Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Finding Those Long-Lost Ancestors

As I send off yet another century-old photograph to its subjects' descendants, this might be the right time to talk about the reason prompting me to rescue these abandoned family portraits. Part of the reason, of course, is the genealogist's desire to "give back" to the generous family history community, which traditionally has been so free with their peer-to-peer assistance. But another part of the reason is much more selfish: I do it because I'm hoping for some genealogical karma to kick in. I'd sure love it if someone found one of my ancestors' pictures!

I am apparently not alone in that sentiment. Just yesterday, reader Miss Merry made a heartfelt comment, wishing someone would find her ancestors' photographs, too. I can certainly relate to that feeling, and perhaps you can, too.

Turns out that there are several people out there, finding abandoned family photographs and sharing their discoveries online. While it may be tedious to do so, it wouldn't hurt to conduct a thorough search through the archives of photo-rescuing bloggers—and not only the current ones, but those no longer active, whose posts are still available online. After all, that is exactly how George and Elmira Wymer's second great granddaughter found their pictures on A Family Tapestry: the genealogist in the family (husband of one of the sisters) hadn't worked on that line in a while and did a search to see what new details could be found online.

While you may not come up with gold when googling your missing ancestor's name, I'm sure the Wymers' descendants hadn't expected such a hit, either. You never know until you try—and not just through Google, but by trying other search engines, as well.

Besides that, check out the many photo rescue blogs, both current and lapsed online publications. Here are a few to consider.

My prime go-to site would be Forgotten Old Photos, created by our friend "Far Side" back in 2009, with a track record of 180 antique photographs reunited with family members—an event she prefers to dub "Full Circle." Far Side has been my inspiration, as I'm sure she has been for many others. Her blog is searchable—the best way to see if any surnames or locations you are checking are included in her collection.

Another resource—although with an entirely different approach—is the website DeadFred, which to this date claims 2,886 photo reunions.

Blogger "Mrs. Marvel" is still posting at Who Were They? and includes an extensive list of photographers featured in her collection.

"The Archivist" Carol MacKay is behind the searchable collection of photographs at Family Photo Reunion.

Many of the photo rescuing websites I've found participate in this quest on a voluntary basis, but some do not. One notable example of the latter is The Cabinet Card Gallery, which sells its daily photo features to interested readers. However, reading the blog is certainly free, searchable, and also includes a directory of all the photographers included in posts there since November of 2008—a useful way to compare photography skills if you happen to find a portrait done by the same photographer.

Some bloggers started out with good intentions...and then Life got in the way. Still, searching their website could turn up a photo you might be interested in. Take a look at the wide variety of pictures in Teresa Wilson Rogers' Forgotten Faces and Long Ago Places, or peruse the collection of photos along with letters and yearbooks—even home movies—at blogger Sharon's Save the Photos. While blogger Julie Cahill Tarr blended her several blogs into one website at Julie's Genealogy & History Hub, perhaps the photo you've been seeking might show up in her original, searchable site, Who Will Tell Their Story?

Blogs aren't the only place to spot antique photographs, of course. There are several groups on Facebook dedicated to that very purpose; if you are on Facebook, just enter such terms as "lost family treasures" or "old family photos" in the search bar to find them. There are thousands of people keeping an eye out for these photographs, letters, and other treasures. We are not alone.


  1. This is very helpful. Do you know if any of your sites listed above are located in the southeast, or have a specialty for old photos from the south? In a related problem, I have some old family tintypes, daguerreotypes, and such, with no names attached to them. Any suggestions for sussing out identities? To get at least a time frame, I have tried googling styles of clothing from the nineteenth century. But I have not found helpful sources yet. And sometimes clothing styles that were popular in New York or Philadelphia didn't make their way to the south for a decade or two.

    1. Lisa, how wonderful that you have those old daguerreotypes and yes, how frustrating to not know who they were! I will have to mull over your questions. I don't know of any of those blogs I mentioned specializing in the South, but something may come to mind after a while. Your hunch about searching for clues based on fashions is spot on--I had no idea about the time delay in the spread of fashions from north to south--but if there are any periodicals published in the South in that time frame, perhaps ads with sketches of fashion might help. Otherwise, perhaps books on fashions, if there are any with a southern slant.

      Other than that, the only tips you could glean might be from family composition, if the sitting included more than one or two subjects. A very frustrating dilemma, indeed!

  2. Jacqi, we must be kindred hearts. I rescue those photos, too, and try to return one a month to descendants. It's a great way to give back to the genealogy community.

    1. Linda, that's great! Thanks for mentioning that. This is definitely a rewarding project, and a great way for giving back. Glad to hear we are on the same wavelength.

  3. Jacqui, you have mentioned several great sites for finding old photos! May I please add to your list my blog page where I've posted several photos that once belonged to my 2nd Great Grandmother? I don't have the time for the in-depth research you put into yours, but the majority of my photos are likely from families once in central Nebraska. The link is -

    1. Laura, how fantastic that you are doing that via your blog. Thanks for including the link to your blog! Hopefully, someone will find you via search and claim those photos.

      In the meantime, are you on Ancestry? Or have an account at FamilySearch? Sometimes, you can just search the names on the trees there to see if anyone is a direct descendant. For instance, I tried my hand at your photo for Chester Lee Patton and his sister, and found two trees at Ancestry which have posted another version of that same photo. Although neither subscriber appears to be a direct descendant, I did find another tree which might be a direct connection. Best wishes to you as you try and reach out to other family history researchers to return those photos to descendants!


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