Dating an Old Tintype & DNA Clues to American Indian Ancestry

By Maureen A. Taylor

I love the slight, Mona Lisa smile on the woman in this picture. She’s comfortable and relaxed in this image, and so is the happy baby chewing on its fist. Rex Maggert thought he knew the identities of the woman and the baby, but now he’s wondering if his initial ID is correct.

Could this be Almira Helmer Funderburg (born Feb. 11, 1813) and her son Solomon Mosier Helmer Funderburg (born Feb. 6, 1842)? If this was the case, the image would’ve been taken in the early 1840s.

Rex knows that an early 1840s date would make the original a daguerreotype. The problem, though, is that you can see the scratches typical for a tintype, a process not patented until 1856.

He’s right to doubt the identity and focus on the photographic method. Those scratches clearly indicate that this was a tintype. He owns the original, which is approximately 2×4 inches, a popular tintype size known as a bon ton.

Rex asked, “Could it be a tintype copy of a daguerreotype?” That’s a possibility, but only when the other clues in the photo support that hypothesis. In this instance, clothing and other clues suggest a later date.

The woman wears a cotton or wool challis dress in a bold pattern. The loose fit of the dress is common for the early 1860s. Her sleeves have drop shoulders and full gathers at the wrist. Big bows worn under collars also are typical of the early 1860s. It’s likely this woman made this everyday dress.

In the 1840s, on the other hand, women’s dresses were close-fitting and the sleeves were tight on the arms.

If this isn’t Almira and Solomon, who’s depicted? Whoever she is, this woman is married. There is a wedding ring on her left hand.

Rex’s grandmother Alice Maggert told her descendants they had Native American roots. Other family researchers were told the same thing. Rex’s DNA results show a zero chance of that ancestry, but test results can vary depending on the test taken, who in the family is tested, and how distant an American Indian ancestor might be. Family Tree Magazine‘s on-demand webinar Using DNA to Solve Family Mysteries, presented by Blaine Bettinger, can help you make sure you have the right test—and test-taker—to answer your family history question.

Unfortunately, photographic evidence can’t be relied upon to prove ancestral ethic identities. I have the same problem in my maternal ancestry. Documents and DNA are the best indicators.

The best chance for proving his family’s American Indian roots lies with either a paper trail (Almira appears in the census as “white,” but that enumeration may not be correct) or by having other close relatives genetically tested to see if their results are different.

I’m hoping that Rex can name both the woman and the baby in this picture. It’s the first step to solving a family history mystery.

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