01 December 2011

The Importance of Review and Revisit

After the Christensen book project was finally finished, our family history committee breathed a sigh of relief. Days of intense research, writing, publishing and distribution were finally finished. My sister who serves as the treasurer of our group had also taken on the job 10 years ago of sorting my grandmother’s photos for scanning. She was cleaning out her cupboard and found the orphan box of “unidentified” photos. My archive room is the repository for such things, so she brought them over, but recommended throwing these “useless” photos away. I couldn’t. I tucked them into a box identified with their source and thought about putting them on one of the online sites for such John Doe photos, in hopes that someone would one day see and recognize them.
Tintype photo of Jane Johnson
Unidentified tintype photo, possibly
Laura Georgina Johnson
A “someday” job at my house rarely gets done, and when my daughter came home at Thanksgiving time from college, she was enthusiastic about her photography class. She had learned about the various types of historical photographs and the different styles of photography she may use in her future photographic art. “I have some old photos,” I told her.

We pulled out the box (and a similar one that I inherited from my husband’s family). She was interested and even excited as we pored over each one. I saw some new clues to identify a couple of them. Looking more closely, we spotted some dark writing on a dark background on one picture. Another photo was one I had seen another copy of and I knew it was of my great-grandmother when she was younger. Then I found the one of the little boy labeled “Aunt Olive’s baby,” again very hard to read on a dark background. “Frank” was written on the front. “I wonder,” I said to my daughter, “if this is the little boy who was burned with hot coal oil? He and his mother were coming home just as his father threw some burning oil out the front door of their small Idaho home. Both Aunt Olive and the little boy died and Uncle Joe was devastated for years afterwards. “ We both paused a moment to consider this tragedy of long-ago.
Frank Johnson
“Sisters married brothers,” I told her, “so Olive and Joe Johnson were the sister and brother of our great-grandparents, Harriet and James Johnson. “ A quick computer look-up determined that the 4 year old who burned to death was named Frank. I found Frank Johnson’s death date was just a few days before his mother’s. “Poor little boy,” my daughter and I sighed, looking at the old-fashioned photo of the baby wearing a dress and petticoat. In the photo, he is propped up against a fur-covered chair. We wondered about the likelihood that this was his only photo.

Then we examined the prize pieces of my little collection. I had two small tintypes. “These are beautiful,” my daughter said. I thought so too. I had wished ever since I got them that I knew who they were. In fact, it was these two photos that prompted me to bring out the boxful to show her. I knew she would like them.
“I guess you could keep them to show students in a photography class,” I said. “They are good samples of a tintype, even though we can’t identify them.” I paused, thinking. “The only other family tintype I’ve seen is one that my mother’s cousin has of my great-great grandparents, Jens and Marie Jorgensen (James and Mary Johnson).  They are the parents of James and Joseph Johnson, you know.” I was beginning another story, this one familiar. “Remember when they came across the plains in their handcart; Jens was lame, and the buffalo . . . Wait a minute.”

Jens and Marie Jorgensen
(James and Mary Johnson)
A sudden flash of inspiration had come to me as I remembered another story posted on a distant cousin’s website. Jens and Marie had a young daughter, Jane, who mentioned a doll her father gave her. I had just been looking at the doll the little girl in the photo was holding.  And what about the bead necklace she wore? Jens and Marie were said to have hosted the local Native Americans in their home.  The second tintype was of a young woman who had the same severe hairstyle as Marie did in the tintype I had seen at my cousin’s. Her dress was also very similar. “Jane and Laura!” I exclaimed. “I bet these are two of Jens and Marie’s daughters—Jane and Laura!”

The next morning I popped into my daughter’s room to wake her with the exciting news. I had received an email answer from the cousin with the website. Yes, she had seen the photo of that little girl before and did I notice the bead necklace that the Indians had given her? She was grateful to know who had the original of this valuable photograph. It was indeed her great-grandmother, Jane Johnson. My daughter’s pleasure and patience in looking at the photos and listening to my stories had yielded an astonishing serendipity. We had discovered the identity of an important piece of history. 

PS A slide-show tribute to my grandmother Hazel Johnson Christensen is found here.


  1. Great post! I recently started a second, narrowly-focused blog. Since many of the ancestors had previously been featured in my "main" blog, I was surprised how much I could find when reviewing the same material, several years later, with improved skills.

  2. What a great story! The combination of these wonderful but mysterious old tintypes with the serendipity of your daughter's interest and your cousin's knowledge is amazing. I have a feeling that many more discoveries await in your photo collection.