Places, Please

Places, Please

Sometimes your pressing photo mystery isn’t who or when, but where.

Identifying the exact location of houses in family photographs is more than a bricks-and-mortar problem. To read the clues in a residential image, you practically have to be a building inspector—studying structural details and landscape topography. On top of that, you’ll need to be well-acquainted with family history and land records. After examining evidence in a photo of the family abode, you may find yourself doing additional research to unlock your domicile dilemma.

You needn’t be an expert to determine this photo depicts a chilly (but not frigid) day somewhere—but where? And when? That’s what Bergetta Monroe wants to know. The picture’s in her family photo collection, but she has no clue where it was taken or whose property it shows. Let’s see if we can put it in its place.
A moment in time

They’re hard to see, but an elderly man and woman are sitting on a bench by the house on the left. (Look by the No. 4, above) He wears a stovepipe hat and she’s coatless in a dress with a small collar. In the foreground, a man in a coat and a stovepipe hat stands at the gate. You can see miniscule details by zooming in on a high-resolution digital image or using a photographer’s loupe to examine a print.

The attire suggests this photo was taken in the late 1860s, but consider two more factors—these folks’ ages and surroundings. Older people and those in rural areas tended not to follow current fashion as closely as city-dwellers did. That broadens the time frame for this photograph: It could date from the mid-1860s to the early 1870s. If it’s from around 1870, the couple on the bench were born early in the century. The man at the gate could be their son.
Turning over the picture provides another clue. On the back is a 10-cent Proprietary Internal Revenue stamp. During the Civil War, the US government taxed documents, certificates and photographs to help pay for the war effort. The denomination shown on the stamp is the amount of the tax; it’s based on the sale price of the photograph. Written on the stamp are the initials HN, possibly by the photographer to cancel the stamp.
Revenue-stamp expert Michael Aldrich says this turquoise stamp is rare. A darker blue 10-cent stamp was issued in 1864, but the stamp on Monroe’s photo was issued in 1870 at the earliest.
Here, there and everywhere

We’ve got a time frame, but where was this picture taken? Monroe’s father told her the property is in New England. Her grandfather Sidney Hinman Monroe was born in Jericho, Vt., in 1843, and eventually moved to Wisconsin. Family oral history suggests folks “back East” sent him this photo. But with ancestors in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, Monroe has to narrow down the location. These tips can help:

First, making a list of all the towns where her mid-19th century ancestors lived would focus her search.
The background of this picture appears to show an elevation with pine trees. Pulling up a Google Maps satellite view of each town on her list and comparing terrain could help Monroe eliminate some places.
Next, Monroe can search the Web for historical societies in each of the possible towns, then ask a staff member to look at this image. The size and complexity of the farm layout would be recognizable in a small town. Some of the buildings may still be standing.
Once she’s narrowed down the possibilities, land records can do the trick. House historian Marian Pierre-Louis of Fieldstone Historic Research says town reports (a kind of annual report many New England towns published), tax records and deeds would provide details about Monroe’s ancestral property holdings. “While deeds give a legal description of a property,” Pierre-Louis says, “tax records contain a better picture of what the whole estate consisted of, including outbuildings and animals owned.” In addition, 19th-century gazetteers would show the property layout.
By working the Web, talking with local experts and studying land records, Monroe should be able to figure out the location of this photo and perhaps even the names of the tiny figures shown.
Search Party
1. Back up. Look for clues on the front and the back of photos.
2. Land ho! Compare the pictured landscape to maps.
3. In season. Clothing and foliage are clues to the time of year.
4. Who’s who. Compare ancestors’ birth dates to ages of those pictured.
5. Do documents. Land records describe property and name owners.

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