Photo Detective: Hunting for Clues

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

“I’m full of hope you can help me figure out anything about this mystery man,” writes Marjorie Osterhout. No one knows his identity, and his clothing is just part of the enigma. She wonders if this is a picture of Samuel Downs (who lived from 1831 to about 1905) or Jesse C. Chew (1827 to 1901), both whom served during the Civil War. Or does this depicts some unknown family frontiersman? Since the family’s lived in New Jersey for centuries, Osterhout is understandably confused about his backwoods attire. Let’s examine the possibilities.

Type of picture
This is a simple tintype portrait, measuring 2.5 x 3.5 inches, called a bon-ton. It’s intended to be placed in a paper enclosure or a family photo album. The picture’s dark borders reveal the shape of the finished image. It would fit perfectly in a carte de visite album opening with a rounded top and squared bottom. Bon-tons first appeared about 1865 and remained popular until the early 20th century. In the mid-1860s, photographers posed their subjects without scenic backgrounds. Likely, this picture dates from the latter half of that decade.

Clothing and props
This man’s clothing is hunting attire, not a Civil War uniform. Civil War caps, called kepis, don’t resemble this leather-brimmed, high-crowned hat. Its size and shape is typical for the 1860s. His long sack coat has notched lapels in the style of early 1860s everyday menswear. The most distinctive part of this man’s outfit is his shirt. Rather than a white work or collared shirt, he wears a rustic lace-up work shirt of a dark fabric. The entire outfit looks well-worn. Also during the 1860s, men’s beards started at the jaw line and grew under the chin, and their hair was long at the ears like this man’s.

Firearms are the only props here, and identifying those requires an expert eye. David Lambert, online genealogist for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, thinks this gent posed with either a shotgun or a Winchester Repeating Rifle, so named because a rifleman could fire multiple shots before reloading. Winchester issued a new rifle in 1866. Type winchester repeating rifle into Google’s image search and matching photos resemble this man’s gun. All his shells are within easy reach on the ammunition belt. Although it’s difficult to discern, by close inspection it appears he has a pistol tucked into his belt on the left side—the butt end is barely visible under his coat.

Man’s best friend
Every backwoods man needs a companion. In this case, it’s a dog. I can’t tell the breed due to the darkened tintype. All that’s clear is the white nose and dark coat. Posing with pets dates back to the daguerreotype—you can see more photos of people with dogs in The Dog Album: Studio Portraits of Dogs and Their People by Gary E. Eichhorn and Scott B. Jones (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $14.95).

You’re probably wondering what a backwoodsman was doing in New Jersey in the mid-19th century. Although close to 700,000 people lived in New Jersey in 1860, the population was clustered along the coast and in cities. Parts of the state were quite rural and hunting was a popular pastime.

There’s no doubt this picture dates from the mid-1860s, but this man’s identity remains a mystery. Even though he’s not Jesse Chew or Samuel Downs in uniform, either man would have been the right age at the time this picture was taken. I’d begin by trying to locate photographs of the two men, then compare them to this image. If that doesn’t yield an identification, Osterhout can broaden her search to all men in her family tree of similar age. <!–

Watch for props. –><!–