Teasing the Clues Out of An Old Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Larry Calhoun thinks this is a gathering of either the Benfield or the Calhoun family in western North Carolina. Last week, I discussed how Annie Oakley influenced frontier dress for women. This week, let’s study the other clues in the same image and see if they help Larry figure out who’s who.

A big group portrait generates a LOT of questions and this image is no different. My eye roams over the family members trying to see patterns. I like to start with simple questions and see if those answers lead up to the big question of why the group posed for the image:

When was the photo taken?
The clothing worn by the young women in this picture can help provide a time frame.

The neck scarves on the young women above suggest a date of the mid- to late 1880s.

Who’s the oldest person?
In this case it’s a woman. Generally the oldest person is someone important like a mother, grandmother or even great-grandmother. Look to see who sits next to that person. It’s usually his or her children.

The oldest woman is seated in the middle of the group. Estimating an age for her can help Larry fit her into either the Calhouns’ or the Benfields’ genealogy. Let’s say she’s 75 and this picture was taken in 1885. That suggests a birth date for her of circa 1810. There doesn’t appear to be a man about the same age in this photo, so it’s possible her husband has died.

Who’s the youngest person?
See the baby in the front row leaning against a middle-aged woman? There’s also a baby in the arms of the woman in the back. The birth dates of those two children can pinpoint an exact year for this gathering.

Think about the last time you posed for a family group portrait. Spouses and older children stand near each other, while younger children are allowed to sit in front of all the adults. In this image, study the men and women standing next to each other. There are a few couples in the back row. Matching them up with all those children is going to be a challenge. But Larry can use his family history research to create a two-column table of names and ages of the Calhoun and Benfield family members about 1885. It will give him a quick overview of the family to compare to the picture.

The next step is to compare any other related family photos taken around the same time to this picture. If those aren’t available, he can try locating photographs of Benfields and Calhouns in the hands of his cousins. This is a great picture to post on social media to see if anyone else in the family recognizes anyone. I’d also reach out to historical and genealogical societies in the area of North Carolina where these folks lived.

The big unknown in this picture is why it was taken. Is it a family reunion or does it document a family gathering for an event like a death or marriage?

Identifying one or two people in this picture may reveal the answer and lead to a lot of other folks being identified as well.

Knowing when all of these family members posed for this picture is the first step in the long process of identifying who’s who.

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