Whether your goal is to create meaningful heritage scrapbooks or an interesting family history, every researcher wants more pictures of their ancestors! But sometimes despite our best efforts, we can't find any. Perhaps the person lived before photographs were common, or the pictures have been lost or destroyed. But there are still pictures and images that can help your ancestor come to life. It just takes a little creativity.
First, a photograph of your ancestor's grave is usually easy to come by; take a picture yourself, ask a relative who still lives nearby, or find someone online who is willing to do it (for free or for a small fee). You may want to include photos of the whole cemetery, the family plot, the entire stone, or a close-up of the person's name.
One of my favorite things to find is a copy of an ancestor's actual signature (or mark if they were illiterate, as many were). Sometimes it seems like their signature is the only physical evidence they left behind. You may find a signature on land deeds, marriage licenses, pension applications, or other records, for themselves or relatives. But beware that sometimes what looks like a signature may just be the clerk's writing when they made copies of a record to keep in the courthouse and gave the original to someone else. You can usually tell if a signature is authentic by comparing it to the other handwriting on the page, and to other signatures. If it's obviously different, then it's probably the real thing. You can scan a copy of the document into your computer and crop it to create an image file of just the signature.
Another idea is to take a picture of where your ancestor lived, as it looks today. This could be the old homestead (using information from older ancestors, town plats, or land descriptions in deeds to find it), or it may be an address in a town or city. You can also include a picture of the street sign or another local landmark.
For pictures from the time period when your ancestor lived, you'll probably be able to find them in old county histories or at the local historical society. You may find pictures of the town's Main Street, courthouse, town hall, or other landmarks. If you know what church they attended, you can often find pictures of the church where they worshipped each week.
If your ancestor fought in a war (Civil War or later), you may find images of a battle they fought in or of their regiment or commander. If they were in the Navy, you may find images of the ship they served on. If they immigrated to the U.S. (or elsewhere), you can include a picture of Ellis Island, or of the ship they came over on. You might find pictures like these in histories at your local library, or in the Library of Congress collection.
You can also include an image of the ancestor's listing in a census or city directory. Just seeing their names in print helps make them seem more real. Depending on their occupation, you may find pictures of their business or place of employment (i.e. a railroad, school, factory, etc.). One of my ancestors worked for the electric company, and I found him in a photograph with other employees (with his signature under his picture). This is the only picture I have of him, and I found it in a town history (the original was in the historical society).
You might have the best luck finding photographs at the historical society in the area where your ancestor lived. They often have large photograph collections that are unpublished and maybe even un-indexed. Before contacting them, look through every record you have collected about your ancestor to make a list ideas of people and places that were important in their life. This may include their church, their street, their neighbors, the place where they worked, a lodge or other organization, military service or a veteran's organization, etc. Then you'll be prepared to make a complete search at the historical society for every possible connection.
One last idea is to find a physical description of your ancestor in lieu of an actual photograph. The best records for this are military records•draft or pension. World War I draft registration cards provide a good description for men born between 1873 and 1900.
Even when you don't have a photograph of your ancestor, you can still create meaningful heritage scrapbooks or biographical sketches by using photographs of places they frequented, their signature and pictures of their grave. Good luck!
[Note: The Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) contains catalog records and digital images providing access to about 60 percent of the still pictures held by the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, as well as some images found in other units of the Library. The catalog can be searched online at http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html.
Another good source for photographs is the American Memory Collection (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amhome.html). It includes over 7 million digital items relating to the history and culture of the United States.]
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.
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