A Multi-Mystery Historical Baby Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Jim Moses recently found himself with a perplexing family photo mystery. When going through a trunk from his great-grandfather Luther Abner Moses (1860-1905) , he found an intriguing photo.


It’s a wonderful photo of a baby laughing. Everything in the trunk is related to Abner, but this photo is a puzzle. As far as Jim knows, there are no family links to this child.

On the front it says “W. Bryan (4 months old) January 1893).” The back is even more confusing.


Along the top edge (to the right—I’ve turned the image on its side) is “E.R. Pitt.” And in different script, “Compliments of Frank to Earle. Taken by J. Pilbeam (?) with Gen. Miles.”

Underneath that is “Made in Arkansas May 18 (13), 1891.” Also written on the card is “Red Cloud and Little Big Horn.”

So many mysteries:

  • Who is W.Bryan?
  • Why is E.R. Pitt written on the back?
  • Who are Pilbeam and Gen. Miles?
  • Who are Frank and Earle?
  • Where was this taken?
  • Why was it in the trunk?
  • Was the photo taken in 1893 (as on the front of the card), 1891 (as on the back), or neither?

A search of the 1900 US census on HeritageQuest for W. Bryan resulted in a William Bryan in Arkansas, who was 10 at the time. You can’t always trust ages in the census. Could this be the boy depicted in the photo? Or does the “Arkansas” notation on the back refer to something else?

The “E.R Pitt” notation could refer to the Earle who received the card from Frank.

There are no Pilbeams in Arkansas in the 1900 census, but it’s not an uncommon name in Michigan, which is where Luther Abner (in whose trunk this photo was found) lived.

Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles, whose name appears on the back, served in the Civil War and in the Spanish-American War. He spent two decades fighting on the American frontier and he drove Sitting Bull into Canada after the Battle of Little Big Horn. The names Little Big Horn and Red Cloud appear on the card.

Could these be notes for something else? I’ve seen the backs of cabinet card photos used as scratch paper filled with math problems or handwriting samples, but in this case, some of the information seems more significant.

It’s a picture mystery with lots of different threads to follow. There’s one other thing to consider: Our ancestors collected interesting images. Perhaps this was an image bought because it’s unusual. In an age when most people posed with serious expressions, the image of a baby laughing was an anomaly.

In the meantime, I’ll keep digging. These multi-layered mysteries are frustrating but fascinating.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album