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Can family photos help with genealogy?

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

A picture tells a thousand words, so the old saying goes. That's certainly true with old photographs which you might have in the family. I have a couple of great examples in my own family history.

This photo of two men has been passed down my mother's side of the family. The seated man is my great great grandfather Thomas McKENZIE, who was born in 1842 in Inverness-shire, and who died in 1883 in Dumfries. Thomas appears in other family photographs with his wife Margaret, and my great grandmother, Mary Ann.

Knowing that Thomas was born in 1842 and died in 1883 helps narrow the date of the photo too. Thomas is clearly not a child or teenager in the photo, which narrows the window even further from potentially around 1863 to 1883.

But who is the other, younger man pictured with Thomas? My ancestors didn't think to write names on the back of the picture, so we don't know for sure. But it's more than likely to be a relative of Thomas. His wife, Margaret, had brothers but all were older than Thomas. Perhaps it was one of Thomas's brothers? Thomas had three younger brothers; William born in 1844, Andrew born in 1848 and John born in 1862. Given the age difference between the two men pictured, my gut feeling is that this is John, perhaps visiting Thomas on a trip to Dumfries, the special occasion marked by a portrait?

We'll never know for sure. And that's perhaps the most frustrating issue when dealing with old photographs. We can make a best guess, but will never know for sure. So the next time you're sorting through old photos of a cousin's wedding or a graduation, write names and dates on the back. You never know who'll thank you for it in generations to come.

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