Photo Detective: Go West

Photo Detective: Go West

A single family photograph can serve as a valuable social history document. Take for example this group portrait (Figure 1), which provides a link to a violent chapter in American history: the settlement of the West. Phyllis King found this picture among her great-grandparents Arthur D. Barrows and Francis A...

A single family photograph can serve as a valuable social history document. Take for example this group portrait (Figure 1), which provides a link to a violent chapter in American history: the settlement of the West. Phyllis King found this picture among her great-grandparents Arthur D. Barrows and Francis A. (Smith) Barrows’ belongings.

Arthur Barrows’ father, John W. Barrows, was murdered in the infamous town of Tombstone, Ariz. Settled as a mining town in 1879, Tombstone quickly developed a reputation for shootouts with notorious gunslingers such as the Clanton brothers and Sheriff Wyatt Earp. Arthur’s mother, Mary Ancibelle Cooper, and his siblings John Jr. and Ancibelle died of typhoid fever soon after, leaving Arthur and his remaining siblings—Minnie B., Robert L., Mary F. and James E.—orphans.

After their parents’ deaths, the Barrows children went to live in Texas with their maternal grandmother, Adelpia (Anderson) Cooper, and two uncles. King is trying to determine if Figure 1 depicts Adelpia and her grandchildren. She thinks the elderly woman is Adelpia for two reasons. She owns photographs of her other third-great-grandmothers, and none of them resembles the woman in this picture. Plus, one of the surviving Barrows siblings recalled in a 1973 interview that “Grandma Cooper” was a little old lady with crippled hands and crutches. The elderly woman in this picture fits that description. Notice how she’s holding on to the arm of the woman to her right—a sign of frailty.

Now that King has identified the woman in the center of Figure 1, two questions remain: When was this picture taken and who posed with Adelpia? The photograph doesn’t have a caption or photographer’s imprint, so we must rely on clothing clues and family information to date it. If the children were sent to live with their grandmother, it’s reasonable to assume that most of them were young enough to need adult care. An identified photograph of the remaining five Barrows children (Figure 2), dating from the early 1890s, confirms this assumption. In it, the Barrows children wear dark colors for mourning, while a sixth, unknown child—probably a cousin—wears white.

There are conflicting clues in Figure 1. The pouched front bodices on the women’s dresses, as well as the large buttons trimming the light-colored dress, suggest the picture was taken around 1900. Yet the ages of the people in these two pictures don’t match up. At the time of the 1900 census, Arthur and Mary were still in their teens; the subjects of Figure 1 are middle-aged.

Another possibility is that the subjects of Figure 1 are Adelpia’s children. But according to the 1900 census, she had 10 children and outlived all but one. Either the information in the census is incorrect or some of her children died prior to the 1900 census, but after this picture was taken. This portrait could depict Adelpia’s remaining children and their spouses. It’s also possible that these individuals are older grandchildren. One thing is certain: Most of the people in this group portrait are related—the proof is in their similarly shaped faces and noses. But their identities will remain a mystery until additional family pictures surface.

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