In pencil

Daniel Jackson Steward (1816-1898)

On occasion I look around my living room, at the lovingly collected and curated family photos on (almost) every flat surface, and wonder how I will pass along the identifying information on the subjects. (No unidentified photos for me! But the identification resides in my head…)

I don’t worry so much about the ones of my parents and grandparents, although in due course they will all pass into history. The multitude of photos of them, at each stage of their lives, here and in other family houses, argues for some chance that they will be recognized and remembered by future generations.

No, it is the collaterals and in-laws who give me pause, for who is likely to say, in 2060, “Oh, that’s Uncle Nathaniel Langford”? even if Uncle Nathaniel (1832-1911), successively husband of two of my great-great-great-aunts,[1] has his own Wikipedia page, where he is succinctly described as “an American explorer, businessman, bureaucrat, vigilante and historian.” Doesn’t the word “vigilante” leap off the page?!

Another great-great-great-uncle, Brigadier General James Henry Van Alen,[2] came to a sad end, jumping or falling off the R.M.S. Umbria on a return trip from Europe. He had a sad life, in fact, as his wife – Mary Steward – died young, leaving one surviving son. James was bringing his three grandchildren back to the United States when he died, so one hopes that his death really was accidental.

Aunt Mary Van Alen’s brother, D. Jackson Steward,[3] is another great-great-great-uncle. It is interesting to see the Steward family look of 160 years ago, as the coloring shifted from ruddy and red-headed with my great-great-grandfather’s marriage to Catharine White[4]: my father, with his blue-black hair, is a good example of the Whites’ influence on later generations.

This last one should be easier to recognize, as the volume of images that survive for General George Smith Patton Jr. (1885-1945) dwarfs anything like that of the Langfords, Van Alens, Stewards, and Whites. General Patton’s life was bound up from his adolescence with the family of his future wife, Beatrice Ayer,[5] and my grandparents ended up as their neighbors, fittingly, as my grandmother was Mrs. Patton’s niece.

The Ayers, unlike the Stewards, tended to “flock together like birds on a telephone wire,” as one of my grandmother’s cousins used to say. I would suspect that several Ayer cousins’ houses boast many of the family photos in my collection, while the other families – distant enough, in all honesty; something like my fourth cousins – would be hard-pressed to identify my great-great-grandparents on the Steward side.

I guess all one can do is put the word out, and write what one knows on the backs of every image … in pencil, though!


[1] Nathaniel Pitt Langford was married to Emma Charlotte Wheaton 1876-82 and to Clara Wheaton in 1884. Emma and Clara’s sister, Cornelia Wheaton, was married to Frederick Ayer 1858-76.

[2] James Henry Van Alen (1819-1886) was married to Mary Young Steward 1844-52.

[3] Daniel Jackson Steward (1816-1898) married Mary Anna Bogert in 1856.

[4] Catharine Elizabeth White (1818-1867) married John Steward in 1841.

[5] Beatrice Banning Ayer (1886-1953) married (then) Lieut. George Smith Patton Jr. in 1910.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

13 thoughts on “In pencil

  1. Scott,
    there are many Wheatons in Rehoboth, MA , particularly the area now part of East Providence, RI, Do you have a connection.? BTW, Rehoboth is deep into researching the founding families, of which I have many.

    Dan Hazard

    1. Yes, Dan, Cornelia Wheaton is my great-great-grandmother. Our line goes back to the Rehoboth family, moving to Barrington (R.I.), Amenia and Syracuse (N.Y.), and then Northfield (Minn.). Further back we have Kents and Thurbers and Toogoods — and no doubt others I am forgetting!

    2. Dan, Do you have any connection to Hannah Wheaton b about 1689 in Rehoboth? I believe married to Thomas Turner. Their daughter Sara married Ezekiel Wilson. Sara had a son Wheaton Wilson. They ended up in Vermont. Wheaton was my third grandfather.

  2. Scott, put the pencil to the near relatives pictures, too. From experience I can assure you that having an ancestor’s picture hanging on the wall in no way guarantees anyone else is going to accurately remember who they are. They may remember it is a “grand” of some kind, but if pressed will assign them to the opposite side of the family. My mother’s mother left a wonderful gift by marking, in pencil, the back of every photograph and tagging all the portraits. The value of this is proved by the lovely (really, in a pink dress with coral necklace) “post mortum” portrait of a distant aunt who died at the age of 3 or 4. My mother and I have always called her “Alice.” Come to find out she was “Mary.”

  3. Before my father’s passing I videoed him discussing every family photo., portraits and everyday casuals. I then identified each major photo in pencil on back w/ date and my initials. On the major ones I attached an envelope on back in which is a full typewritten info sheet.

    1. Do it now, everyone! This week marks the fifth anniversary of the death of my sister who was hit by a car while walking across a small-town street, at a corner, on a sunny day. You never know when you or your memory be gone.

      1. Some of my relatives labeled their pictures — back into the day of cabinet photos. And I’m so grateful. Except for the person who wrote, in handwriting I am unable to identify “My mother’s grandmother” — and left it at that.

  4. As part of a history minor, I took a class at Western Michigan University in archival preservation, taught by the director of the archives there. Of course, using pencil was deemed essential when putting identifications on photos. I have always used the additional recommendation for modern thin photos—to place the photo face down on a mirror or other piece of glass. That will prevent the pencil from pushing down into the photo paper, leaving pressure marks and perhaps damaging the surface emulsion.

    1. I learned from an expert (can’t remember who now) to label old photos with a soft pencil such as 6B, and to label modern photos with the soft pencil or a marker such as ZIG. The ZIG marker is acid-free, archival quality and non-bleeding. I bought both at Michaels craft store.

  5. Scott,
    Beatrice Banning Ayer Patton was my 7th cousin 3X removed. Mrs. Patton’s niece, your grandmother is related to me as well. My mother’s maiden name was Ayers. I have a very rich Ayers family tree.

  6. Likewise label newspaper clippings with newspaper and date. Don’t assume that “I’ll never forget the day that…” as some of my ancestors did. Old clippings are easier to find now that
    we have online newspaper sites with search — less need to look at the backs of clippings to see if there’s an ad or a story that provides a clue. But there are still problems with newspapers not digitized, optical character recognition by the web site, and spelling errors in the original newspaper.

  7. I am researching Mary Bogert Steward. After the selling of the effects at the farm, do you know where her personal correspondence might be housed? in about 1932, she became interested in Oak Island Nova Scotia to the extend of sending John Talbot, engineer, to the Island. i am hoping to find any correspondence of hers during this time period. thank you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.