How Old Family Photos Help You Discover The Ancestors You Never Knew

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how-old-family-photos-help-you-discover-the-ancestors-you-never-knewA year ago, I knew very little about my ancestors. My grandparents passed when I was very young and there wasn’t much storytelling in our house growing up. I knew a little about genealogy and that some had been done in our family, but I never asked about it.

I ask now. I ask a lot. That’s because old family photos help you discover the ancestors you never knew.

My curiosity was ignited just over a year ago while helping my 85 year-old father clear out his garage. He had decades of boxes stacked throughout the house filled with tools, car parts, childhood memories, family photos and more. Buried amongst the chaos were boxes that belonged to my grandmother, Hilda, that my father had brought home when she passed in 1984. Hilda had saved family correspondence dating from the 1880 to 1980s. Decades of photos and stories from relatives and friends addressed to her, her mother and other family members.

I was fascinated by the faces in the photos, both identified and unknown. I opened a few letters and discovered an insight into the everyday life of ancestors and family friends and was instantly hooked.

Suddenly I had thousands of clues to not only my relatives, but the people my relatives knew. I wanted to get to know all of them. Not just the dates of births, christenings, marriages, children and death. I needed to know how they lived, what they did, who they were. Instinctively, I knew that there might be other people out there looking for the information sitting in these boxes, so I started a blog.

I began to share everything I found. Slowly piecing together the story behind a photograph, postcard or letter with the help of Google, Google Books,,, and more. My hope was that others, like me, might be searching the internet for the names in my collection.

Within a few months, relatives I’d lost touch with and others I’d never heard of began to emerge. We started sharing the bits and pieces of our families’ history that have been scattered about the globe. I asked my father question upon question about faces in photos, names signed on Valentine cards and letters. He had answers here and there, but he also started telling me about a few relatives that I’d never met who might be able to answer a few questions.


My grandfather’s sister’s daughter, Nellie Jean, was 90, living in Salt Lake City and her sister’s daughter Barbara was living in Washington. I met with Nellie Jean to learn more about the family, and started corresponding with Barbara. The next thing I knew I had a journal my great grandmother wrote on a 1927 trip to the UK and a copy of a 69 page album about my grandfather’s family. A few family mysteries were solved along with photo identifications and that was just the beginning.

I also began collaborating with a cousin in Utah on another side of the family and we shared our cabinet card collections. Using the photographers names on the back & front of the cards, and great online resources like UK Photographers Studios, and The Cabinet Card Gallery, we were able to create timelines for many photos and identify relatives based on the dates and locations.

Just this week, I began to correspond with an Australian descendent of my great grandmother’s sister who found me through the blog and also cousins I found in Arkansas through a clue in a letter written in 1947.

Had I not opened those boxes, had I sent them to a dumpster, had I not started asking questions – I would never have found these long lost relatives. Their generosity is helping solve the mystery behind so many unmarked photos.

Be gracious and always ask permission before sharing the items that have been shared with you. Of course, not everyone wants to share and that’s ok. Don’t take it personally. There are thousands of relatives out there just waiting for you to discover them and them to discover you.

Speaking of which, are we related or are you related to someone my ancestors knew?

Here are my favorite resources for family history research and discoveries:
Google Search
Google Books
UK Photographer’s Directory
Photo London
Cabinet Gallery

laurieconklinAbout the author: Laurie Conklin is the author of the blog, Sharing The Past, where she is discovering her ancestors through over one hundred years of family photos and letters dating from the late 1800s to 1980s. She is also a business consultant, chocoholic, caregiver, travel junkie and pilates enthusiast. One day, she hopes to visit all the places referenced in her ancestor’s correspondence. You can read the blog by clicking HERE. and check out more of Laurie’s family history adventures by following her on Instagram and Twitter.

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