Saturday, August 12, 2023

Those Unnamed Faces


It's no secret that many of us who pursue our family history possess unlabeled photographs, despite our diligence to identify each individual ancestor. We become the inheritor of those stashes of memorabilia from distant cousins and other family members who haven't the slightest idea what to do with them. A parent or grandparent dies and the next generation gets called in to help clean up "the mess." While we are excited to become the new possessor of these family treasures, that delight soon turns to dismay. "Now what are we gonna do?"

Now that I've been puzzling over the discovery of a possible new (to me) collateral line in my father-in-law's Tully ancestry, behind the scenes I've been reaching out to Tully cousins new and old. Some are fellow subscribers at, and some also show their connection to this family line through DNA matches to my husband. Others have posted trees which include the Tully family of that other line I've lately discovered, that of another Dennis Tully whose wife—Margaret Hurley—did not match the name of our Denis' wife Margaret (Flannery). 

One consistent response, as I connect with these fellow Tully researchers, is that they are now the keepers of multiple family photographs with one specific problem: the pictures are not labeled. As one person put it, there is no one left who might recognize these faces. What to do now?

Granted, there are few options open to us. But at least there are some—not none. In such a case, the first idea that comes to my mind is the story once mentioned here in a comment by reader (and blogger) Miss Merry, who discovered she and someone else in her town were both descendants of two women pictured in a photo she had. The obvious answer was to share. After all, we now have the technology to make copies—better yet, to scan and digitally share what we have. We may not know much about the sister of our great-grandmother, but that sister is someone else's ancestor—someone else who would love to have that photo.

Another option I've put into practice is something I learned from "Far Side of Fifty," the blogger behind Forgotten Old Photos. She crowdsourced attempts to figure out who the subject of a photo might have been. Better yet, she'd rescue "orphan photographs" and, with the help of her blog readers, find a way to send the photo back home to family. It became obvious that, with only a few hints showing on the picture—or on its flip side—it might be possible to determine who the subject was. In my experience, just like triangulation in DNA testing, if I could find three points of information about a photograph, it might be possible to identify the subject.

One of my newly-found Tully contacts mentioned exactly this problem: what to do with those old unlabeled family photos? She suggested finding a way for all of us to share what we have. Since is encouraging subscribers to collaborate on our trees, perhaps using Ancestry's own website would be one way to do so. I've known of others who have utilized social media, such as Facebook, by setting up a private group where members could discuss research puzzles, share in problem solving, and, of course, share those unlabeled family photos.

Based on my conversations just this month with the Tully connections, apparently there are several such neglected pictures in the collections several of us hold. Perhaps, coming together to collaborate, each of us might find our own family's faces in the collection of cousins we never before knew we had. 

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