Tips to Trace the Lineage of Your Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Tracing the line of descent of your family is more than putting names and dates on your family tree.

You can use those same genealogical techniques to trace the history of ownership—the provenance—of your pictures.

Knowing how a group of pictures came to be in your collection can prevent an identification mistake. You might assume that those cute photos came from your paternal grandfather’s family, when in fact, they were once owned by your paternal grandmother’s family.

Different collections of photos often get lumped together by well-meaning relatives. Studying clues such as photographer’s imprints with locations or facial resemblances can help you sort out who’s who. And if a relative gives you a box of pictures, ask how the photos came into that person’s possession.

Kimble DaCosta has 300 pictures an uncle sent her. She’d only met him twice, but he’d heard she was interested in genealogy, so he sent her a chest that once belonged to her great-grandmother Ella Francis (Seamands) Friend (1863-1936).

DaCosta knows a lot about who owned those pictures: Ella was the daughter of John Seamands (1834-1888) and Evalina Brown (1842-1911). She married Hanson Lincoln Friend (1860-1937). Ella had identified most of the pictures, but a few mysteries remained.

When Ella died, the chest became the possession of Kimble’s grandmother, Mabel Clair (Friend) Martin (1892-1871), who was married to Harry S. Martin (1892-1971). Both Ella and Mabel placed photographs and letters in the chest. Most of the photos were from the Friend and Seamands families, but some were from her Harry S. Martin’s family as well.

With so many identified images, Kimble already knows what family characteristics match different branches. Now that she knows the names of the families represented in the collection, the next step is to date and identify the last remaining images. Above is one of her mystery images that I’ll write about next week.

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