Every once in a while we come across or are given an old photo of some distant relatives. And we ask, “Who the heck is in that old photo?”
I have such a picture from a cousin who brought it to a family reunion in 2005. There are seven people shown in the rather formal picture. Unfortunately there is no indication of who the photographer was or when and where it was taken.
Handwritten notes on the back of the photo list some names and relationships, or guesses, and an approximate year the picture was taken. But we don’t know who wrote the information, when it was added or whether it was entirely accurate. Some of the people were strangers to me so, being the curious genealogist that I am, I set about searching for information about them. With so much data available on various websites like Ancestry I thought it might be fairly straightforward to track down the individuals and their families.
Group photo in question in this blog post
Whoever had put the names to the people had also numbered them on the front for reference. The approximate date of the photo was given as 1895 and the notes read:
Back: Mary Theade (cousin of Frank Putnam), Uncle Charlie Thompson, Aunt Mary Thompson
Front: Uncle Charlie’s brother John, Aunt Alvira Thompson, Uncle Pete Thompson, girl unknown
The clothing generally fit the time period of the 1890s. I did have photos of Uncle Charlie and his wife, Aunt Mary, in the back row. They were Charles Henry and Mary Jane (Putnam) Thompson, Charles was a brother of my great-grandfather, Newton Isaac Thompson. Charles was born in 1849 and Mary Jane in 1853 which meant they were both in their 40s if the photo was taken around 1895. And Mary Jane had a brother named Frank, born in 1858.
I had been given copies of photos of Charles and Mary, one taken on their wedding day in 1877 and one taken in their senior years about 1920, so I could compare them with the people named in the old group photo.
Photos of Charles Henry and Mary Jane (Putnam) Thompson in 1877, 1895 (group photo) and about 1920
The images all seemed to me to be of the same people. That got me comfortable two of the people could be reasonably identified.
With respect to the name Putnam, I assumed Mary Jane and Mary Thede might be closely related. A peek at Mary Jane’s branch of the family tree provided another possibility – that Mary Jane and Alvira were sisters, daughters of Luman and Lavina (Vanderwark) Putnam. Luman died in 1863 and Lavina remarried a man by the name of Royal (or Robert) Randall. I found the family on various censuses. The five Putnam children from Lavina’s first marriage – including Mary (Jane), Frank and Alvira – were together on the 1870 Minnesota census. Alvira was born in 1860.
1870 Minnesota census showing Randall/Putnam Family living in Douglas County
Mary Jane, of course, married Charles Thompson in 1877. Coincidentally, Alvira married a man named Hans Peter Thompson later that same year. What I found out from the census records was that Charles and Peter were not related. Peter was actually born in Denmark in 1849; Charles had been born in Upper Canada the same year.
That seemed to confirm two more people in the group photo. Alvira would have been about 35 years of age and Peter 46. In the photo they look like that could be right. Peter and Alvira moved to North Dakota, where all of their children were born. Charles and Mary Jane and many of their relatives, including my great-grandfather, were already in the territory. According to the 1900 US census, Peter and Alvira had a daughter, Cecil May, in August of 1893. If the girl in the photo looks about two years old, then it could well be Cecil May Thompson.
So we come to "Mary Theade, a cousin of Frank Putnam” and, obviously of Mary Jane as well.
I did a search on Ancestry for Mary Theade (sic), born about 1850, plus or minus 10 years. I also thought that she might have been born in the Midwest, as were her cousins. A simple search brought up a Mary E. Thede, born about 1860 in Iowa, but living in California in 1920. Both Peter and Alvira had lived in California as well and, in fact were buried there, so I thought they might have travelled together. Hey, it was worth a shot even if there was no evidence of Mary being in the state. Further review found several other censuses from 1880, 1900 and 1910, with a Mary Thede, born in Iowa, and a husband named “Carson”. The 1880 summary showed them living in Minnesota, a closer link to Alvira, Mary Jane and Frank Putnam.
Both names popped up on a family tree on Ancestry that showed Mary Elizabeth’s death in 1925 and a link to a Find A Grave index. And that summary had her husband, Carsten’s death in 1913, information on five children and her maiden name – Vanderwark! Her father was shown as Porter Easterbrook Vanderwark and mother as Harriet Adelia McPherson.
Find A Grave entry for Mary Elizabeth (Vanderwark) Thede
This could not be a coincidence. The mother of Alvira, Mary Jane and Frank was, of course, Lavina Vanderwark. Porter could certainly have been Lavina’s brother, leaving Mary Elizabeth Thede, Alvira Thompson, Mary Jane Thompson and Frank Putnam as cousins, just as indicated on the photo. A search for Porter Vanderwark (There could not have been two of them!) found a family on the 1855 New York state census, living in Chautauqu County, the same place where Luman and Lavina (Vanderwark) Putnam were living, having just been married a few years previously. Again, this could not be a coincidence.
All evidence pointed to that fact that Mary Thede, Alvira Thompson and Mary Jane Thompson were related through the Vanderwark line.
The last individual on the photo was indicated to be Charles Thompson’s brother. It was definitely not my great-grandfather, Newton Thompson. The only other brother it could have been was John Thompson, born in 1857. As far as I am aware, John never left Canada and it was unlikely he visited Charles and Newton in North Dakota.
Left – Newton Thompson apparently taken on his marriage day in 1884; right – individual on the group photo labelled as possibly John Thompson
I do not have a picture of John Thompson, brother to Charles and Newton, but I suspected the man was not a Thompson at all. He was very possibly Carsten Thede, the husband of Mary Thede. That would make more sense, having a photo of three couples rather than two couples and two unrelated people.
I looked for Carsten Thede on Ancestry and came up with a couple of family trees that had photos of the family. Though the quality of the image is not quite as good as my own photo, when compared, it seems hardly undeniable that the man was, in fact Mr. Thede.
Left – individual on the group photo; right – individual from a photo of the Carsten Thede family, taken about 1893
I can’t be sure where the photo was taken. In 1900, Charles and Mary were living in Mapleton, North Dakota, Peter and Alvira were in Ransom, North Dakota and Carsten and Mary were in Madera, California. Very likely they all got together someplace in North Dakota for a family gathering where the picture was taken. If the little girl is, indeed, Cecil May Thompson, then the photo was likely taken in 1895 or 1896.
With a little sleuthing and some good fortune in finding others researching these families, I managed to identify – correctly I hope – who the heck the people were in this old photo. None are in my direct ancestral line but some cousins may be interested in the results.
What I learned was that one should not take for granted what identities have been given to people in old photos but check each of them out with whatever resources may be available. Often those that attempt to record information are working from someone else’s memory or merely guessing.
Wayne Shepheard is a retired geologist and active genealogist. He volunteers with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has also served as an editor of two such publications. He provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.