Posted by Mary Gorman on October 26, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

This article originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, Sept-Oct 2008. 

A picture brings life to life, maybe more so in family history than anywhere else. What a relative looked like, his or her attitude, quirks, interests—looking at a photo changes someone from a name to flesh and bones. But what if you have no photo? You may be able to find one in the following places.

Start with the easy places first: family. After you’ve exhausted the people you know, start searching the family line sideways from a common ancestor. (Your family tree at Ancestry can direct you to other family trees that hold your ancestor and help you contact the trees’ owners.) Older images like daguerreotypes and tintypes didn’t come with copies—only one heir could inherit the photo. And looking for a possible photo of a relation is also a good excuse to contact a cousin you’ve never met, which can lead to more stories, more clues, and more pictures.

Move to broader horizons: websites. The Internet provides several ways to search for pictures of long-dead individuals. The search engine Google has an image search you can use to find pictures identified with your ancestor’s name. Go to Google.com, select “Images” at the top of the page, and search for your ancestor’s name. Also visit DeadFred <www.deadfred.com>, an online genealogical photo archive where people submit old photos. And remember to look through public member photos on Ancestry, too.

Buy something nice: eBay. Sellers on eBay comb yard sales, estate sales, and auctions; they buy whole lots of pictures and list the images for sale. And if the picture has an identified subject, you’ll usually find the subject’s name in the listing. You can arrange to have an alert mailed to you every time your family name or hometown or both are mentioned in a listing. Finding a photo you’re looking for is a long-shot, but you never know.

Look into learning: yearbooks. Don’t cringe—it’s not your yearbook picture you’re looking for. Relish the fact that your late-19th-century and 20th-century relatives may have had yearbook pictures, too. This fall, Ancestry.com is updating its yearbook collection, adding more than 5,000 yearbooks from around the United States. Search the new yearbooks through the site’s search function; if you’d rather browse the collection, go to the Ancestry Card Catalog and search for “U.S. School Yearbooks.” You can also contact schools, local historical societies, or public libraries to inquire about yearbooks. If they have the one you’re looking for, ask them to scan and e-mail you a copy of both the photo and the personal information and send a donation if their search is successful.

Check with the feds: passports and other records. Photographs were required for passport applications beginning in late December 1914 and for Declaration of Intent forms (to become a U.S. citizen) beginning in 1929.  Passports were most commonly issued to U. S. citizens, naturalized or otherwise. Start your search in the immigration collection on Ancestry, where you’ll find U.S. passport applications from 1795 to 1925 as well as a collection of naturalization records ranging from declarations of intent to naturalization record indexes. You can also try the National Archives for copies of applications made prior to April 1925; those applied for after that date are held by the State Department.

Piece it together: the details. If all else fails and you can’t come up with a photograph, you may be able to find a physical description of your ancestor. Some military records, like World War I draft registrations, ship manifests after 1906, and citizenship applications after 1906, contain physical descriptions, usually including height, build, hair, and eye color. A number of these are available on Ancestry, as well as the National Archives.

13 Comments

  1. Candice

    I have had a fair amount of success finding photos of my ancestors by searching Google Images, web sites, yearbooks, Ancestry and even eBay. I did a search of my name “LaPrade” on eBay and a photo came up of my great grandfather’s brother who died at 23 in 1876. His name Rutledge LaPrade was written on the back of the photo in teeny tiny pencil lettering by the photographer. I have pretty good luck looking for photos probably because my family names (Hooper, Whitmer, Dexter) are not very common.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Candice Thank you for sharing your photo search tips, that is very helpful! Good luck with your search and keep up the good work.

  2. Jude

    Just go to Ancestry where thousands of people have ripped off photos from many locations, without bothering to give credit or attribution or include information about the photo, and with the encouragement of Ancestry.com (who shares these photos with others as hints).

    • Monika

      Yes, Jude! This is unfortunately why I made my trees private. Ancestry keeps changing their “format” for the profile pages which always has everybody in an uproar and many of the members quitting ancestry because of it, when it would be so much more important to take care of issues like this. ….But then, this helps them sell memberships that people can access your pictures–which does not cost ancestry a dime.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Jude We know how frustrating can be to discover your own photos have been saved and shared by other users without mentioning the original owner. That’s why we don’t encourage this behavior on the website, and we always remind that you are in control of your content. We would recommend to keep the tree private and share it only with specific members that you trust. Alternatively, you could use watermarks (available online on free editing tools) to sign the photos and make them recognizable as you own property.

    • Linda Loukos

      Sorry Jude but I disagree and feel it’s up to each individual to decide whether to keep their tree private or not. I’m very happy to have someone use my photos as I know it allows them view their ancestor when quite possibly they would never have a clue. Just my opinion! Happy hunting.

      • Carlotta L Hunt

        I agree. I think it is a joy to share; it would make me happy that someone could find answers and photos from any info and photos that I put in ancestry.

  3. Lynn

    Another source, at least in the small Michigan communities I am familiar with, is small, local museums that are collecting local history. The Mayville Area Museum of Genealogy and History (Mayville, Michigan), for example, has done a wonderful job of gathering and cataloging local photos. Check those hard-working and, largely, volunteer efforts in the locales where you ancestors lived.

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