Solving the Mysteries of Your Family Tree

by Steven Dugan

The family historian relies on many tools to solve the mysteries of a family tree. He or she might be searching for the exact date of birth of an ancestor, so a birth certificate, death certificate, or a copy of their drivers’ license would solve the mystery (even better when all three documents agree!). Finding maiden names of women in one’s family might prove challenging because women often took their husband’s last name. This sometimes led to a wife’s maiden name fading from the historical record. The best solution for finding maiden names is to find the couple’s marriage records, where the bride-to-be’s maiden name would be noted—victory!

Another tool of the genealogist is the treasured photograph. Seeing your ancestors when they were younger sometimes highlights family resemblances; gives you a brief glimpse into their lives before they got married, had children, etc.; and provides a visual pedigree chart, where you can trace the family through pictures and not just through dates on a page. Many families have the old-fashioned photo albums where folks either glued their photos into a book or used photo mounting corners to hold pictures in place. Hopefully, someone wrote in the album, or on the back of the photo, “June and Joe on vacation in Paris,” or some other relevant information. This information is golden, because it fills in a little more of the complete puzzle you’re trying to solve. But what if there is NO information whatsoever?  Many, if not all genealogists get depressed when they have photos with no accompanying information.  The only antidote is to do your best to date and identify people based on other information you have, or have researched.

There are four good ways to date and identify a photograph based on clues you can find in the picture itself. One of them is to identify the type of photograph you have. Is it a daguerreotype (1839-1860), cabinet card (late 1850s-1890), or tin type (1854-1930s)? These types of photographs cover about 100 years of history, but you can at least narrow down the time period depending on what kind of photo you have. And in case you were wondering, the first Polaroid camera was made in 1947.

John H. Temple
We estimate that this cabinet card of John H. Temple was taken between 1866 and 1879. The main clues are the name of the photographer on the bottom of the card and the use of white paper with little or no borders. (From the Homestead Museum Collection).

Another way is to identify the photographer. Cabinet cards added the name and address of the photography studio to the picture, so a little internet research may provide the years the studio was in business or a little more biographical info on the photographer.

Paying attention to the scenery in the photo is a clever way to date a photograph. If the background includes a movie theater for example, what movie is showing?  If it’s a photo of family members, use your knowledge of your own family to identify who is in the photograph.  If you know that your grandmother was born in 1945 but she is not in the picture, perhaps she hasn’t been born yet. Clues like these can often help you narrow down a decade, if not the specific year.

Lindbergh salute Coliseum 1927
This photo of the celebration for Charles Lindbergh at the Los Angeles Coliseum is almost certainly from 1927, after his transatlantic flight. But if you didn’t know any info about the image, you could still guess that the photo was from the ’20s because the cauldron on top of the peristyle opening at the east end had not yet been built for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. It wasn’t built until 1930! (From the Homestead Museum Collection)

If you’re interested in family history, we encourage you to attend It’s All Relative, a two-part genealogy workshop, scheduled for September 10 and 24, from 10 a.m. to noon each day. The first session will cover the basics of genealogy research, such as collecting and organizing facts and discover the places you can find information both online and in person. During the second session, participants will get help with documenting their family history data, following a relative throughout their life, dating photographs, and ways to break through road blocks (those instances where the trail of an ancestor goes cold).

The registration fee for both days of the workshop is $25 for adults and $20 for students (12+) and seniors (55+). Reservations are highly recommended. The workshop is limited to 20 participants, so reserve your spot by calling the museum at (626) 968-8492 or visiting our website.

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