Flesh and Bones

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.