Saturday, February 05, 2011

Ways to Find Photos of Your Ancestors

One of the things that I found most moving about Vanessa Williams’ appearance on   Who Do You Think You Are?  was that she was able to find a photograph of one great-grandfather and tintype of another. 

I remember having the same exciting feeling the first time I found a photograph of one of my ancestors - an ancestor I only had just learned about from my genealogy research.  It was a very emotional moment.  I couldn't help but look to see if I recognized family features, and the photo gave me the desire to learn more about who this person was.

A photograph of an ancestor can really bring your family history to life -  a reminder that this is a person who really lived.   But if you are like me, you don't have many or even any photographs beyond your grandparents. 

How can you find photos of your ancestors?  Here are some places to look:

Family Members
  • Ask your family members.   You never know who in your family may have the passed-down photos of grandparents, great-grandparents or even further back, and never mentioned it because they thought no-one was interested.  Today, it is easy to make copies – you can go to their house and take a digital photograph of the photo or take your laptop and scanner to scan the photo.
  • You may be able to find unknown distant cousins on the internet  by posting a query on the  RootsWeb Mailing Lists, either the county or surname mailing lists. You may find someone with a common ancestor and be able connect to share information and photos.  I found a 3rd cousin this way who been handed down the portrait of our mutual ancestor and she gladly sent me a photograph of the portrait. It was one of my most rewarding moments in genealogy to see a photo of my 3rd great-grandfather who born in 1811.
  • Ancestry Photos and Scanned Documents - This database contains photos submitted to Ancestry family trees by users who have indicated that their tree can be viewed by all Ancestry members, including those with a free membership. You will find submitted photos of people, tombstone, documents, and more.  According to the Ancestry Card Catalog, this database has over 26 million records. Free.
  • Build Your free family tree online and will connect you with other members who also happen to be researching your ancestors. You can contact them to share research and photos. Free.

Search Engines
  • Google Image Search There are a lot of ancestors images that can be found using Google Image Search.  Google finds the images on personal genealogy pages, Google books, and all the typical places that Google searches.

Photo Archives

County Books
County History Books contain thousands of county resident photographs as well as biographical sketches.  These books were very popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900s.  Every biography I have seen is for a male, however.  If there is a bio in the book, there may also be an accompanying photo. Many of these books have been recently reprinted and may be available in the county library where your ancestor lived. If you don't live near a library with the book, you can request an interlibrary loan from your local library.  Places to search for county books:
  • The county library where your ancestor lived.
  • Google Books   Search Google books for the name of your ancestor and the county where he lived. 
  • US Genweb Archives,  It is worth a try to take a look, but it has been my experience when the bios were transcribed from a county book, the photographs were not included.
  •  has digitized many of these books.  When you search Ancestry for a surname, check the box that restricts your search to Stories and Publications.

Historical or Genealogy Society
  • Search the photograph archives of the Historical Society located in your ancestor's county.

Many times old newspaper obituaries include a photograph or illustration, just as they do today.  Here are some places to find old obits.

Images of America Series
The Images of American Series, available for many towns across the US, have photos generally culled from the town’s historical society.  While the book may not have close-ups of people, they generally have group shots of the townspeople.  I found an ancestor in a group shot of the local Volunteer Fire Department taken 140 years ago.  These books are available at local book stores, libraries, and at It’s worth a browse, but no guarantee you will find your ancestor.  You will, however, find some pretty good photos of your town as it used to be.  To find these books at, search for your county or town name with the words Images of America. Be sure to check out the years the book covers as some of these books have historical photos while some have contemporary photos.


Angela said...

Nice work. Don't forget, blogging about your ancestors sometimes leads to distant relatives contacting you with links to other relatives - and their photos!

Nathan said...

Wow! My great great great grangfather was born in 1811! Was it William Ambrose Percival? Just curious you know

Kathi said...

No, Peter Meyers of Pennsylvania