Mystery photos are one of a family history researcher’s biggest frustrations. We find them in old albums, between the pages of books or in loose files. It can heartbreaking to wonder whether we’re looking at the face of an ancestor–and to know we may never know for sure.
Daguerrotype of a Photograph of Abraham Lincoln, used for the $5 Bill. Original taken on February 9, 1864. Photographer unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Well, we’re not alone. Two news stories ran recently about old mystery photos theorized to be two icons of American history: President Abraham Lincoln and singer Elvis Presley!
(Image Right: Daguerrotype of a Photograph of Abraham Lincoln, used for the $5 Bill. Original taken on February 9, 1864. Photographer unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
Mystery Photos: Abraham Lincoln Funeral
The Washington Post recently posted a story about the possibility that some unidentified photos at the National Archives (U.S.) show rare images of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City.
The article gives some great back story how Lincoln’s 2-week+ funeral procession. His body traveled by rail and horse-drawn hearse for 1600 miles from Washington, D.C. back home to Springfield, Illinois. Along the way, there were stops for elaborate funeral processions in several cities. Millions of mourners turned out. The article quotes the man who put together this theory – a retired government accountant who loves historic photos.
Mystery Photo: A Young Elvis Presley?
The Blaze recently reported on an Elvis sighting: well, at least a photo sighting of Elvis. The image in question shows a young teenage boy. There are lots of questions about whether this is really The King before fame changed his life – and American pop music – forever.
These remind me of a genealogy blog post by Lisa Frank. She shares how listening to the Genealogy Gems Podcast led to the discovery of an online video that may belong to her family story. Read her post Could It Be My Ancestor? and chime in with your opinion.
What surprising, poignant or fascinating mystery photos have you found in your family history research? Share them on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page and tell us about them! I look forward to seeing them!
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished May 13, 2014
Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.
Download the Show Notes for this Episode
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 31: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 3
Did you know that all those annotations and scribbles on passenger lists may hold important clues to your family history? In this episode, we continue our discussion with Stephen Danko about immigration and naturalization records. (If you missed them, they are Episodes 29 and 30.) Specifically,we’ll listen in on a presentation he gave on passenger list annotations and what the immigrant’s experience was like at Ellis Island.
So we’ve talked already about ship passenger arrival lists. Now let’s get out the magnifying glass, so to speak. We’ll look closely at the little notes on this records.
Annotations on passenger lists could have made upon departure, arrival or later when that immigrant applied for citizenship. One of the common misconceptions about passenger lists is that they were not filled out at Ellis Island, as many people believe. Rather they were completed at the port of departure. So notes could have been made at a variety of different times.
Here are three examples of annotations that were made upon a person’s arrival in the United States:
D=detained for inquiry
SI or DSI=Special Inquiry or Detained for Special Inquiry—this was really bad! (listen to the podcast to hear why)
USC=Was born in the U.S. or was a U.S. citizen
For a more thorough list of annotations on passenger records, read Stephen’s handout he graciously shared with us: A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests. His companion blog posts (see Updates and Links below) show you real-life examples.
Here are some more great tips from that conversation:
- Check at the end of the manifest for pages called Record of Detained Alien Passengers, and Records of Release of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry.
- Our ancestors could have traveled back and forth from their homeland several times before they became citizens. Those passenger lists are just as valuable as their original immigration. If they hadn’t completed the naturalization process yet, then you may find an indication of that re-entry number or their citizenship status.
- As Stephen mentioned in a previous podcast, depending on the timeframe, your ancestor may have had to request a certificate of arrival when applying for citizenship. And if you haven’t found their naturalization records yet, and are lucky enough to find a certificate of arrival annotation on the passenger list, then you will have a really good chance for tracking them down.
- Certificates of arrival were required for anyone who applied for citizenship beginning in 1926 who had arrived after 1906. Annotations on the passenger list about the certificate of arrival (C/A) can lead you to where and when they applied for citizenship. A number like 1X-151953 indicates a request for a certificate of arrival was made after 1926 to help with the naturalization process. The first number “1” is the naturalization district, if there is an “X” it means the person didn’t have to pay for the Certificate of Arrival and the numbers after the dash are the certificate of arrival number or the application number. The date of the certificate of arrival may appear after this number sequence.
- Another code, VL, is the verification of landing, often seen for arrivals before 1906, before certificates of arrival were issued.
- Numbers like 432731 / 435765 = the passenger was a permanent resident of the U.S. and was returning home with a re-entry permit.
