Picturing the Past

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Not so long ago, if you wanted a photo of your ancestors’ hometown or an image of the ship they crossed the Atlantic in, you had to rummage through dusty library boxes, travel halfway across the country or write a distant archivist, wait and hope. The old photos that could bring your family history to life and add historical context to your heritage albums might as well have been on Mars.

But today, thanks to the Web, you can beam these images right to your desktop with the click of a mouse. Sites from libraries, historical societies, state governments, universities and history buffs let you view, print and download pictures of the past — for free. Your grandmother’s high school building, the Civil War battle your great-great-grandfather fought in, maybe even a portrait of people your ancestors knew or of your ancestors themselves — tens of thousands of images of yesterday have been digitized and uploaded. They’re all online, just waiting for you to find them. Many sites also let you order prints of those pix.

The best part, though, is that the Web makes finding these historical photos easier than ever before. These images aren’t just scattered in cyberspace, like pictures in a shoebox in your attic; they’re organized and cataloged in databases, most with search mechanisms that let you “rummage” through them by keyword. Looking for a picture of the military academy in Owatonna, Minn., that your great-great-grandfather attended in 1845? Enter Owatonna military academy in the Minnesota Historical Society’s Visual Resources Database <>, and you can instantly search the site’s 180,000 images for the one you seek. Say, could that second cadet in line be Great-great-grandpa?

Get started on your own photographic journey into the past with help from these sites.


American Memory


From vaudeville to Nevada ranch life to stereoscopic views of America’s small towns, this site from the Library of Congress puts more than 7 million digitized records from more than 100 historical collections at your fingertips. To limit your search to images, click on Photos & Prints.

National Archives and Records Administration


The “nation’s attic” boasts a new Archival Research Catalog (ARC) that makes it simple to search this collection of 124,000 digitized photos. When conducting a search, be sure to select Photographs and Other Graphic Materials from the scrolling list of types of archival materials, and to check the box for “Descriptions of archival materials linked to digital copies” to search only images accessible online.

Smithsonian Institution


A small collection, but if you’re looking for anything the Smithsonian might have — Morse’s telegraph key, the first Teddy bear — start here.

Canadian Heritage Gallery

This growing collection of Canadian images of all sorts — towns, transportation, buildings, wars — is fast and simple to search.

Images Canada


Hosted by the National Library of Canada, this slick site lets you search the collections of participating institutions across Canada with a single click. Pre-selected “Image Trails” invite you to explore such topics as Canada at War, fishing, hunting, the Arctic, automobiles and ships.


Northern Arizona University Image Database


Sample the Cline Library’s 700,000-plus images covering most of the Southwest.

Arkansas History Commission


Search more than 13,000 pictures of Arkansas’ past, including shots of baseball games, political campaigns, Little Rock’s Central High School and the 1927 tornado. Plus, if your ancestor was a barber in Arkansas from 1937 to 1997, his state licensing photo should be online here.

California Heritage Collection


Step back into the Golden State’s history with this searchable archive from the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. It features more than 30,000 images illustrating California’s history and culture.

Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection


This huge, searchable collection is particularly strong on turn-of-the-century LA and the boom years of the City of Promise, 1920 to 1939. Check here, too, for other California connections, as photos also include a rare collection of ‘1,000 lantern slides taken between 1890 and 1920 by members of the San Francisco-based California Club, plus portraits of notable Californians.

San Francisco Heritage Photo Collection


Click on San Francisco Historical Photographs to search almost 30,000 photos of the city’s history, dating to the 1850s, by word, phrase and date.

Delaware Public Archives


Not searchable — but organized to be easily browsable (for example, by town) — this collection includes photos of cities and towns, World War II, car and shipbuilders, churches, and even pictures from the state-highway department and board of health.

Florida Photographic Collection

Part of the Florida Memory Project (see page 61), this database contains more than 98,000 digitized images. Going beyond the usual stock historical subjects, the collection emphasizes photographs of Floridians’ families, homes, livelihoods and pastimes.

Louisiana Division Photograph Collection


The New Orleans Public Library serves up a searchable sample of its more than 40,000 Louisiana images, from scenes of Mardi Gras to Jefferson Davis’ funeral.

Louisiana State Museum Photograph Collecton


Dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, these 1,500 pictures of Louisiana’s cultural landscape were taken by some of the best-known early photographers. Search or browse by subject, photographer or title.

Maryland Sate Archives


Though only a sampling of the archives’ photo collections has been scanned to date, online images include scenes of Annapolis, stereographic views of Maryland towns, Baltimore scenes from 1850 through 1930 and pictures from Annapolis’ African-American community.

Minnestoa Historical Society


Pretty much anything you can picture about the Land of 10,000 Lakes can be found in this huge database — and fast, thanks to its powerful searching technology. Keep checking back if you have Minnesota ancestors, as the society has now begun adding portraits, beginning with last names starting with A.

