While going through my late mother’s pictures I came across a box of my great-grandmother Minnie’s old photographs. When my great-grandmother died in 1977 my grandmother Hazel took her pictures and stuffed them in her Hoarder’s level junk filled basement.1 After Hazel’s death my mother recovered Minnie’s pictures from Hazel’s hoard and promptly filed them with her pictures where they remained until I found them. Minnie’s pictures have already seen off three generations of my ancestors and I’m next in line. Are they worth it?
Many of Minnie’s pictures are over a hundred years old. The oldest probably date to the 1870’s or 1880’s. Despite their age they’re in excellent condition. Obviously Minnie took care of her pictures and thankfully Montana basements and attics are often high and dry. I spent an entire day studying Minnie’s pictures. Her old portraits are superb examples of small studio 19th and early 20th century photography, see the following wedding portrait, and her snapshots are candid shots of the people she knew and loved. All of which brings me to my current problem. I don’t know who these people are!
I have never had much of an interest in family trees or the entire quasi-delusional undertaking of genealogical research for the simple reason that most of it is bullshit. The basic genealogical problem is simple: people have always screwed around and then lied about it. When you get right down to it you cannot be certain, without DNA testing, that your own parents are your biological parents. There are good reasons to suspect that at least 1% to 5% of children result from cuckolding and for some social classes it may be as high as 30%. In other words your daddy may not be who you think it is! Cuckolding varies with culture, time, socio-economic status and so forth but it’s rarely zero. A cuckolding rate of 5% implies that by the time you’ve traced your ancestors to the great-great-grandparent level there is a 19% chance that an alleged, perfectly documented, ancestor is not really an ancestor. By the time we get back to the time of Christ, roughly 100 generations, there’s a 99.99% chance that any alleged ancestor is not really any ancestor. Genealogy without DNA is a hollow dead-end.
As bad as cuckolding is it’s the least of our genealogical problems. Genealogical records are incomplete, contain serious errors and are often complete frauds. As late as the 19th century the settlement of estates was very sensitive to birth order. If you were a first-born son you got everything while your baby brother got squat. It was even worse for women; they got less than squat. In such an environment there is a powerful incentive to forge records. Old handwritten documents may look official to modern eyes but you cannot assume they’re accurate. With a well-placed bribe first-born Johnnie suddenly disappears from the record. People have always lied about the important things.
Given all these obvious problems I usually ignore people going on about the exploits of their glorious ancestors. Your roots are unreliable people! You really don’t know who your great-great-great granny was and if you insist on telling tales about her I will insist on DNA evidence. I know that many of the dead in Minnie’s pictures are probably blood relatives and some are probably direct great-great or greater grandparents. I cannot be 100% sure they’re genetic ancestors but I can follow obvious document breadcrumbs and learn enough about these people to attach stories to their pictures.
I wasn’t looking forward to the giant chore of scanning, restoring and researching Minnie’s pictures2 but following breadcrumbs was more interesting than expected. It turns out that there’s a lot of dead people on the internet. When I started looking for death and marriage records I immediately came across a cemetery record for my own recently deceased mother. It was surprising to find her so soon. There’s an active world-wide ghoulish group of people photographing cemetery monuments and posting their findings online. It’s ironic but a Facebook for the dead preceded the Facebook for the living. Starting with my mother I backtracked through my alleged ancestors looking for a “Lydia.” “Lydia” was scrawled on the back of what looked like the oldest of Minnie’s pictures.
If the records are correct I believe this “Lydia” is Lydia Jane Ayres. There is a very good chance that Lydia is one of my great-great grandmothers. Lydia married Albert F. Raver in 1863 in Brant Ontario. Albert was the mother of Minnie’s husband Bert Raver.
I didn’t find any pictures of Albert Raver in Minnie’s collection and that’s too bad because I suspect Albert had an eye for the babes. I looked for his death record and found this confusing census entry. Here was an Albert F. Raver with exactly the same age and birth origin remarried to a Lydia L. Raver. At first I thought it was a mistake but Albert’s marriage to Lydia L. Ayres was in 1906. That did not compute. Then I remembered a story my grandmother Hazel told me years ago when we were talking about her grandparents. She told me that one of her grandfathers married twice to two women with the same first and last names. She complained about how difficult this made sorting Christmas and birthday cards. I cannot remember if the name was Lydia Ayres but what are the chances? It seems Albert married Lydia Jane Ayres in 1863. Somehow they parted ways and later, at the age of 68, Albert remarried in 1906 a younger Lydia L. Ayres. Having been divorced and remarried myself I can only marvel at Albert’s ingenuity. The last thing you want to do in your senile dotage is call a second wife by your first wife’s name. Before social security that could have been a fatal mistake. Randy old Albert neatly dodged that bullet.
The randiness was not confined to the Raver branch. Equally intriguing is this old portrait of “dad’s old sweetheart.” Here Minnie is likely referring to her own father and my great-great granddaddy Howell Cobb Davis. Screwing around, contrary to boomer mythology, wasn’t invented in the 1960’s.
Minnie lived to 96. I was in my twenties when she died so I remember some of the people in her snapshots. Here’s Minnie with her first-born son Vernon standing in Marble Canyon Arizona in 1949. I knew Vernon as a boy. He always posed exactly like you see him her.
You can read the poor guys mind. “Do you really need another picture? Well if that’s how it’s going be I’m going to assume my petulant spoiled fat boy pose.” You cannot blame Vernon. His photographic life got off to a dreadful start. Look at this gem.
In the early 20th century women liked to dress up their baby boys as girls. Vernon got the full girly treatment. You cannot blame him for being scarred for life after such trauma. Here’s a clue ladies. Boys are not girls. Gender is not arbitrary. People that assert the contrary are idiots. Sorry if that sounds like mansplaining; the truth is not always polite.
I doubt I’ll ever get through Minnie’s pictures. There are hundreds of images to scan, restore and research. I just don’t have the time or energy but in the years ahead I will occasionally pick out and upload attractive images. Here’s the gallery to follow if you’re interested.