Thursday, December 08, 2016


Margaret took advantage of a visit to her brother's home to go through some old family pictures.  She brought home this one because she knows I am always interested in such photo artifacts.

A masking tape label on the back of the framed photo identify the subject by name as "Capt. A.C. Thompson, father of Mrs. T.S. Johnson".  Margaret did not recognize the specific names, though I thought they were likely ancestors of Margaret's mother whose maiden name was Johnson.

The subject's features are much easier to make out in the scanned image than in the actual photograph which is under glass in a thin, embossed metal frame which measures 2.75 inches by 3.25 inches.  I thought at first that the picture might be a tintype.  However, the surface damage apparent in the scan is not typical of other old tintypes I have seen.  I am guessing from the condition, the framing, the dress and the pose that the picture dates to the mid-to-late 19th Century.

It turns out that I jumped to some wrong conclusions about family connections to The Captain.  We got to talking about him with my daughter and granddaughter who is doing a school project on genealogy.  Margaret said there were Johnsons and Smiths on both sides of her family.  Sure enough, when we dug out the family tree, there was The Captain, four generations back on the paternal side.

Later in the evening I got an email from my daughter who had discovered some records and pictures on line of an A.C. Thompson who was a Captain of the Confederacy.  There was a family connection to Georgia which fit.  My daughter asked me what I thought the chances were that our A.C. was the Confederate officer.  I was skeptical on two counts.

The fellow in the old photo we have has a nose which resembles that worn by the two generations of Smiths that I have known personally.  The Confederate face has some superficial similarities, but I don't see that nose.  Additionally, the family history notes accompanying the picture of the Civil War officer lists a wife whose name does not match that associated with the A.C Johnson in the copy of the genealogy we have.

Later yet, my daughter wrote again that she had found a discrepancy regarding the name of the Confederate's wife in another document which indicated that the name ascribed to the wife was actually that of a mother-in-law.  Then, again, we don't at this point know the details of the process by which a name, a rank and a family connection was made to the picture we have.  My daughter is still hot on the trail.

I have to confess my interest in the identity of the fellow in our pictures is quickly reaching its limit.  There is no doubt that a photographic portrait can instantaneously record a moment in the life of the subject.  How one interprets that record is, however, a slippery process.  The circumstances of the moment may  or may not be faithfully recorded at the time by another person, or they may be later pieced together by several or many people, each with their own perspectives and prejudices.  Still, there remains the possibility that somewhat firm connections to past lives and events can be revealed by the photographic record, and it is interesting to see how people chose to have themselves portrayed at a distant time in the past for history's sake.


Jim Grey said...

My mother has a stack of family photographs going back to the early 20th century at least. She knows many of the people in them, but not all of them. None of these people were noteworthy outside her family; they were just everyday people.

At some point you have to wonder: who cares? To the extent my mother has been able to identify these people, explain where they slot into the family tree, and share memories about them, it has been valuable in that it has helped me understand my family: its ways and history, and where I fit into it. But this information has added little meaning or value for my sons, for whom these monochrome faces are entirely anonymous. I know hardly any of them personally, and so for them the connection is at best tenuous. They all even have last names they have seldom heard: Frederick and Parker, my mother's parents' names. For them, I feel sure it's nice to know that this was their grandmother's family, but more detail than that is unlikely to enhance their lives.

If someone in the Frederick or Parker clans had done something historic, would the story differ? If we were upper crust, where bloodline appears to matter a great deal and family members are likely to be captains of industry or high officials, would the story differ?

Mike said...

I know there are a lot of people passionately interested in genealogy, but I have never found the opportunity to question any of the as to what they are getting from the pursuit. When the idea of an aristocracy had some credence I imagine that tracing one's ancestry back to notable ancestors led to some validation for the living descendants.

When looking at old pictures of people whether or not they might be relatives, I think I mostly tend to find an interest in what the pictures can tell me about the technology and uses of photography in past times, rather than what might explain or identify the individuals portrayed.

Maybe someone will stumble on this thread and provide an explanation for those of use who don't quite get it.

astrobeck said...

I like the mystery of the ancestors. I think some people get caught up in it because it tells who they were and where they came from. It's just simply personal history for most. Most all of my family members were farmers...I have a deep love for gardening and digging in dirt... it just makes me smile that it carries on...

Mike said...

Thanks, Becky, for weighing in with a different viewpoint. I see we have something in common besides an interest in photography. My father's side of the family were sod busters too, first in Ireland and later in Nebraska. He and his siblings got themselves educated and moved to cities, and I grew up a city boy in Seattle.

I did make a gesture toward a return to the rural life during a mid-life crisis in the '80s, bucking hay and working on trout farms along the Snake River in southern Idaho. The life style didn't really suit me, though, and I went back to my true calling as a bureaucrat and technology dabbler. I have to confess I do occasionally experience strange urges to go outside and poke my fingers in the dirt.

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