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4 Steps to Solve Old Photo Mysteries When You Have But a Few Clues

By Maureen A. Taylor

This unidentified old family photo comes from my mailbag. Barbara Rivers sent me this black-and-white mystery photo. To submit your own mystery photos for free analysis, follow these instructions.

Barbara’s aunt found this picture among her belongings. There were no names on the back, and no one else in the family recognizes the people shown. It’s left to Barbara, the family genealogist, to put the puzzle pieces together.

Making the Most of a Few Mystery Photo Clues

Here are some steps Barbara can take to make the most of the few clues she’s starting with.

1. Establish a time frame.

Those sleeves make it easy. The woman standing in the back has the most fashionable puff at the shoulder, dating the picture to circa 1897. The other women in the photo also have full upper sleeves, characteristic of the mid- to late-1890s. My book Family Photo Detective helps you “read” clothing clues to date old photos.

2. Focus on a place.

Barbara has researched her family’s roots in the Midwest, and she thinks this might be her Findlay family of Iowa. She should list the places (including towns, if possible), where the family might have lived.

3. Search records to identify candidates.

The closest US census to the date of this image is 1900. Using the advanced search features on genealogy websites such as and MyHeritage, you can search records in a specific place with just a last name, or without any name at all.

I’d start with the surname Findlay and the town in Iowa as a place of residence, then look for families of parents, three boys and two sisters.

Of course, it’s possible that not all of this family’s children are in the picture and/or that some of these people are spouses, so Barbara can broaden her search to households that are close but don’t exactly match.

4. Match up the records with your family.

If she finds a candidate family in the 1900 census, she can look for the same family in the 1895 Iowa state census and the 1880 US census (remember, the 1890 census has been lost). Then she can see if the family overlaps with her family history. If not, repeat with the next candidate household in 1900.

Barbara may need to work through several candidates or look at other family lines and places.

Solving those completely unidentified family photos is challenging, but with diligent, methodical research it can—and does—happen.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor: