A colleague recently gave me this cute picture found in a Maine antiques shop and labeled “Earl Russell Prince, 3 years.” Photos usually show up in antiques stores after their original owners have died. Some people just don’t value their ancestors’ old pictures (especially unidentified ones), so they discard them along with other unwanted pieces of the deceased’s estate. In other cases, there are no known relatives to claim the photographs when a person dies.
I strongly believe that identified photographs need to be reunited with family. Although not everyone values old photos, plenty of people would be delighted to find “lost” pictures of their ancestors. There’s a vast network of people aiming to reunite photos with the families of their original owners. They’ve even set up Web sites, such as Dead Fred, where you can search for pictures from your past (for other photo-reunion sites, scan the Photographs & Memories category at Cyndi’s List).
After receiving this photo of Earl, I decided to do what I could to find his family. The few clues in the image provided a research strategy. Although it lacks a photographer’s imprint, I knew that the picture was purchased in Maine, which gave my search a geographic focus. The bodice of the boy’s dress (remember that young girls and boys wore dresses in the past), featuring a simple collar and full sleeves, is typical of children’s clothing in the early 20th century. My first step would be to learn more about Earl, who possibly lived in Maine and was born in the early 1900s.
With a full name, an estimated birth date and a geographic focus, I began scouring the Web for additional information. These are the types of sites I consulted, in order of inquiry.
General search engines
First, I searched for “Earl Russell Prince” on Google to see if anyone had included him in a family Web page. I’ve had luck searching Google for distinctive names in the past, but this time I didn’t get any hits.
Free genealogical databases
At RootsWeb, you can search Maine death records from 1960 to 1997. Since my colleague found the picture of Earl in Maine, I searched for him in those records. An Earl R. Prince died in Brunswick, Maine, May 17, 1983, at the age of 76. This person seems to be a good match for the picture. His death date supplies a birth year of 1907, which fits what’s known about the image. Since Earl died within the last 20 years, it’s possible that he still has some living relatives who knew him. Brunswick, Maine, is 25 miles north of Portland and home to a Naval Air Station and Bowdoin College. My next step was to locate an obituary in the local paper that might mention survivors.
Searching Google for “Brunswick Maine,” I located the online version of the Times Record, Brunswick’s local newspaper. Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t have an online obituary archive, but its Web site does mention that the Curtis Memorial Library maintains the newspaper on microfilm. I contacted the library’s reference department about locating an obituary for Earl. Because I have a specific death date, the staff will search for the obituary (and mail a copy if it’s found) for $5.
While waiting for mail from the Curtis Memorial Library, I searched the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and federal census records online. (You can search the census through subscription sites Ancestry.com , Genealogy.com and HeritageQuest Online. Search the SSDI for free at FamilySearch.) Unfortunately, I didn’t find Earl in the census or the Social Security Death Index.
However, I did find Earl listed in the Brunswick, Maine, city directories published in 1932-33 and 1959. Searchable at Ancestry.com, the directories also listed several individuals who appear to be related to Earl based on their shared addresses. Rather than searching for information on each Prince in the directory, I’ll wait for confirmation of their relationship through the obituary. If Earl’s obituary does mention those people, the next step will be to check current telephone listings for the relatives’ mailing addresses. (You can search telephone directories online at sites such as Switchboard.) Once I find those addresses, I’ll send a letter of inquiry along with a copy of the photograph to each household. A letter with accompanying documentation will offer proof of relationship.
Online message boards
Another option is to contact researchers interested in the Prince family through an online message board, such as those at RootsWeb. In my posting, I could include all known details about Earl.
This photograph is too precious to sit in a box in my closet. If you can prove a relationship to Earl, send me a family group sheet with documentation, and I’ll send you the picture. Look for an update on Earl’s family in a future column.