Nebraska Historical Society


The society is beginning to digitize its collection of more than a half-million images of life on the Great Plains, ranging from small-town life to county fairs, Indians on the Rosebud Reservation to the story of the Fairmont Foods Co. in Omaha.

Images of New Jersey


Search the Montclair Historical Collection of New Jersey pictures here. (But beware — the rapid slide show of the collection will make you dizzy!)

Hudson River Portfolio


The New York Public Library offers a visual tour of the Hudson River area’s past, through photos, prints, maps and more. (Keep an eye on the library’s site <>, where it’s planning to roll out an online image collection that eventually will total more than 600,000 pictures.)



The Ohio Historical Society shares highlights from its collection. Advanced search lets you combine keywords with and and or, search by date or search using Library of Congress subject headings.

Salem Publc Library Historic Photo Collections


Though maintained by the Salem (Ore.) library, this database also includes photos from the Oregon State Archives and the Marion County Historical Society — more than 10,000 searchable images from the mid-1800s to the 1990s. You’ll find old pictures of Oregon towns, businesses, homes, occupations, scenic vistas, disasters, festivities and recreational activities.

Images of Rhode Island


Here, you’ll find links to more than two dozen local collections of Rhode Island images. A unique “QuickPix” system of keyword buttons makes basic searching a snap.

Libray of Virginia


Click here for thousands of photos from cities across the state, plus special collections covering school buildings, the Port of Hampton Roads during World War II (do you have a family member who went off to war from there?) and the Commonwealth as documented for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Holsinger Stdio Collection


This searchable University of Virginia collection focuses on the Charlottesville area, African-Americans and World War I. The almost 500 photos of WWI “doughboys” and life at the Albemarle County Army training camp will help you imagine what your ancestor must have looked like in uniform before going “over there.”

Western History Photography Colelection


Picture those thrilling days of yesteryear in the Old West — this searchable selection of 95,000 images from the Denver Public Library and Colorado Historical Society includes scenes of railroads, mining, frontier towns, American Indians, pioneers and ranch life.

University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections


Pretty much anything you can visualize about the Pacific Northwest can be found in this impressive site: images of the Alaska gold rush, Indian tribes, Grand Coulee Dam, Puget Sound sailing vessels, salmon fishing, the evolution of Seattle and much more.




Among the goodies hiding in this sprawling all-purpose history site are thousands of images, particularly of the Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War.

Uinted States Army Military History Institute


This Carlisle, Pa., institute is home to a million still photographs. Some are prints of official Army Signal Corps pictures, but most are unofficial, personal snapshots. The collection is particularly strong on the Civil War, World War I and World War II. To search and view these photos, go to <>. If you think you’ve found the ideal image, but it’s not available online, simply e-mail the Military History Institute. They’ll mail you a photocopy of the photograph, along with instructions for ordering a print.


Ellis Island


Easily overlooked in the excitement over this site’s massive passenger-lists database is its collection of photos of the ships those Ellis Island immigrants sailed on. You have to find an immigrant before you can view his or her ship. Small on-screen images are free, or order prints for $10 to $12.50.



Find a picture of the ship that carried your ancestors to America, along with photos of ports and copies of old ads for shipping lines.


Cities/Buildins Database


A project of Washington University in St. Louis, this digital database has grown to contain more than 5,000 images ranging from New York to Central Asia, from African villages to the Parc de la Villette. All have been scanned from original slides or drawn from documents in the public domain, so you’re free to use the images if you find a picture of your ancestral town.

Images of African-Americans From the 19th Century


Another online offering of the New York Public Library, this handsome site highlights photos from the library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Along with scenes of slavery used in abolitionist campaigns and photos from the Civil War, the collection includes a wide array of personal pictures, such as family photos.

Images of American Political History

<> Recapture the political events and campaigns that stirred your ancestors’ patriotic passions with this collection of 500 public-domain images dating from pre-1750 prints to Bill Clinton-era pictures.

Images from the History of Medicine


Whether you have a physician in the family tree or simply want a look at the treatments your ancestors endured, you’ll get a healthy dose of the past here. The site holds nearly 60,000 images from the US National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division collection of art. You’ll find portraits, caricatures, pictures of institutions, medical scenes and more.


Old Postcards


If you can’t find your ancestors’ hometown in the other sites featured here, you may have surprisingly good luck with this fun postcard collection. The collection of 5,000 vintage postcards represents all 50 states. Who knows — you may find a full-color view of the courthouse in Grandpa’s birthplace or your mother’s alma mater.

The Olden Times


Old newspapers are a gold mine of historical images, but unfortunately, the ones that have hit the Web are mostly text transcriptions. This newspaper site — all scanned from the Webmaster’s personal collection of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers from the United States, British Isles and Australia — does include some images. It’s a particularly good place to grab pictures of the minutia of your ancestors’ lives, such as pictures of old pocket watches, telephones, laundry tubs, dentures and automobiles from advertisements.

From the October 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.