Can an Old Mystery Photo Prove a Passed-Down Family Tale?

By Maureen A. Taylor

Don’t you love a good story? I do. As genealogists we’re trained to listen to the tales told at family gatherings and sort fiction from fact. Pictures not only come with their own set of stories, but they also can be used as proof of a genealogical event.


Mikael Hammerman of Sweden sent me a beautiful family photo of a woman and a girl participating in an ordinary activity. He’s hoping that the picture can verify a whopper of a immigration story. For the next few posts, we’ll explore the details in the picture and see if all the clues add up.

Could these two people be part of the following story? Wait and see.

This mother is in the middle of an afternoon nap.

This is her daughter.

Here’s the family story, full of love and intrigue:

Mike’s great-grandmother’s sister was born in 1859 in Sweden. She served as a maid and ran off with her employer. They arrived in New York in January 1879. She changed her last name and marital status for the trip, and he used a different last name.

According to an aunt of Mike’s second cousin Doris, the family rumor is that the sister was pregnant when they left. Her employer left his wife and five children behind. He sold horses and goods to finance their trip.

Family tales have the sister living alone with her daughter. Even today, rumors swirl in the family. Did she and her lover break up before leaving Sweden? Or did the separation occur once they arrived in New York?

The man’s parents were already in the United States, having arrived in 1869. The young woman had cousins who immigrated in 1882 and lived in Wisconsin.

Could Mike’s photo be tied to this love story? He’s hoping the clues will lead to the woman and girl in this image being the young pregnant relative and her daughter. Mike’s also hoping for a little help with his mystery story.

When faced this type of picture puzzlement, step back and really look at what the photo says. I’ll show you how in upcoming blog posts with more details about Mike’s photo and the family legend it could shed light on.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides 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
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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