Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Getting the big picture

Public sources for ancestor photos?

From: JSweet

Do you have any suggestions of PUBLIC documents where I might look for a photograph of my ancestor who was born circa 1832 and died 1905? I have never seen a photograph of him and though I have asked family members, no one seems to have a photo of him either. Do you know of specific governmental records during the time period 1834-1905 that required that a photograph be taken? I feel that somewhere there must be a photograph of him unless he was extremely camera-shy. Thank you for any suggestions.

From: abgbobcat
What state are you from? You might find something [at] your local library or genealogy society.

Heavens, certainly this is every genealogist’s challenge, isn’t it? We want to put a face with the name of each ancestor, particularly those we’ve come to know and love as we’ve uncovered documents describing his or her life. Without access to a complete CIA/FBI (Interpol/KGB/???) file on every ancestor, family historians must get creative to uncover an image. Then it is a BIG find!

Photography wasn’t used as much by the common man in the 1800s in the US because it was new technology. Today, hardly a household in the US doesn’t have access to a camera in disposable, digital or cell phone format

Ol’ Myrt here agrees with ABGBOBCAT, that a study of the local library, historical society or genealogy society might uncover a collection of old photographs. The Manatee County (Florida) Historical Society maintained a photo file, which was indexed with thumbnails of each photo on 3x5 cards. The card index was housed at the Manatee Central Library in Bradenton, Florida. More recently the items were scanned and are now presented online at the University of South Florida Digital Archives. See:

Turn to the local historical society in the place where your ancestor lived for photos of the old neighborhood, downtown area, courthouse, town square, marketplace and other points of interest for the time period when your ancestor lived there. This would give you a better understanding of the “lay of the land” and can certainly be included as an important part of your family history (with proper bibliographic citations, of course.)

Over the past 31 years of active genealogical research, my greatest successes in finding photos of ancestors has been through the surname mailing lists at and the surname message boards at People who were fortunate to inherit the photos of our common great-great grandparents merely stumbled across my postings describing the family and posted a reply. For instance, Ol’ Myrt wrote the following on the Froman surname board at Ancestry:

William Gist FROMAN & Louisa HIGGINS marriage 1897
“We had incorrectly assumed that since Plattsburg was in Platte County, Missouri. Not finding this couple in the indices for Platte County marriages, I turned to Clinton County marriage records.
Clinton County is where William Gist FROMAN was reported to have been born. His father was a judge in the county for many years.

Indeed, I located the marriage application taken out on the 6th of May 1897. William G. Froman is from Grayson, Clinton, MO and states he is over the age of 21. Miss Louisa Higgins of Grayson is from Grayson, Clinton, MO and also states she is over the age of 21.The marriage return explains the marriage took place on 30 June 1897 at Grayson, Clinton County Missouri, with Cecil J. Armstrong officiating. Clinton County Marriage Volume 3, page 288.

It should be noted that Louisa was not 21 when she married. Family tradition, through her son Lowell, my grandfather, lists her birth date as 21 Oct 1877 in Harrison County, MO. That would make her 19 when she married Mr. Gist.”

A previously unknown distant cousin responded, and then shared this picture of the old US Civil War soldier, with his son Lowell and an unidentified daughter.

My US Civil War ancestor William Gist Froman, with my grandfather Lowell Simpson Froman and his unnamed sister.

That researcher had come into contact with the youngest child of the couple. The cousin interviewed the elderly woman, who was ill, in a nursing home, and well into her nineties. This wonderful cousin also scanned and emailed this photo of Louisa, which I think is particularly beautiful. I literally cried when the file downloaded and opened up on my computer screen.

Louisa Mae (Higgins) Froman, one of my maternal great-grandmothers.

Think trade organizations – then expand your research to include fraternal organizations. Wouldn’t a picture of his place of business suffice until you locate your ancestor’s photo from the local Elks? My grandmother Myrtle’s 1918 class of nursing students was fortunately handed down through the family. However, on a recent trip to St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City I learned the office still has the original photos of early graduating classes. Some reproductions are on display in a back hallway. You never know until you ask.

US Army Military History Institute's website has changed to US Army Heritage Collection Online, and includes unit photos. Typically individuals are not listed or identified, though your ancestor’s unit could be the exception.

If he served in the US Civil War, check for his complete pension file at the main branch of the National Archives in Washington, DC. While photos were not required, I have personally seen two files (out of about 50) that did include a photo. One was where the widow was trying to prove her relationship to her husband, and so she submitted their wedding portrait. The other was a single portrait of the soldier in question.

Obituaries and society pages come to mind here. But wouldn’t it be an interesting addition to your family history to include one or two advertisements and other items of interest. Ol’ Myrt remembers a back-to-school ad in a 1915 newspaper in Atlanta that spotlighted a great price on knickers and included a line drawing of the popular style.

If your ancestor paid a fee his photo and a short bio would be included in the local county history. These were quite popular from about 1880 through about 1910 or so. A great way to find these out-of-print titles is to look at the Family History Library Catalog online at: . See also the book titled Bibliography of American County Histories by P. William Filby, from

Finding a photograph image of an ancestor is a delightful component of family history research. As we become familiar with the time period and places where our ancestors lived, competent researchers will hopefully take the time to discover record groups peculiar to the area. In the mix, it will be wonderful to uncover the image of an ancestor.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.

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