Portraits of the Past: Finding Ancestor Images
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
See my article on the same topic with other examples in:
Internet Genealogy Magazine April/May 2010
Some families seem to inherit drawers and boxes full of fascinating old photographs from years gone by. Others seem hard put to go beyond their grandparents’ 40th anniversary photograph. Still more have images from one side and very few from another. Fortunately, the skills we genealogists use to find our elusive ancestors translate well to finding old portraits and photographs.
Undertaking a comprehensive search for ancestral images requires perseverance, patience, and even luck. While there’s no guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for, the results can be surprisingly fruitful.
James McIntosh, husband of Cornelia Crites
Contact Living Descendants
The best way to start is to contact both close and distant cousins. I collected many photographs of my great-grandparents and second great-grandparents this way. One
of my third cousins was able to borrow an old album, complete with labels, from a cousin of hers—who never would have lent it to me as a “stranger”—then she scanned the contents and sent them to me.
Another very distant cousin found me by asking the Michigan Historical Society if anyone else had inquired about the same family. They gave her my name and she was excited to find that I had a labeled family photograph album full of nineteenth-century photographs that she used in her Tillotson family genealogy.
Sometimes, finding cousins entails “reverse lineage research.” By finding other descendants of a common ancestor through the census, obituaries, county histories and search engines, I have found many distant relatives.
For instance, I found a man in the 1930 census with my ancestor’s identical name—this man was too young to be my ancestor, but the unusual name caught my eye. I found someone still living in that small town with the same surname and wrote a letter. Sure enough, he was the grandson of the man listed in 1930, who had inherited most of the family lore, complete with photos.
Communicating with these relatives can help in other ways. You will become known as the family historian. It may take a few years, but someone else might contact one of your relatives and they’ll forward that person’s letter or e-mail on to you. Sometimes they happen upon photographs or letters they weren’t aware of at the time you contacted them and again, your name will come to mind when they wonder what to do with it all.
Local libraries and historical societies have many little-known gems in their collections. Familiarize yourself with all the places your ancestor resided. It’s always worth finding out what those local organizations might have.
A few years ago, I walked into the Henry Whitfield Museum in Guilford, Connecticut, with no thought of finding anything on my family. I mentioned my connection to the Hart family of Guilford and the guide took me into a back room and showed me a large portrait of my direct ancestor, Thomas Hart. The museum provided me with a slide and print of the portrait and a copy now hangs in my hall.
I had another great find when I signed in at the Northwest Missouri Genealogical Society library in St. Joseph, Missouri. The woman at the desk asked me whom I was researching. When I answered, she laughed and said my grandmother was her husband’s cousin. She had an album with photographs of my second great-grandparents. I had no photographs from that side of my family and she photocopied them for me right then and there.
Target your geographic area of interest and contact libraries and historical societies there. The Southern Oregon Historical Society http://www.sohs.org/is lodged in the old home of Michael Hanley, my third great-grandmother's brother. My inquiry about any items they had on my side of the family produced three photographs of my direct ancestors, including one of my third great-grandmother, in addition to photocopies of letters she and my great-great grandfather wrote to Michael Hanley in the 1870s.
Depending on what your ancestor did, you may find them in all kinds of archives. A photo of Winfield Scott Nickerson taken in 1890 was found at the Cold Spring Harbor archives, in the Charles B. Davenport collection.< http://libfe.cshl.edu/archives/davenport/index.html > An email to their reference librarian yielded a high-quality image along with permission to use it.
Larger institutions, such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, often have extensive portrait card catalogs at their disposal. The Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, also sent me a photocopy of another Hart portrait from their extensive collection. Thus, you need to cast your net to as many repositories as possible—large and small.
Family associations and lineage groups, such as the Nickerson Family Association (NFA) located at Chatham, Massachusetts, are another valuable resource for photograph hunters, particularly when the association maintains an actual physical presence where resources can be stored.
