Genealogy: Bring ancestors to life with photographs

Bring ancestors to life with photographsBy Barry J. Ewell

Living family members may not understand the genealogist’s passion for all the “dry” vital data. When you start putting photographs and stories with names and dates, suddenly they become real people with real lives that you and your family can begin to relate to on a personal basis.

In a recent project, I was working with family members to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Elias Jones immigrating from Wales to America.

Elias Jones had six children and the project involved working with each of the family lines that stemmed from the six children to gather artifacts. As family members worked together, photos, histories, news articles and related documents have cropped up where we least expected in attics, closets, drawers, neighbors’ homes, and in local histories, libraries, museums and archives.

Together we have gathered several hundred items that have been scanned and put on a CD/DVD to share with all the families.

There were many pleasant surprises during the project. For example: Many of the photos were taken by a photographer named George Edward Anderson. I was aware of a collection of 12,000 Anderson photographs that Brigham Young University had digitized. I went to its database and searched on the family names and found more than 100 photographs related to the six family lines, 75 percent of which were never seen by any of the family. Some of the photos were gathered off microfilm images used for obituaries and news articles. I placed the article in a microfilm scanner and captured surprisingly good images.

Through the project we have found photographs of each other’s family lines. Most of the searching for photographs had been done in their own lines. We forget that these people were brothers and sisters, they engaged in family outings, they sent each other pictures of each other’s children, marriages, etc. So the project has been valuable from many different directions.

Identifying photographs
Now that you have located photographs, the next step is properly identifying the images. Treat the photos with great care. Do not turn the photo over and starting writing. That will damage the photo. The method I use is to scan the photo and name the image. I will then enter the following data into a photo log. The information recorded is as follows:

  • Date (or about date “circa”) of the photograph
  • Names of individuals in the photograph, in the order they appear, recorded in such a way as to not confuse anyone at a later date
  • The ages of the individuals
  • The circumstances around which the picture was taken
  • Who took the photograph, if known
  • If there is an original negative, where it is located
  • If the photograph is a copy of an original, where the original is located

The information is true for images that have been captured from tombstones, newspapers, etc. Add any other information to help find where the photo came from such as the cemetery and lot number, paper, issue, and page number.

Using photographs in your research
I have personally used photos to help research in the following ways:

  • Placing a family member at a place and time
  • Confirming the death of a person from images of funerals
  • Identifying friends and other family and asking where to go to locate information about the family
  • Identifying clothing, tools, home furnishings, etc., that help tell about the time period and life
  • Finding family members that were born in the 1700s
  • Seeing family at different times in their life
  • Looking at house numbers, license plates, etc., provide clues of where else to look
  • Uniform or work clothing can lead to information stored by a company or union
  • The back of photos offer information about individuals
  • Identifying family members that may not be known about

Related posts

Join Genealogy by Barry Newsletter