prop can tell you where a picture was taken. Interior scenes can reveal products, furniture and even religious beliefs.
Location. Outdoor pictures contain scenery, signage and buildings. These can all be helpful in determining where the picture was taken.
Celebrations. Since families document their history in photographs of events like weddings, baptisms, holidays and even deaths, look carefully for extra clues that give clues to location and ethnic roots.
Include photograph information in your timelines. I have used clues found on the photographs to help trace my ancestors' immigration and migration.

One of my main objectives as a genealogist has been to re-gather the records from generations past, which include many precious and one-of-a-kind photographs, which I preserved, documented and shared with members of my immediate and extended family. Look for photographs by asking relatives. Re-examine your research and see if documents and histories contain photographs.
For instance, starting in 1929, all Declarations of Intentions required a picture of the individual seeking citizenship. Alien registration cards and passports also contain images of your ancestors. Make sure to search library, archive, genealogical and historical society collections. Once you learn who the friends of your ancestors were, contact the genealogist of the family and request to see if there are documents or photographs that document the relationship between families.
As a matter of practice when you look at ancestral photographs, ask yourself these questions to recognize available information:
What do you know about the image?

  • Who was its previous owner?
    How did it come to be in your possession?
  • Are there any stories associated with it?
    Why it was taken?
    When it was taken?
    Do you know any of the people in the picture?
    Did a family member supply the identification?
    When you can't identify the photograph on your own, show the picture to as many relatives as possible. You don't know when someone will have an identical copy. Post it on your website or someone else's. There are a number of sites that help to identify photographs or reconnect people with lost family photographs.
    Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History," and founder of, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

    Much of the family history we have in our family is stored in albums boxes, under beds, in closets and attics. Without proper care, many of those family artifacts will deteriorate over time. The following are few ideas of how to preserve our personal and family historical record.

    Preserve your family pictures.

    Try your hand at scanning family photos to your computer or hire someone to do it for you, and then store the originals in acid-free photo boxes or albums. The same thing goes for the family movies.

    Scan the family photos out of the shoeboxes or bags in the back of your closet, track down the photo you've never seen of your great-grandparents and ask your grandmother to help you put names to the faces of all of those unmarked photos in your family album. When the task is complete, share some of your photo finds with the family, by creating a family photo calendar or a family photo book.

    Excavate grandpa's attic or basement.

    Organize a project to search and catalog family artifacts and history from the attic and basement of family members. Countless treasures and stories hide among the old "junk" packed away in boxes and trunks. Let kids root through grandma's hat boxes, grandpa's model train set, old clothes and other treasures. These mementos give children a glimpse of their relatives' younger years and show them how times have changed. Make a special effort to pull out items from a parent's childhood — Mom's Barbie dolls or Dad's high school science project, for example — so kids can see what their mother or father was like at their age.

    Create a time capsule — in reverse.

    If your ancestors had left a time capsule, what would have been in it? Pick an ancestor and try to create a snapshot of his life.

    If you have objects such as photographs, recipe cards or diaries, make copies and include them in the time capsule.
    Children can re-create "artifacts" from the chosen ancestor's lifetime using historical and genealogical facts. For example, they could use a marriage date and place to make up a wedding invitation.
    Create a newspaper page detailing the important events of the time.
    Show the trendy fashions ancestors might have worn.
    Some historical eras you could choose:
    World War II (1941-1945)
    Roaring '20s (1921-1929)
    Victorian era (1890s-1900s)
    Pioneer/frontier days (1800s up to early 1900s in the western United States)
    Civil War (1861-1865)
    Colonial times (1600s to 1776)
    Next, find a box or container to use as your capsule. A shoebox or medium plastic storage box should be the right size. If you want, decorate the outside of your time capsule. Be sure to date it with a year from the era you chose (a Civil War capsule could say 1863).
    Start a family archive.

    Collect items that are important for your family, including:

    Birthday cards
    Birth certificates
    Ticket stubs
    Programs from events you attend
    Report cards
    Certificates of achievement and diplomas