Collins Gould Nickerson and wife Susan (Hall) Nickerson - Photo by Debra Lawless
The labeled facing photographs above are of Collins Gould Nickerson and his wife Susan (Hall) Nickerson. The card photographs are from the Nickerson Family Association collection. Collins Gould Nickerson is in their genealogical series as NFA #5780. The penciled note refers to Collins's sister, Abigail, who married Joshua N. Rogers of Chatham. The Nickerson Family Association has a large number of fascinating photographs located at the library in Chatham. Most of these images are labeled. There are loose photographs as well as albums.
Descendants of this Nickerson line (Collins Gould 8, Josiah Sears 7, Tully 6, Silas 5, Silas 4, William 3, Joseph 2, William 1) should definitely look at the entire album. There are many Rogers photographs in the album as well. https://nickersonassoc.com/
County Histories and Other Publications
Some county histories contain biographical sketches complete with engraved photographs. Just one example is W. R. Brink’s “History of Madison County, Illinois” (Edwardsville, IL: W. R. Brink, 1882), online at www.archive.org In addition, don’t forget to search for publications geared towards your ancestor’s occupation. Local business histories, or histories of a particular industry, can also yield new images.
Church histories can also be great sources. For instance, the History of the First Presbyterian church of Ithaca, New York, during One Hundred Years (Ithaca, NY: First Presbyterian Church, 1904) online at the Tompkins County (NY) Public Library, https://www.tcpl.org/node/5082 contained an early photograph of my third great-grandfather that I had never seen. This book is a treasure, with many early 19th-century photographs of members with a strong collection of women’s images.
If your ancestor was a veteran, there might be a reunion photo in an old newspaper. I have found some images this way by tracking GAR reunions for my ancestors’ particular regiments.
Surname and Locality Forums
No search for ancestral images is complete without posting to the surname forums. Surname forums may not only uncover distant cousins, but other researchers and historians who may have information and images for your family. You need to be specific in your posting that you are looking for photographs and for whom.
One of my most important finds was from a query I placed on the Blakeman surname forum in 1999, inquiring about a portrait of Captain Curtiss Blakeman of Bridgeport, Connecticut and Madison County, Illinois. Family members claimed their parents and grandparents had seen this portrait in Illinois, but no one knew where it was. In 2007--a full eight years later--the curator of an Illinois museum emailed me having seen my posting. The painting was on loan from a private collection to her museum. They had the portrait while I had full biographical details. She sent me a photograph of the portrait and I finally know what the adventurous sea captain looked like.
Be sure to go beyond the surname and post queries on forums for the localities in which your ancestor lived. I struck pay dirt when I posted a general query with a list of surnames I was searching on a forum for Westphalia, Germany. A distant cousin of my father-in-law’s found my posting. His father, then in his eighties, shared stories and photographs from the old country. He was even able to help identify photographs of “unknowns” that my husband’s family possessed.
Databases and Websites
There are numerous sources for both photographs and portraits. The National Gallery of Art has a search engine for their collection. I was quite pleased to find an image of an old oil portrait of my ancestor, Reverend Samuel Eells of Connecticut, on this site (www.nga.gov). A general search did not turn this up—I had to click on “collections” and then search Eells in the title. Another resource is the Catalog of American Portraits, known as CAP. This website states that they “maintain records of historically significant American portraits,” etc. The drawback to this database is that it does not cover photographic images.
The Library of Congress also has a large collection of photographic images that you can explore. Unfortunately, not all their photographs are identified, but it’s worth a search. Instead of an ancestor’s likeness, I found photographs of an ancestral home when I typed in the surname Hayt. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.ny1702.photos/?sp=1
Hayt Farmstead, Route 311 Patterson, Putnam County, NY HABS NY-6300-A
If one of your ancestors was famous or even a bit well-to-do, you may want to use the pre-1877 Art Exhibition Catalog through the SIRIS search system on the Smithsonian Art Institute website at http://siris-artexhibition.si.edu The site does not usually display actual images, but you can find out what works exist by typing in your surname of interest in the “subject” line. You can then inquire about the exhibition catalog to find out more. I typed in the surname Mead and found a portrait of Sarah (Lyman) Mead, wife of Dr. Elijah Mead. I then used a regular search engine for her name and found the actual image in Google books in the book “Perfect Likeness European and American Portrait Miniatures” by the Cincinnati Art Museum. Another good website to search is through the Frick Museum’s art reference library catalog, called FRESCO, at http://arcade.nyarc.org .
