Finding Gold in Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Family photos can depict a single individual or a large group. While we think of them in terms of our family history, large group portraits might be important to other families as well. Take this photo of a group in Shaws Flats, Calif.

Shaws Flats was a Gold Rush town in the 1850s that has a reputation for being one of the richest gold areas. Sarah G. Dunster’s family settled there sometime in the mid- to late-19th century and they stayed until the mid-20th century. Her last relative in Shaws Flats died in 1985.

She’s trying to figure out who’s in this image and when it was taken. her grandmother Julia stands on a log holding a child.

Sarah wonders if this image was taken in the 1870s or later. The clothing clues in this image definitely rule out the 1870s. Here’s a close-up of the women in the group.

The young woman on the left dates the picture. She’s fashionably dressed for this town; the other women are in everyday dresses and the men are in work clothes. I can’t help but wonder who she is and why she’s so well-dressed. She’s also the only woman not wearing a well-worn apron, and she even wears a restrictive corset to cinch her waist. Outfits like this, complete with a tie, were common in the mid-1890s. Given her appearance it’s possible she worked in a store or an office.

Since Sarah had relatives living in Shaws Flats in 1900, I’d look at the 1900 census to see if it’s possible to identify other people in the image. I’d start with the children and add approximately five years to their estimated ages to see if they appear in the census. Of course, it’s possible that some of these people moved out of the area between the time of the photo and the census, but the census is a good place to start.

I’d also post this image on a Facebook page at a low resolution. If there isn’t a page/group for Shaws Flats, then this would be a good image to start one. Sarah will be able to connect with other people whose families lived there and maybe collect some local history. She also could edit the image and post the individual faces on the page as an identification puzzle.

Love these group pictures that show the life of a community and how ordinary folks lived. Here’s one more closeup of men with work tools in hand.

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