6 In Genealogy & Family History/ Guest Bloggers/ Printed Photos/ Storytelling with Photos

Where to Gather: Finding Photos of Your Ancestors in Unexpected Places

If you have taken my free Organizing Formula course, you know that the first step to having an organized photo collection is always to gather all your photos into one place before you start sorting. This usually means pulling out the boxes of photos you might have stored in the basement, but did you know there are many more places to look?  In this guest post, Genealogist Lisa Lisson explores a few unconventional places to look for photos of ancestors that you may never have known existed! 


What Did Your Ancestors Look Like?

Do you know?

Genealogists and family historians at all skill levels always want to find photographs and images of their ancestors. Often you have a few, and are seeking more. So if you family doesn’t have any photographs of your ancestors, where could you look to find them?

You can find them in some surprising places. Here are a few that you may not have considered…


Church Histories

We sat around my Aunt Jewel’s kitchen table as she shared stories and information about our Howard family history. She shared photographs and I learned about her young life and that of growing up with her siblings, one of which was my grandfather. I began to understand the difficulty it was to grow up after losing a mother at such a young age. Then, she handed me three small books. These turned out to be the church histories from three small rural churches in the Lee County, NC (previously Moore County) that our ancestors had attended. I began thumbing through the first book and came face to face with my great-great-great grandparents! There, on the pages of the little blue book, were Caswell Suggs and Mary Adaline Harward.


Caswell and Mary Howard

Lisa’s 3X grandparents: Rev. and Mrs. Caswell S. Harward, Pastor 1863-1868.


Often churches create directories that contain each member’s photograph. It is similar to a school yearbook, but for the church. Church directories and histories frequently contain candid photographs of church members as well, so if you ancestors attended a church that created either of these, you may be in luck.


County History Books

County historical societies create local history books about their families and residents. Information and photographs about individuals and families are collected from local residents who are often descendants of those featured in the book. These short biographical sketches and the county’s history are put together in a heritage book. The Heritage of Halifax County, Halifax, VA, is one example of such a county heritage book. Your ancestor’s photograph may be contained in the pages of this type of book.

But wait! There’s more! [I really couldn’t resist.]

For each family member or family group, contact information is provided for the person who submitted the family history information. You want to contact this person! They are potentially another source of your ancestor’s photographs and other family history.


Collateral Families

Collateral families of your ancestors are those families that are related to your ancestor, but are not in the direct line of descent. Through your genealogy research, you will determine who these families are. Your ancestor’s photograph may be in their collection of photographs.

Let’s look at an example: Harriet Elliott Richardson and Cynthia Elliott Barnett were the only two daughters of Elias Elliott and his first wife Panthea Overby. Harriet is my great-great grandmother. I had plenty of photographs of Harriet, and even a couple of her sister Cynthia. I had no photographs of their parents. Through our Elliott family research, Cynthia’s granddaughter and I connected. She shared a photographs of Elias Elliott (Harriet and Cynthia’s father) and photographs of their brothers too! Of course, I shared photographs of Harriet’s side of the Elliott family with her in return.


Elliotts 1

Lisa’s Ancestors: The Elliotts


Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They interacted with family and friends. The descendants of those families and friends may well have photographs of your ancestors. Put on your detective hat and track them down!


A Relative’s Attic

Have you looked in your relatives’ attics? If not, go look! If your relative does not remember what’s up there or is vague about its contents, get permission to get up there! Better yet, offer to clean out the attic and/or organize their photographs. You may find real treasure in the form of family photographs. A hand-tinted photograph of my grandfather and father as a baby was discovered in my grandmother’s attic. She had long since forgotten it was placed there (fortunately, the photograph had survived the extreme heat).


Flickr and Other Photo Sharing Sites

Photo sharing sites such as Flickr are often forgotten sources of your ancestors’ photographs. State and county archives are frequently posting photographs of their citizens there. Individuals are also uploading ancestor photographs as well. You can see an example here. Use the search bar at the top of the page to search for photos by surname and/or location.

If you get stuck in your genealogy research (and we all do), find a Professional Genealogist specializing in your area of research through the Association of Professional Genealogists.


Look for photos of your ancestors in these unexpected places!

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Note from Caroline:

Lisa makes some great points in this blog post! Many times, photos of your ancestors are out there if you just look for them! I once found a photo that included my great grandfather on display at an exhibit in Glimmingehus, where he worked in the early 1900s. Stumbling onto these types of finds can be so much fun, so I highly recommend that you give it a try! If not in person, then at least online. The digital age has truly revolutionized the ways we can find photos, so take advantage of it, and do a little digging.

In addition to Flickr, a great place to look is DeadFred.com. This is a free searchable database filled with thousands of lost and unidentified photos. Some have names attached to them, and some are just plain mysteries, but if you find a photo of your ancestor owned by the archive, you will receive that photo for free to add to your collection. Have an unidentified photo? Try uploading it to DeadFred to see if someone can help you identify the person(s).

Also, be sure to check Ancestry.com for public member trees with photos attached. With millions of users uploading photos of their ancestors every day, you are sure to come across a distant relative with some new information, and possibly even a lost memory.

What say you, readers? What are some unexpected places you have found photographs? Let us know by commenting below!


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  • Reply
    Andi Willis
    June 2, 2016 at 10:32 am

    These are great ideas, Lisa and Caroline. Another would be yearbooks. I recently was given my great grandfather’s yearbook from 1903 which has his Freshman class photo in it. And I love the idea of a Flickr album to share and find family photos.

    • Reply
      Caroline Guntur
      June 3, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for mentioning yearbooks, Andi! That is definitely a good resource to add to the list!

  • Reply
    June 4, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    I recommend searching in Google images for your relatives too, especially if the relative has served in the military. I found several pictures of my great uncle through Google links. A website has been set up for the battalion my great uncle served in and there were pictures of him and the other men he served with and information about his WWII military service. Another photo was found at a library archive website – a brother had passed away and his photos were donated to the library. Some had names on the back so the library had listed them in the archive information.

    • Reply
      Caroline Guntur
      June 4, 2016 at 8:14 pm

      Great points, Lisa! Even googling your ancestor every year might lead to something, just in case something new has come up! I recently found a whole new website by a distant cousin that had been set up just last year!

  • Reply
    March 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Twenty five years ago my uncle sent me a copy of a photo of my great grandfather as a young man and said it was the only known photo of him. Recently I googled his name and discovered a photo of him in full Union uniform during the civil war in the National archives! And as you mentioned, I also found a photo of him in later years in a County History Book in the state of Iowa where they lived. I was estactic to say the least! Thanks!

    • Reply
      Caroline Guntur
      March 24, 2017 at 9:15 am

      What a great find, Ruth! So glad to hear that! Thanks for sharing!

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