Looking for ancestral portraits can be like looking for a needle in a
haystack. I would love to have a picture of everyone on my family tree from the
advent of photography in 1839 to the present, but apparently many of my
ancestors didn't seek out the services of a professional photographer. There
were undoubtedly other ancestors that could not afford a camera. That doesn't
mean I have given up. If your relatives are like mine, it makes the search more
difficult, but don't assume you will not find anything. Several years ago, my
father suddenly appeared with a framed, oversized charcoal portrait of my great
grandfather that he rescued from a cousin. As with all types of family research
you never know what you are going to find until you start to look.
There are several ways to discover those long lost visages. Contacting
family, searching libraries (both online and traditional), digging through
auctions and flea markets, and looking at family and photo reunion websites are
all wonderful ways to discover those family photographs. Locating images is all
about learning how to use the tools at your disposal.
Family CollectionsThe most likely place to uncover new family
images is in the collections of relatives. They may have albums of carefully
labeled photographs of weddings, family gatherings, and other events, or they
may just have piles of unidentified and identified images in boxes. The good
news is that some of the unidentified subjects in your collection might be
identified in their collection.
It is important to set up appointments to go through private photographic
collections, so you have the time to carefully look at every photograph and
hopefully make copies of some of them. Some individuals decide the best time to
exchange photographs is by planning a family reunion. If you have lost track of
family, you can use the Internet to locate distant cousins by posting queries on
message boards requesting images of ancestors. There is usually no fee to use
these message boards. See my article on searching manuscript collections online
in this website's "Computer Genealogist" column (also in summer 2002 issue of
New England Ancestors) for advice on finding family photographs hidden in
manuscript materials. You might actually add other documents to your family
archive in addition to photographs.
LibrariesThere are two types of libraries-the traditional bricks
and mortar variety and the electronic libraries found on the Internet. Many
libraries have now digitized their holdings for their websites, enabling you to
search collections from home. I am unaware of any Rhode Island-based libraries
with digitized picture collections online as yet, but there could very well be
plans in the works for such a project. Remember to search traditional libraries
for biographical encyclopedias and family histories, as these may contain
engravings. For instance, the Biographical Cyclopedia of Rhode Island
contains beautiful steel engravings of notable citizens along with information.
Rhode Island Historical Society
121 Hope St.Providence, RI 02906(401) 331-8575
The largest collection of images in the state can be found in the Graphics
Department of this library. Beautifully organized and well cared for, the
collection is open to the public, but only by appointment due to a lack of
seating space. The knowledgeable staff will bring material to you from vertical
files arranged by subject, location, or surname. Separate family collections
called "lots" and group portraits are also available. If you ancestor belonged
to a particular organization, let the staff know so you can make the most of
your limited time. General research is done by looking through files of
photocopies, rather than original images to decrease the wear and tear on the
photographs. You can order duplicates for a fee.
If you do not live in the area, it would be worth hiring a researcher to
conduct a search on your behalf. Contact the RIHS Reference Department for a
list of local researchers. You can write to them directly, but because of the
hundreds of requests the Graphics Department receives it could take a while to
get a response.
Society 82 Touro St.Newport, RI02840(401) 846-1853
This historical society also maintains a photographic department that focuses
on individuals and organizations from the Newport area. Their website has an
online guide to its larger photographic collections and graphic materials.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society 101 Newbury St.Boston,
Many people join the NEHGS to use its manuscript collections without being
aware that many of those family manuscripts also contain photographs. If an
inventory exists for a particular collection, check to see if there is a box of
images listed. For further confirmation, ask a member of the staff of the
Manuscripts Department, or a staff librarian.
Local public libraries usually also maintain local history collections that
might contain ancestral portraits. See the article on this website titled " A
Rhode Island Research Directory " for more information on public libraries.
Online LibrariesThere are two websites with digital
collections that you must include in your search because they are nationwide in
The Library of
The American Memory Project is a collection of over seven million digital
images from more than 100 collections on a vast variety of subjects. Every time
I look there is something new to see. Their search feature enables you to either
search all the collections at once or pick a single collection.
United States Army Military History InstituteAttn:
Special Collections22 Ashburn Dr.Carlisle, PA
If one of your Rhode Island ancestors served in the military you will want to
search this organization's online image collection. This library has photographs
from the Mexican-American War of 1846 to the present, but the bulk of the
material dates from the Civil War. They have both group and individual
portraits. If you locate a relevant image you can write to them for copies.
Additional Online Options
Search enginesTry typing your ancestors surname into a
standard search engine and see if you find any hits. You might discover a family
website with pictures. Now attempt it again using one of the following image
search engines. Instead than finding websites associated with your search terms,
image search engines find images that contain your search words in nearby text
and file names.
Altavista Image Search
If you want more options, Quickfound.netreviews the various image search engines available
on the Internet.
Photo Reunion SitesYou are not alone in your search for family
pictures. Every day another family collection ends up being discarded or sold.
There are a few websites whose purpose is to reunite these "lost images" with
the rightful family. The advantage with these sites is that you might find just
what you are looking for. Cyndi's List features a good selection of photo reunion sites
under "Lost & Found" from the above link.
Family WebsitesFind photographs on family websites by either using
a standard search engine or by using one of the larger websites like Myfamily.com, Genealogy.com, or Familytreemagazine.com. If you locate a site without
images that contains family data, send email to the webmaster inquiring about
photographs and see what turns up.
Auctions and Flea Markets It takes patience to look for family
photographs in auctions and flea markets but some friends have made amazing
discoveries. I actually found an identified portrait of one of my husband's
distant ancestors at a photo antique sale for one dollar! Serendipity rules when
looking through piles of images. Don't forget to use the online auction sites
like eBay. Scouring antiques shops
for images is a good way to spend the day, but be prepared to find fifty
unidentified images for every identified one.
Face it, the only reason you want to find a picture of an ancestor is to get
a sense of what they looked like. There are ways to fill in those details
without photographic evidence. I may never find a portrait of my great-great
grandfather, but his Civil War Pension application contains a description of a
man with red hair and green eyes. Expand your search for photographs to include
prints, paintings, and even descriptive documents and you'll increase your
success. So go back and reexamine your genealogical documents and see if you can
find a physical description of your ancestor and then use your imagination. Your
mind won't be able to show you exactly how they looked like in an actual
photograph, but you'll get the general idea.