Identifying German Heritage in Family Photos

Identifying German Heritage in Family Photos

Can we uncover the truth behind a reader's German ancestry in this family photo?

 There are so many clues in this old photograph that they distract the viewer: the busy architectural background, the plants, the clothes, a tapestry and, of course, the people.  

Reader Jan Wenk is convinced they’re relatives of her German immigrant ancestor, Henrich Otto Schneider. 
Identifying German Heritage in Family Photos 

Schneider was born in 1862 in the Hessen Darmstadt area of Germany and immigrated on Sept. 14, 1886. Two years later he married Anna Marie Bohle, from Seengen, Canton Argau, Switzerland.

Henrich worked in St. Louis breweries including Anheuser-Busch. The family lived in a neighborhood devastated by the Great Cyclone of in 1896. A fireman at the time, Henrich was likely involved in the clean-up. Wenk can tell the story of his life in America, but hopes this picture holds the key to relatives in Germany. 


The oversized photo was in a box of images belonging to Wenk’s parents. It has no caption or photographer’s imprint. Although Wenk has researched extensively for her common-named ancestor, my search in’s German records for Henrich Otto Schneider born May 5, 1862, turned up a new match born in Freiensteinau, Hessen, Germany. Sharing parents of the same names, Johann and Margaretha, were Johann (born in 1856), Anna (1859), Katharina (1865) and an earlier Heinrich (born in 1857, but likely died).

The elderly woman on the left is old enough to be the grandmother of the children and mother of at least one of the adults. A teenage girl stands at attention in a dress with wide lapels, a center placket and a banded waist. Her outfit suggests a date about 1897. A man with bow tie stands poses hand on hip. The boy standing on the right wears a jacket, standing shirt collar and ascot style tie. It’s quite possible Wenk has a photo of Heinrich’s family he left behind in Germany.  Her mystery is one step closer to being solved. 

Use your DNA  

The next steps for this picture story include further research to document ages and birth dates of German family and find living relatives there. Take a DNA test to look for cousins, who may have another copy of this image. There could be a special family reunion in the future. 

Photo Clues 

  1. Take care when estimating ages of the individuals in a picture. Avoid taking family stories at face value; instead, use facts to prove who’s in a picture. 
  2. The bodice details on this girl’s dress date the picture to about 1897. In group portraits, you’ll often see young women wearing the latest styles and Grandma in clothing a decade older. 
  3. The plants could be a prop to decorate the scene or a clue to someone’s green thumb. Seek out a horticultural expert to identify plants in pictures. It could place your ancestor in a particular region.  
  4. Leaves on the ground suggest this picture was taken in the fall. 
  5. Architectural elements in this picture point to it being taken overseas. Those interesting shingles and windows suggest a structure built in the late 19th century.  
  6. Props in images taken at a family home often relate to the family. Perhaps a descendant in Germany still owns this woven table cover.  

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