My sister-in-law and I sat with my grandmother one day and, using a photo capturing device, videotaped a series of photos with grandma narrating as she watched them on the TV. We barely made a dent in the stack. On other visits, I played show and tell, writing names on the photos that grandma could identify. I slowly began to recognize the faces. I was very fortunate to have about 8 years of visits. Not everyone is blessed in that way. Nonetheless, there are still dozens of photos for which I still have no names.
Let me tell you about some research successes.
Find A Family, Find A Cousin
On the back of this gentleman's photo is written simply: J W Kerr, Franklin, Penna. I suspected that he was related to my great-great-grandmother, Nerinda Margaret Kerr Crispen Tookey. The uniform identified him as a probable veteran of the Civil War.
I started by looking for Franklin, PA, finding a town named Franklin in Venango County, as well as some other possible places, which I was able to eliminate. The Venango County pages at USGenWeb are a wonderful resource and there I found a list of soldiers who had served the Union from the Venango County area. Included in the list was a Johnston W Kerr. I rejoiced that his name was not James, Joseph, or John! I was unable to find him in a pre-war census, however. So I gambled by ordering his Civil War service file. It revealed his birth as being in Clarion County, PA. By examining the 1850 census, I found Johnston Kerr, age 14, and Narinda Kerr, age 8, with other family members, in the household of William Kerr of Toby Township, Clarion County, PA.
The photo of Johnston Kerr has been featured on my genealogy website for years. His great-great-granddaughter, Laurel, found me through my website and now the original photo is in her possession. Laurel's knowledge of the Kerr family is extensive and, working together over the past 10 years, we've learned even more about the family. Laurel has also shared with me photos of her extended family, including her parents and grandparents and I've met several of her family members. From a single photo, I gained a fourth cousin and her extended family, as well as a dedicated research collaborator and a wealth of family knowledge.
Find A Cousin, Identify Known People
Here's a cabinet card from Kansas. This photo had nothing written on it when I received it from my grandmother, nor did she know any names. Her knowledge of her ancestry did lead me to believe that the photo was from her allied Lake-Maddox families. After working through census records, I suspected the women were 4 of the 6 Lake sisters, but had no idea which ones. My great-grandmother's youngest brother also did not know. Another gentleman had submitted Lake family information to the Mormon Church files, but I was unable to locate him at the time I found that information. Months later I found his contact information on Ancestry, but learned he had passed away 6 months earlier. I had to set aside this wonderful photo with the expectation that it might never be identified.
When I decided to make my 19-day genealogy road trip in 2002, I invited Lorna, the wife of my mother's second cousin. Lorna and I traveled together from my home in the Phoenix area to hers in the Chicago area, focusing most of our research on the Lake-Maddox families. I showed Lorna's husband my collection of unidentified photos and asked him if he recognized any of these people. When he saw this particular photo he jumped up and ran for his own heritage photo collection. He pulled out the same photo, but his copy was labeled!
By researching the photo's location and the allied family structure, I was able to focus on the Lake family, increasing the chances that the photo could be identified. Someday I hope to also identify the mate to the photo. This cabinet card with 3 men is from the same studio in Kansas. My guess is it contains at least two Maddox men, with a brother or brother-in-law.
Some Photo Research Tips
- The first step in any genealogical research is to always start with what you know. Label the photos you have and can identify.
- Discuss mystery photos with living relatives. If they don't live near you, scan the photos and send them copies by e-mail or snail mail. Or share photos with them on Facebook or via your favorite photo-sharing website.
- Do your best to identify a location and time frame. Look for unusual clues. I have an undated photo taken in Lincoln Park, Chicago, with a camel. Via the web I learned the year that Lincoln Park first acquired a camel.
- Find identification advice online and in books from experts such as Maureen Taylor, who specializes in identifying heritage photos.
- Research the census to determine family structures. For example, the Maddox girls were too young to be the 4 Kansas women and they had no Maddox aunts. Therefore, it was most likely to be 4 of the Lake sisters, including the mother of the Maddox girls.
- As you work back through the generations, look for other researchers that are working on the same families. As you connect, you will have new relatives with which to share photos.
- Besides your own ancestors, find the census records for their brothers and sisters and their families. That mystery photo may not be your ancestor, but rather, the family of a sibling or cousin.
If all else fails, you can always scrapbook a mystery photo as just that or use your scanned copies for collage or period images. You wouldn't be alone in finding creative uses for your unknowns. A friend created this digital page for me with one of my favorite mystery photos. Thanks, Annette!