Photo Detective: A Place in the Wilderness

Photo Detective: A Place in the Wilderness

Uncovering clues in historical photos


Finding a caption on an old photo is sometimes more confusing than helpful. The one on the back of this image, “David Stubbs mother Sarah Stubbs Residence, Stephen Stubbs and son in front of the house where your great grandpa was born and lived,” generates a lot of questions: We know who lived in the house (Sarah Stubbs) and her son’s name (David), but who’s the great-grandpa mentioned? What’s the name of Stephen’s son? How are father and son related to Sarah and the great-grandpa? Who wrote the caption, and for whom?

This photo belongs to Carolyn Plante, who discovered it in her father’s attic after he died. It was inside a suitcase that belonged to her grandmother Edith Pearl Ordway Wyman (1879-1954), who was born in Bangor, Maine, to Charles and Alice Ordway.

Plante believes her Stubbs relatives built this house in Maine. One of her ancestors is Sarah Oakdale, who was born in 1756 and married Abner Stubbs in Cumberland County, Maine, in 1775. This likely isn’t the Sarah in the caption, though, because research showed that she and her husband didn’t have a son David.

A distant cousin of Abner’s, James Stubbs, married Sarah Wheldon in 1789 in Orrington, Maine. Their son David was born in 1794, making them good candidates for the people mentioned in the caption. The Descendants of Richard Stubbs 1619-1677 of Hull, Massachusetts by Marjorie Anne Stubbs Heaney, claims Abner and James descend from Richard Stubbs (the son of the man in the book’s title).

The inheritance of this photograph didn’t follow a straight line from one generation to the next. Before 1801, Abner and Sarah’s daughter Amy Stubbs married John Ordway. Amy and John were Edith Pearl Ordway Wyman’s great-grandparents.

The identity of the caption writer is still unknown, along with the intended reader (a descendant of David, who was possibly the great-grandpa referenced in the caption), and Stephen’s relationship to Abner and James. But it’s apparent that family connections run deep in the Stubbs/ Ordway family.

1. It’s clear that this family homestead was important to descendants. The house doesn’t look lived in, but Stephen and his son posed on the property for a professional photographer. It’s possible they had copies made for other descendants.

2. Stephen and his son are dressed in typical 19th-century men’s wear: suit, vest, overcoat and hat. Stephen’s bowler dates to the 1880s.

3. The date over the doorway suggests that James and Sarah built their house in 1790, shortly after their marriage. Such dates on homes aren’t always accurate, so verify the detail with deed and probate research.

4. This is a fairly large house with an attached barn. Center-chimney houses of this style generally had one or two rooms downstairs with a loft above. The attached barn was accessible in winter weather. Virginia and Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses (Knopf) is a good source for house styles.

5. Landscape details can help determine location and season. The bare trees, along with the men’s attire, suggest cold weather.

6. In the 1790 US census, James and Sarah lived in Frankfurt, Maine, which may be the location of this house. In her book, Heaney says an 1859 map of Winterport, Maine, shows the house of a widowed Sarah near her son David’s home. In 1860, a part of Frankfurt was incorporated as the town of Winterport.

From the September 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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