There are also numerous Internet websites that gather old photographs and reunite them with their families. A few of the better-known sites are “Dead Fred”, “Ancient Faces”, and “Family Old Photos”. Some of these sites scan old yearbooks, which is where I found an image of one of my great-uncles. I have also found some photographs (among other treasures) by typing in my desired surname on eBay.
Another website to check is FamilySearch at www.familysearch.org – the Church of Latter Day Saints’ comprehensive genealogical website. Under the tab “Memories” in their main search page, choose “Gallery” from the drop-down menu. Press the “Find” button, type in your surname and see if anyone has uploaded pertinent photographs. To access the Gallery section, you will need to register as a user, but it is free.
When I typed the surname Nickerson into the “Find photos and stories” bar, there were 210 hits. Sketches, transcribed obituaries, tombstone photos and family portraits popped up.
One example of an old photograph in the FamilySearch gallery collection was that of Levi Stillman Nickerson (1814-1853), NFA #1172. Levi Stillman Nickerson’s biography appeared in the Nickerson Family Part 4, pgs. 108-109, unfortunately without this accompanying photograph.
Once you see a portrait or obituary that is relevant to your research, you can contact the contributor via email to see if you can use the uploaded image. Of course, it would be important to verify the provenance, Levi Stillman Nickerson at FamilySearch
source and identification of our finds whenever
Indeed, verification is still important. One of my mother's cousins graciously gave me a cabinet card that was labeled "Delia and Dora, twin daughters of Joseph Crites." However, when I studied the photograph, the young women featured were not Delia and Dora. The two young women resembled each other closely. Someone must have glanced at it and "guessed." The clothes they were wearing dated the photograph to the 1880s, when Delia and Dora would have been older. So take care and verify what you have, even with labeled photographs.
Finding ancestor photographs and portraits is another rewarding and integral part of your family research. In addition to seeing what family members looked like and imagining their lives, photographs can hold answers to your family lineage. In one cousin’s album, I spied a “Cousin Rachel Heimbach” which helped to prove that our ancestor Elizabeth Geiger Crites was the sister of Eva Geiger Heimbach (I later found their father's probate, which clinched it).
Remember, the earliest photographic portraits began to appear in the 1840s, becoming more common throughout the next decades, with an explosion in numbers in the 1860s and beyond. If you have ancestors in your tree who lived in the age of photography, there may be images out there. Target the photograph gaps in your family collection and start your quest with all the tools at your disposal. Surname and locality forums, local repositories and a letter-writing campaign can often lead to gratifying and pleasing additions to your family history photo collection.
Short List of Helpful Reference Books and Indexes
There are several books and indexes you should check to make a thorough search for old portraits:
--, American Portraits, 1645-1850, Found in Maine, (Boston, Historical Records Survey, Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1941).
--, American Portraits, 1645-1850, Found in Massachusetts, (Boston, Historical Records Survey, Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1939).
--, Ancestral Records and Portraits: a Compilation from the Archives of Chapter I, The Colonial Dames of America, 2 vols., (New York Grafton Press, 1910).
Catalogue of American Portraits in the New York Historical Society (New York, The New York Historical Society, 1941. (This catalog is also represented in the SIRIUS search engine discussed above).
Lane, William Coolidge and Nina E. Browne, American Library Association Portrait Index: Index to Portraits Contained in Printed Books and Periodicals (Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1906. Note: “In general, genealogical works and local histories have not been indexed.”
Lee, Cuthbert, Portrait Register (n.p. Biltmore Press, 1968).