So That’s What He Looked Like! by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

David Shields, 1929Well, it only took me thirty-some-odd years, but I finally found out what my great-grandfather, David Shields, looked like. And as a bonus, I got his signature. How did I manage that? The key turned out to be the Immigration Collection at Ancestry and a little sleuthing.

Meet David Shields
One of my great-grandfathers, David Shields, was an immigrant from Northern Ireland. He was born in 1857, emigrated in 1882, and lived until 1936. You wouldn’t think he’d be that difficult to research, but for whatever reasons, he’s turned out to be one of my most stubborn ancestors. And even though he lived well into the 1930s, no one in the family had a photo of him. How frustrating is that?

My mother was born after he passed away, so what little I knew of him as a man came from my mother’s mother, David’s daughter-in-law. She passed away in 1988, but not before sharing plenty of family lore with me.

One of the tales she told me that stuck in my brain all these years was the fact that he loved Ireland so much that he frequently returned for visits. That seemed improbable since it was quite an undertaking to “cross the pond” even in the late 1800s and early 1900s–and oh, by the way, he had a job as a blacksmith and a family to support. How could he have managed trips to Northern Ireland?

A Traveling Man
When the Immigration Collection at Ancestry was expanded late last year, I took a few minutes to play with it, and as is typical for me, I experimented with members of my own family. David seemed like an obvious candidate, so I entered the basic details I knew and up popped a few hits. David Shields (and variations) isn’t a common name, but it’s not a rare one either, so I ventured into the list of matches with no expectations. But there it was.

I found a 1929 entry for a seventy-year-old David Shields on the S.S. Laconia. “My” David should have been seventy-two, but I glanced across the page and spotted his address–136 Bright Street, Jersey City, New Jersey. Yup, that’s where my great-grandfather lived. Better yet, there was a notation that he was traveling under passport number 57998 issued on 23 May 1929! This especially excited me since I knew that passport applications included photographs starting sometime in the 1920s. With a 1929 application, he must have submitted a photo, but could I obtain a copy of the record?

Who’s Got the Passport Applications?
I’ve dealt with passport applications before so I was aware that those up to March 1925 are available through the National Archives, but where would one for 1929 be lurking? It turns out that they reside at the State Department. Not surprisingly, there are some restrictions for third-party requests, and the price is steep ($60), but a letter and two months of hoping later, a packet arrived in the mail.

Two precious pages of documentation. The application confirmed his birth date, birth place, father’s name, and date of immigration–all details I had from other sources, but had always pondered the veracity of. Now I had all of them straight from the horse’s mouth. Apparently, his son (my future grandfather, James V. Shields) had taken his father into New York City to obtain the passport and signed as his identifying witness.

I also learned that David was 5’11”, had gray hair and blue eyes, and was still employed as an iron worker. He was going to Ireland to “visit relations,” and had gone back to Ireland once before in 1888. In fact, the timing revealed that he had journeyed back to Northern Ireland immediately upon receiving his U.S. citizenship.

Most important of all, there was exactly what I was hoping for–a photo! He had suited up for the process, looked stern, and had the prominent ears of the Shields clan. Yes, definitely a Shields man.

Seeds of Truth
So as is so often the case with family lore, there was some truth to my nana’s tale. She said that David had traveled frequently to Ireland, but in the context of the times, troubling to go back to the old country twice in a lifetime was enough to qualify as frequent. And the details of this single record confirmed Nana’s claim of his fondness for the country of his birth. I was glad to know that he visited the family back home as soon as he had been naturalized, and again, as an older gentleman of seventy-two. That told me a bit about the kind of person my great-grandfather was, and I appreciated that almost as much as the photo.

If you haven’t “worked” the Immigration Collection in a while, I strongly encourage you to spend a little time searching for your direct-line ancestors and collateral relatives. Just maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a vagabond in the family who left a trace in more recent years–a trace that might lead to some valuable clues and even faces!

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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak is Chief Family Historian for, co-founder of, and co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree. She apologizes for not having written in so long and can be contacted through and

Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking:

  • Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC) for Genealogy and Local History
    (September 29, 2007, Manassas, VA)
  • Loudoun County Public Library
    (September 30, 2007, Purcellville, VA)
  • Iowa Genealogical Society Annual Fall Conference
    (October 4-6, 2007, Marshalltown, IA)
  • Delaware Genealogical Society
    (October 21, 2007, Wilmington, DE)
  • Wholly Genes Software 2007 Genealogy Conference and Cruise
    (October 28-November 4, 2007, Eastern Caribbean)

Details and links to upcoming events

13 thoughts on “So That’s What He Looked Like! by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. Congratulations…This gives me hope since I have no pictures of any of my family before 1940.


  2. Thanks so much for the information on finding a photo in the Immigration Collection at Ancestry. I will now try to find information on the Weatherman Family from Germany to see if there might be photos.

  3. Megan, that was great information. Your grandfather was quite handsome. I know that finding a photo is exceptionally special.

  4. I spend hours (days) searching for finds that you described. You have the master’s touch, Megan.

  5. I, too, had the same experience with a passport application for my great-grandfather. It was the first photo of him that my father or I had ever seen. It also helped us identify some other family photos. Microfilms of the passport applications are also available via the LDS Family History Centers.

  6. Thanks for the lead to look for passports! I had absolutely no idea!!! I have found my daughter-in-law’s Chinese grandfather’s first arrival in 1923 and then again with his new wife (her grandmother)in 1947 (both to California) thru the Immigration Collection. He came first as a student, and when he returned the second time, it indicates he was a Naturalized Citizen. It would be “gold” if I can find their passports! Do you know if there is a restriction on this information since her grandmother is still living? I would assume there is…

  7. I know the feeling of finding a photo. I was sent a photo of my 4th great grandfather Turner Whitfield Patterson(b. 1833-d.1908) and was just estatic. I would love to find a photo of his father Turner Dennis Patterson, sherrif of Eufala Alabama 1866.

  8. megan,
    congratulations! i have been searching for so long for a photo of my civil war ancestor who became prominent in brooklyn later, to no avail. i am glad that you were successful. it gives me hope.

  9. Isn’t it wonderful! To at last have a picture to look at! I, too, just fell into a gold mine! My Grandfather Brabham was born in 1888 and died in 1919 and his father was born in 1856 and, also, died in 1919. My father was 10 years old at the time. After 30 years of research, I’d given up hope when several pictures came to us through my Grandfather’s sister’s family! What a great time I had. Jocelyn

  10. Dear Megan Smolenyak,
    I always enjoy your columns and learn so much. Very useful information. Thank you.

  11. I would like to contact Patricia Ferrin (Comment #8), as I am in possession of a copy of a letter from Turner Dennis Patterson, who is my great-great-grandfather, and I have just begun research on this family.

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