It’s not always easy to determine the date when an old family photograph was taken. We look at the type of photograph it was (daguerreotype, tintype, carte de visite, cabinet cards, etc.), the dress of the subjects, and other clues to provide a date. Sometimes the only information we have to go on is an individual’s lifespan. One such photo is that of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins, Oregon emigrants of 1852. While Nancy lived until 1880, we know that Nathaniel Robbins died in December of 1863 so the only photograph we have of them is before that date.
Most of the Robbins family did not avoid photographers’ studios and the new technology that allowed a person’s likeness to be captured for posterity was thankfully taken advantage of by our ancestors. Unless we know otherwise (and occasionally we will hear of a family member who refused to have their photo taken) I firmly believe that the majority of our family that lived after about 1860 had their photograph taken, whether we still have those photos today or whether we recognize those photos that lay unidentified in our photograph collections.
I received the photograph below from the late Patrick Masterson of Port Orford, Oregon. Patrick was a descendant of Jacob and Sarah Robbins, emigrants of 1852, and a local historian with long-time connections to his small Oregon coast community. Patrick claimed that this photograph was of Jacob Robbins’ father, another Jacob Robbins. This Jacob would have been the brother of William Robbins, the Revolutionary War veteran, Absalom Robbins, who died at an advanced age in 1859, James Robbins of Jennings County, Indiana, and other siblings. Jacob (of the photo) was born in 1767 but we do not know when he died. He appeared as an 83-year-old in the 1850 Decatur County, Indiana, census. Due to the advanced age of the subject, it could very well be that this photo truly is of Jacob Robbins in his old age. Or is it of someone else in the family?
Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins’ daughter Nancy, was married to Joseph Barstow in 1856 and this appears to be their wedding photograph. As their wedding was only one month after Nancy’s eldest brother William Franklin Robbins was tragically killed while out bear hunting, the descendant of Nancy who gave me this photograph believed the sad look on Nancy’s face, during an otherwise happy event, was due to grief at her brother’s recent death. If so, the photograph dates from 1856.
Another photograph in the Jacob Robbins line is that of Harvey and Levi Robbins, teenage brothers who crossed the plains in 1852, sons of Jacob and Sarah Robbins. I believe this photo shows the brothers prior to their marriages. If so, the photograph was taken by or before 1858, when Harvey married his wife Perlina (Levi married the following year).
In some cases, like that of Nathaniel, we know the latest date by which a photograph was taken, while in others we try to calculate, whether from age or dress or other criteria, when the image was created. It’s not always perfect, but usually we can arrive at a general date for the photo. These aren’t the only old photographs I have in my collection, just a few examples. Who do you have in yours?