Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Walnut, Kansas: Snapshot in Time

Trying to weave a family history from the strands left on the back of an antique photograph can transport you to unexpected places. Take my last such experiment: an entire photo album with nothing but a few first names led me from the place of its discovery in northern California to its origin over five thousand miles away in County Cork, Ireland.

And oh, the stories we learned in the process! That kind of experience led me to the conclusion that nobody has a boring life story.

But what are the chances that we'll see a repeat performance with this next photo discovery? While I doubt I'll find a life story originating in that same country across the Atlantic, with a picture found in California, the possibilities are wide open.

Though the photograph I'll be chasing this time does contain the hint of a complete name—we have the benefit of a surname along with the generic given name of John—there is nothing much else to go by, other than the photographer's imprint on the front of the photograph. From that, we learn that the picture was taken in Kansas, in a small town called Walnut.

Whether the subject of the photograph actually lived in Walnut, we can't yet be sure, but at least we know he was in the vicinity, at least momentarily.

Since I'm not very good at guessing dates of photographs from either the style of the frame or the style of the clothing sported by the subject of the portrait, I decided to first learn what I could about that little town.

That, as it turned out, was a good start to the project. Right away, I learned that the population of Walnut in the 1880s—my guess for when the picture was taken—was barely two hundred. That, of course, increases our chance that, if we take a look at the 1880 census for that town, any matching name would not merely be a case of mistaken identity.

But was the photograph taken in 1880? By 1890, the town's population had multiplied to over five hundred residents. I took a look at other reports about the town to see if I could pinpoint dates even further.

According to one report, the town was relatively new at that time. Only laid out in 1871, the town was originally called Glenwood. Since our photograph clearly mentions the name of the town as Walnut, we know the photograph wouldn't have been taken that early.

That same report mentioned the town's name change had occurred in 1874—but that the post office didn't officially change its name until April of 1877. Another report, however—and this one was drawn up much closer to the time period, itself—explained that growth of the original town was hampered by dispute over the original title to the land, a difficulty which was not resolved until 1876. Upon that point, additional land was added to the original town plans up through 1882, thus allowing for expansion of business as well as the population beyond that date.

With a town that small, it goes without saying that there would be no "city" directory available online for me to look up any reference to the photography studio. Thankfully, though, the border of the picture clearly bears the imprint for a studio named Shuck, with the location, "Walnut, Kansas" included alongside the studio's identity.

How the photograph made it from Walnut, Kansas, to the antique shop where I found it in Lodi, California, is the question. I often imagine romantic stories accompanying such pictures: a beau missing his intended and sending a reminder; relatives back home missing their fortune-seeking children. The possibility for stories is immense—at least in my mind.

As I've done before, with this project, I'll start by constructing a hypothesis about the subject of the photograph. We've already noticed the imprint giving us a hint where the item originated; now, we need to see if anyone by our subject's name lived in that vicinity. If so, that will provide us with some additional facts to go by.

Then—if we can even find that much information—comes the tedious part of piecing that person's life story together, using documentation from all the usual sources genealogists are so familiar with handling. What comes next is anyone's guess, but getting to the point where we can figure this out will certainly be worth the journey. The added bonus, of course, is if we can reunite the found photo with the family to whom it really belongs.


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, no, Far Side! You are an old hand at this type of project. You've reunited well over one hundred photos with family--not to mention how many you've posted on your blog over the years. You are definitely an inspiration!


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