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Using Local and Family History Photographs to Tell the Stories of Your Ancestors

People, Places, Events, Oh My!

Photographs are not mere illustrations. They are historical documents that should be included in a reasonably exhaustive search as we compile family and local history. Charming, studio close-ups of ancestors are just one type of image that should be included in our research. Seek out views of the places they lived, worked, went to church or school. Find pictures of their classmates, teachers, preachers, coworkers, neighbors, politicians, and others who influenced their lives. There is so much potential to learn and broaden our research from these visual records!

Chas. H. Spieler, photographer. John Young Jr. Capt. 109th Pa. Between 1861 and 1863. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

For the majority of us, the most desirable outcome is a close, clear, conclusively identified portrait of each ancestor in our tree. However, there are many additions and alternatives that can similarly enrich the details of our family stories.

Whether you have located that crown jewel of family photographs or are still on the hunt, you should not overlook the vast and varied value of further photo possibilities. Photographs are records of our ancestors' lives. They should be considered as one of the many categories of documents that genealogists seek out during a reasonably exhaustive search. Your relative's appearance in a company photograph may establish his employment; a panorama of the street where your great-grandparents lived may indicate when their house was built; a handwritten inscription on a studio portrait may reveal a family connection; or the details of a military uniform may lead to the service records that unlock the mystery you have been trying to solve.

In addition to searching for the town or county where your family lived, the archives of schools, churches, social clubs, or businesses often have amazing and under-utilized records. In these collections, photographs have sometimes survived, even when membership lists and docket books did not. Photos are special. They may be preserved because they are stored differently, such as in frames or albums. Their emotional appeal may have spared them during a clean out of paper files.

To their advantage, as unique as they are, most photographs are not one-of-a-kind (with the exception of the earliest versions in the mid-1800s, such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes). Congregation, class, team, company, military unit, building, street, or town photographs may have been produced in large numbers due to the volume of people interested in owning a print. Consequently, even if one photograph is destroyed, there may be another to view. Likewise, while one version may lack detailed captions, another may have handwritten notes. Over the generations, photographs are frequently donated back to the church, school, or organization featured, increasing their collections.

Brainstorm about the affiliations and activities in the community that may include your ancestor. If you know that your ancestor attended a particular school or church, begin by going to those places to look for photographs. If you don't know such specific details, but know that they lived in a particular town or county, then begin more broadly by reviewing local collections that fit their time and place. You may discover an unexpected club, team, or class photograph that includes your ancestor and provides you with new information for their biography and new leads for research.

Harry P. Fischer, photographer. Panorama view of Marietta - West Marietta and Williamstown, W. Va. (in distance). Circa 1907. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
H. H. H. Langill, photographer. Darmouth football team.1901. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Preserved photographs may have outlasted written documents. As a consequence, the image itself may be the only source remaining to provide evidence of a particular fact in your ancestor’s life. Such a discovery could also become the catalyst to further research. Now that you know your great-grandfather was pictured as a member of the Dartmouth football team in 1901, you can start to investigate school records, community activities, family ties, local news, and so on.

If identified images of your ancestor are not surfacing, consider including other relevant pictures. For example, maybe you cannot find your grandmother’s class photo, but can you find a picture of the school? Or a picture of her teacher or principal? Her stomping grounds and influencers bring you a degree closer to her. And often, such pictures are easier to find because those places and people were a part of many students’ lives. Frequently, we see these types of images turn up in family albums and collections. Such discoveries are one of the benefits to studying local collections even if they are not directly related to your family – there is quite literally common ground.

Jack E. Boucher, photographer. Cobblestone Schoolhouse, Ridge Road (U.S. Route 104), Childs, Orleans County, NY. 1965. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In this same vein, look for:

  • church buildings and preachers;
  • places of work and employers;
  • county courthouses and politicians;
  • theaters and entertainers;
  • you get the idea!

Use local newspapers, county histories, and the records from each respective institution (school, church, business, etc.) to find out who were the leaders and what were the events during your ancestor's lifetime.

For relatives with military history, seek out their units and commanding officers. Both will generally provide very productive leads regarding photograph collections relevant to your ancestor’s service. This topic may be expanded to images of battlefields, troop ships, weapons, uniforms, and similar ephemera that draws you closer to the experience of your soldier.

Whether you have a pinpointed objective in mind or you are making a broad sweep, these are some ideas for photographs that could add value to your narrative:

Three coal miners of the Lorain Coal & Dock Company, Lorado, West Virginia. 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
  • Education:
    • Activities (fraternities, sororities, theater, clubs, etc.)
    • Class photos
    • School building or campus
    • Sports teams
    • Teachers, administrators, coaches, etc.
    • Yearbooks
  • Geography: International, Federal, State, Local. Drill right down to the specific town, street, or house where your ancestors lived or visited.
    • Church
    • Courthouse
    • House
    • Public buildings such as libraries, theaters, or grocery stores, that are relevant to your ancestor’s story
    • School
    • Street scenes
  • Military
    • Armory, Camp, etc.
    • Battlefield
    • Company, Regiment, Unit, etc.
    • Officers
    • Troop ship
  • Occupation:
    • Business building or street scene
    • Employer (Company, boss, etc.)
    • Strikes
    • Unions
  • Transportation
    • Ships (Immigrants, soldiers, vacationers, etc.)
    • Trains and train stations close to their home