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Genealogy: Ancestor photographs are important links to the past

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Photos of ancestors can offer clues to more information about their lives.

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 MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.