Photo Detective: Using Photos to Discover Relatives

Photo Detective: Using Photos to Discover Relatives

To the careful viewer, family photos can tell a lot more about your relatives than just where they were at a particular point in history. See what the Photo Detective can infer about her relatives from looking at this picture.

There’s a big difference between knowing who’s in a family and knowing who’s in a family photograph. Historical documents such as census records tell us the names and ages of parents and siblings, but spotting them in a group portrait can be more difficult to sort out.
 
Michelle Bliven knows this firsthand. She owns this image of the Douglas family and has done her research to fill in the family tree. What she needs to know now is to how to figure out who’s who.
 
Andrew Douglas (1831-1915) and his wife, Betsy Pettis Douglas (1836-1899), had eight children: Philena “Lena” (born in 1852), Marinda (Bliven’s second-great-grandmother, born in 1860), David (1863), Richard (1864), Frank (1866), Addie (1870), Daniel (1871) and Roxie (1875). Andrew Douglas came from Vermont; Betsy was born in Pennsylvania. It’s possible Betsy had other pregnancies in the long gaps between some of these birth dates.

Andrew appears at age 19 in the 1850 census for Covington, Tioga County, Pa., working as a laborer on Frances F. Chase’s farm. The harsh winters and rocky soil of Vermont led many folks to leave the state for the West.

In this group portrait, the parents and all but one of their children posed on a porch. Andrew and Betsy sit in chairs. Genealogical research provided Michelle with a key fact: The Douglases had moved from Tioga County, Pa., to Eldred, Pa., by 1880.
 
In the 1900 census for Allegany County, Pa., widower Andrew lives with his daughter Lena and her family. Their son Frank was in Steuben County, NY, in 1900. In 1895, about when this image was taken based on clothing clues, the siblings’ ages would be Lena, 43; Marinda, 35; David, 32; Richard, 31; Frank, 29; Addie, 25; Daniel, 24; and Roxie, 20.
 
A picture like this is a genealogical call to action to learn more about each sibling and gather pictures from their descendants. Tracking down more records will help this family’s stories fall into place.
 
 
1. Billowy upper sleeves with snug lower arms—a style called “leg o’mutton”—reached their peak of popularity about 1895 and disappeared around 1905.
 
2. This sibling wears a light-colored dress, but keep in mind that color is deceiving in 19th-century photographs. Blues look white, oranges tend to black and there’s a whole range in between. Popular shades for day dresses include pearl gray, browns, blues and emerald green. It’s unknown what colors the women in this picture wore, but imagine them in greens and blues instead of black.
 
3. The lace and bows suggest this young lady is aware of current fashions and embraces a less-conservative style of dress than her sisters.
 
4. Betsy Douglas has a goiter or a tumor. Goiter is associated with an iodine deficiency or another thyroid-related disease, such as Graves’ disease. Examine your old photos for evidence of disease, such as the misshapen fingers of arthritis, which can add to your family health history.
 
5. In the 19th century, the elderly usually lived with family. Betsy and Andrew moved in with their eldest daughter, making it possible this is Lena’s home. A description of her house could be in land records, or Blevin could use an address and Google Maps to see if the house is still standing.
 
6. Michelle doesn’t think Frank is in this picture. Perhaps the siblings took this picture to send to him in New York. Matching already-identified images to the faces and approximate ages (in 1895) of those pictured helps identify these siblings: left to right, standing, are Addie, Lena, David and Marinda; and seated are Daniel, Roxie and Richard.
 
From the July/August 2015 Family Tree Magazine 

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