- If someone’s name was crossed out on the passenger list but the rest of the line was not, it probably means their name was amended. It was likely misspelled.
- Look through every page of the ship’s manifest for your ancestor’s voyage. You may find record of stops the ship made along the way, recording of friends or relatives, or even a second entry for your ancestor as Stephen mentioned in the case of changing class of ticket.
- The more recent the passenger list, the more information we’ll find and possibly the more annotations we may find. In my case my great-grandparents made the journey from Antwerp Belgium in 1910. In looking back over their passenger lists (they each have their own because they traveled three months apart) I found numbers and markings on their record that I hadn’t really paid much attention to. So when I heard Stephen’s talk I was very excited to figure out their meaning!
Listen to the podcast itself for more details on:
- Head taxes charged;
- Names entered at port of departure for people who may not have sailed;
- Why a person might appear twice on a passenger list;
- Notations that they were hospitalized upon arrival—or that they died there;
- The number of meals eaten at Ellis Island; and
- Grounds for exclusion for entry to the U.S.
Updates and Links
A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests. This pdf by Stephen Danko provides a timeline history of the information requested on passenger lists. You’ll also find annotations made before and after arrival.
Stephen’s Blog: A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests
Stephen’s Blog: More Annotations on Immigrant Passenger Manifests
One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse (Ellis Island Search Tool)
Recently, Genealogy Gems podcast listener Debra Ingrum Trammel wrote to me with this question about cleaning out a relative’s home. Does it sound familiar?
“Hi Lisa, My husband is faced with the daunting task of disposing of his parent’s belongings. His parents at age 92 and 86 have things that go way back!!
We live in Tennessee and his parents lived in Texas so that in itself is a real chore to have to make numerous trips back and forth. My husband is so eager to get all of this finished but I am concerned that he will overlook or not be aware of any items that should be kept for his family history.
I continue to work on researching his side of the family. I know that we should keep certain documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, definitely old photographs, etc. but I fear that there are items that I might not think about as being important. Might you offer some suggestions for us?
Here’s my answer:
Debra, I sympathize with your concern about overlooking things. When my Grandpa died I was pregnant with my last child and unable to go back and help clear out the house in another state. I worried too about things being tossed without folks realizing they were important.
One area to keep an eye out for is bills & receipts – a lot of folks (like my Grandmother) kept receipts from way back. While on the surface they seemed prime to toss, I actually retraced their steps and homes through the 1940s and 1950s based on the addresses written on the receipts!
Paperwork is often the area we itch to toss, but old envelopes and letters from other people writing to our relatives can provide many clues.
I also carefully go through all old books before giving them away because more than once a special tidbit has been tucked inside the pages. If you don’t plan on keeping the book, or don’t want to keep the item in the book, be sure to make note of which pages it was nestled in between. There could be a special meaning there. If everyone involved is in a big hurry to finish the clean up and you don’t have the luxury of time to go through the pages of the books, at least give give them a gentle shake over a table allowing anything tucked inside to fall out.
In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 39 I tell the story of one of the most significant finds in my family that almost got tossed out. But Grandmother was tapping me on the shoulder, prodding me to look further before wrapping things up – and boy am I glad that I did! If folks in your family think you are being too persnickety about not over looking things, play that segment of the show for them, or tell them the story.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. I invite all of you readers out there to share your unusual finds and recommendations for Debra on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. (And don’t forget to “Like” us!)
Wishing you family history success, and many thanks for writing! Lisa
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Easy or complicated genealogy for the folks on this remote island? Tristan da Cunha, Wikipedia image.
Small, isolated populations should mean it’s easy to do their genealogy, right? Well, I wonder.
I came across this Wikipedia article on Tristan da Cunha, described as “the most remote inhabited island in the world, lying 1,750 miles from the nearest landfall in South Africa, and 2,088 miles from South America. Its current population of 264 is thought to have descended from 15 ancestors, 8 males and 7 females, who arrived on the island at various times between 1816 and 1908. The male founders originated from Scotland, England, the Netherlands, United States and Italy and the island’s 80 families share just eight surnames: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Patterson, Repetto, Rogers, and Swain.”
Of course, success in doing family history on this island depends a lot on how strong their record-keeping and preservation has been. (Consider what one natural disaster could do to written history) Barriers to migration should certainly mean it’s easy to find ancestors. But what does that family tree look like? How many people will show up in multiple places on the tree?
Have you ever done genealogy research on an isolated or insular group? What are the challenges? What’s easier? Feel free to share on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. Feel free to share your tales of complicated genealogy!