by Marian Pierre-Louis
How do you react to the shadow people? That's what I call the pink and blue profile silhouettes in most family history software programs. They are place holders for real photos but when you don't have photos of your ancestors they just become shadow people.
Personally, I ignore the shadow people. I don't even see them anymore. I don't want to get my hopes up so I just pretend they don't exist. Until recently.
I have been working hard on finding my great great grandmother, Charlotte Hill who died at age 33 in 1862. Discovering the location of her gravestone was a great thrill. This is likely the closest I'll come to a physical connection with her. There may be a extant photograph of her somewhere but whether her name was written on the back or whether a descendant has the photo are two things I'll likely never know.
Since I spent so much time researching Charlotte I inevitably spent quite a bit of time researching her husband, William Chandler Learned, who lived a long life, and her two children. In addition I also researched William's second and third wives and the children produced from those marriages.
My great-grandmother, Clara (Charlotte's daughter), was only 9 years old when William married his third wife, Adda Setchel, in 1868. Adda lived to the ripe old age 86. She was part of Clara's life for 60 years before her death and it's probably safe to say that she was the only mother Clara ever knew.
At first, I hadn't really considered researching the other wives but I'm glad I changed my mind because it changed everything for me.
While researching the entire family I discovered that Adda and her daughter, Abbie liked to travel. I came across ship passenger lists from their trips to Europe. The real gold came when I found them in the US Passport Applications, 1795-1925 database on Ancestry.com. The early passports, from 1914 and earlier, may contain descriptions of our ancestors. You'll find information about age, stature, eye color, hair color, complexion and the shape of their forehead, nose, mouth, chin and face. What a wonderful surprise to find details about how an ancestor looked!
If you are lucky enough to have ancestors who traveled abroad between 1915 and 1925 you will be rewarded with an actual photograph of your ancestor! From this database I discovered photos of Adda Setchel and her daughter Abbie Learned.
I already had some photos of my great-grandmother, Clara. Since she and Abbie were half sisters it was fun to compare their features. I tried to imagine which traits Clara and Abbie both inherited from their paternal Learned side and which they got from their respective mothers. Abbie had a brother, William Setchel Learned, and I had a photo of him as well. Quite a handsome chap!
Now with photos of 3 out of 5 siblings and one mother I was ready to start replacing the shadow people in my family tree!
What a treat it is to look at a pedigree chart and see actual faces instead of silhouettes! This transformation has encouraged me to seek out more images of my ancestors. It may be difficult but I will work hard to find more photos.
You can try the Passport Applications database to find photos of your ancestors. Be aware, however, that not everyone's ancestors will be included. Your ancestors needed to be wealthy enough to travel abroad and to pay for the passport application fee. But don't discount your ancestors, took a look anyway. Your ancestors may just yet surprise you!
If you have another unusual public source for ancestor photos please be sure to let us all know. It would be wonderful to convert as many silhouettes as possible to actual faces.