Friday, February 7, 2020

Get Your Photographed Relatives Identified Before It's Too Late

For the past three weeks, I've been engaged in the happy task of going through family photos that I recently inherited. Since there are over 150 items in this batch, it's been a time-consuming process. This is not only due to captioning, tagging, and digitizing these photos, it's also because I frequently have to stop and ask appropriate family members who is pictured in them (and how they know), and wait for their replies.

This has reinforced for me how important it is to get the people pictured in old photos identified while others who can identify them are still living. It's also important to hunt for these photos wherever they may be. This often means being persistent in asking cousins and other relatives if they have stashes they're storing, and if they'd be willing to send, post, or go through them with you. Sometimes people don't grasp the importance of these activities until it is too late. This is how the memories of our ancestors become lost to history.

Here's a good case study. As soon as I came across the photo below in my recently inherited collection, my excitement rose to a high pitch. I knew right away that the man pictured in the middle is my great grandfather, Dennis J. Ross (1875-1947). I knew this because I have other photos of him (if not one where he is so young as here) and they make his physical appearance unmistakable. Multiple older relatives who knew Dennis in their youth also reaffirmed that he is pictured here. But there is no writing on the back, and no other indication of who is represented.

I initially did not know for certain who the others in the photo are. I currently (and frustratingly) have only one other photo of my great grandmother, Dennis's wife Mary (1885-1957), and it dates from when she was even younger than the center woman shown here. Is that her? Oddly enough, my older relatives seemed unsure about this. There are several people alive old enough to have known Mary, but only when she was quite advanced in years. It's been almost 70 years since she lived. That's an awfully long time after which to recall her properly. At first I thought this photo might be from hers and Dennis's wedding, and that the couples to the side are witnesses named on the marriage certificate I have (which dates from 1903). But last week a cousin saw this photo on my facebook feed, and said she is certain that the couple on the left shows the sister (Jennie, 1883-1979) and new brother-in-law (Richard, ca. 1879-1972) of my Great Grandpa Dennis, and that it is THEIR wedding which is the occasion of this photo. She said she was sure because of other photos from the event that she inherited from her parents and grandparents, some of which she showed me. I became convinced that she is correct, especially since the left couple looked familiar...and seeing things in this new light only supported my cousin's new information. In which case, I have a pretty good guess now of who the people shown on the right are. (But I won't bore you with these facts/steps.)

You doubtless see the problem I'm getting at. If this photo dates from my great great aunt's wedding in September of 1902, it's been many years since anyone has seen these people as they looked then. Likely everyone who could have identified every person shown here by firsthand knowledge has been dead for years. I am 85-95% confident of the identities of the people pictured here who aren't my great grandfather. Maybe that percentage will go up as I discover more photos/other items, and as I listen to the testimonies of more people who are in a position to provide information that is at all credible.

What are the takeaways here? A few immediately spring to mind:

1. Keep on your relatives (politely) to see if they have shared all  of their genealogically significant photos with you, or if they are willing to do so. Sometimes this happens in stages, as people remember and stumble across forgotten treasure troves....or as they have the time and inclination to dig. But persistence is key. The sooner you get started, the better chance you'll have at confidently identifying people in these photos. Always have your eye on eternity, and let your living relatives know how important this endeavor is.

2. Carefully digitize your photos and post them online. This can particularly help if you have remotely-located relatives who may know or recognize some things that you do not and can say so on facebook. You should also post these photos to local history/genealogy groups on facebook. People in these communities often know valuable things. (I've struck gold here more times than I can mention.) You should crowdsource, but crowdsource responsibly. (If information conflicts, you should nevertheless write it all down.) Photos whose people are confidently identified should be posted anywhere possible to help preserve them for posterity. Here are some of my favorite places: my Ancestry tree, the other personal online trees I keep, The FamilySearch Family Tree's Memories Gallery (my vote for the best "Posterity Vault"), WikiTree, and my Google Photos collection where I keep a running catalog of all of my family pictures. Also, posting your photos to these places will greatly increase the likelihood that others will take, preserve, and share copies of them in turn. Also, consider making physical copies of select photos and depositing them at local archives and other carefully chosen places. This "viral" effect is devastatingly good for making sure that your relatives are not forgotten, and that available traces of them don't disappear from the world.

3. Perhaps the most important thing that you can do is CAPTION YOUR PHOTOS. Write names on the backs of them. Keep records of where you got them and how you know the information you received is trustworthy. This is why I love Google Photos. With every photo I keep in my Genealogy Photo Catalog there, I caption the following information:

-A photo catalog number to keep track of the item's place in my total collection.
-Who, where, what, when of the photo's content, and how we know/who told us.
-Where you got the photo and when.
-Any other notes necessary for research purposes.

Some of my captions are huge because they contain lots of this information. For some photos, I have many sentences of unresolved claims as to who is pictured in them, who supplied this information, and when the information was supplied. I remain uncertain as to who is pictured in a significant number of my many photos. Over time I'll get authoritative/convincing answers to some of my longstanding photo mysteries. This always makes me happy.

Does this all seem tedious? Maybe, but think about your descendants. When they're sitting there, long after you're dead, with the photos they will have inherited from you and others, they'll be grateful to have information handed down to them in addition to the photos themselves. And you'll be satisfied beforehand that you and yours won't be forgotten to history because you took the trouble of chasing down lost photos and taking good notes for them. Preserving the memories of our ancestors doesn't happen by itself; it happens because the historians in our families go to substantial lengths to do so. Be a part of your family's solution to this problem.


  1. This is very sage mum and uncle are the only two left of their generation that I know well - their cousins, with the exception of one who is a poor correspondent, aren't interested in family history. We have few photos ... fortunately my mum has been able to identify almost everyone for me.

    On my dad's side, there is almost no-one. Interestingly enough, I have a photo of someone whose name is noted on the flip side, but with no explanation of how he fits into the family. The surname is from my 2nd great-grandmother (her maiden name), but I know little else about her and her family. So including relationship info is also important!

    1. Sounds like you've been fortunate, on the whole. Thanks for reading!