Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Finding Family Faces

One of the most exciting - and most frustrating - parts of beginning a genealogical journey is delving into boxes full of old family photos. Sometimes you get incredibly lucky and discover that some wonderful ancestor with incredible foresight thought to label some of them with names and/or years and/or places. This has proven a rarity in our family, but when it does happen, it makes us prodigiously happy.  :-)

When we were in middle school, we discovered three old photo albums stashed away in a drawer at our grandfather's house. He gave them to us and we took them home and looked through them, but at that time never asked him to tell us more about who was in them. Oh, how we wish we had! About a month ago, we dug them out of our parents' basement and looked through them again for the first time since we got them. We were thrilled to see that two of the three were labeled, and though it took some work deciphering the handwriting, we were able to figure out what some of the names and labels said. Unfortunately, much of the time that we could read the names, we had no clue who the person was or how or even if they were actually related to us.

As our research into our family history has progressed, we've gradually begun to match personal histories with all those individual names in the albums, and identify their relationships to the other people in the pictures, and to ourselves. It's so exciting when a name we're seen only on the back of an old photo suddenly pops up on another branch of our family tree. That was the case with these two little boys, Francis and Jack.

F and J 1923
Francis and Jack, 1923.

One of the albums we have is from our great-aunt M and though it only contains about a dozen pictures, it has proven one of the most useful family-deciphering tools we've yet come across. Fortunately for us. she labeled almost all of the pictures with a date, names, and even in some cases the place where each photo was taken. From this, we were able to learn that the photo album was put together when she was about 16 or 17, in 1923. Francis and Jack are part of this album, but all we had to go on for identification purposes were their names and the date. We didn't know if they were family friends, neighbors, or relatives.  As we've learned more about our great-aunt's mother (our great-grandmother) and her family, we discovered that Francis and Jack were M's cousins, the two sons of M's Aunt C (our great-grandmother's sister). Much to our delight, this solved another mystery from this same album. A couple pages after Francis and Jack is this photo, labeled simply "Aunt C" (to clarify, the photo includes her full first name, but we're omitting it here for privacy).

C 1923
"Aunt C" in 1923.

When we first saw it, we have no idea who "Aunt C" could be or which branch of the family she came from. Now, not only do we know who Francis and Jack are, but we also know what their mother looked like. It's the little victories like these that make genealogy so addicting a treasure hunt!

Great-aunt M also labeled herself in group photos, often along with the first initial and last names of the friends that appear with her. In several photos like this one, we can see what M looked like around age 16, and we also know who she was close to. Using the traces of information M left behind for us, we've been able to find a couple of her friends with their families on census records and thus have learned a little about the non-familial relationships that also helped shape our family's past.

M and friends 1923
Great-aunt M (far right) with her friends in 1923.

Now if only every ancestor had the diligence and foresight to label like Great-aunt M...


Heidi said...

We have dozens of old tintypes, daguerreotypes, and photographs of my dad's side of the family that haven't been labeled. We can do some decent guesswork based on clothing, where the picture was taken, etc., but it's so very difficult. I wish you good luck in your search!

Julia said...

Same here. I got a huge box filled with unlabeled photos... Like Heidi, I manage to roughly date them based on clothing or surroundings (most of them are probably 1870s to 1920s), but the names are all lost. That's sad... .
I wish we could get to know our ancestors as persons, not just names on a family tree. My great-grandmother died long before I was born, but we have pictures and I'm so happy that she had kept an album with beautifully illustrated postcards she obviously received when she was a young woman (around 1915). They don't tell much, though, but I get a glimpse of what kind of person she was by what her friends and relatives wrote to her.
I wish people back then had kept more records or diaries to pass on their lives and stories to future generations...

Rebecca said...

Wow, I wish we had some pictures as old as the ones you two have! Our oldest images are from the 1920s. But either way, we find ourselves saying the exact same thing as you, Una - we're constantly wishing we could know more about the everyday lives of our ancestors, like what they ate for breakfast, what their favorite dress was like, what they did for fun, etc. It's all those little things that make and truly individualize a person that we just can never know, and that's so frustrating! It's sad, in the end, how little it's really possible to actually *know* your own ancestors. We keep fantasizing about finding old letters and diaries, too, but of course, no such luck...yet! ;-)