Dating Old Robbins Photos

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.

Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins (by or before 1863)

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?

said to be Jacob Robbins (1767-after 1850)

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.

Joseph and Nancy (Robbins) Barstow (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).

Levi and Harvey Robbins (c1858)

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?

“Respected by All Who Knew Him:” Nathaniel Spencer Robbins

Nathaniel Spencer Robbins, called “Uncle Nat” in my family (he was my great-grandmothers oldest brother), was born in Decatur County in 1837 and was fifteen-years-old when his family crossed the plains on the Oregon Trail.  His father William Franklin Robbins took a Donation Land Claim approximately where today’s Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 intersect, southeast of Tualatin, and not many miles west of Oregon City.  According to his obituary he lived there his entire life.  My mother remembered as a child and teenager hearing about “Uncle Nat” as though he just lived down the road.  However, by that point he’d been dead for 40-plus years.

Soon after arriving in Oregon in the late, rainy autumn of 1852, most of the family was ill.  Nat’s family was living on the west side of the Willamette River in Linn City.  When his little brother Gilman became sick and died, teenage Nat, one of the few healthy family members, was sent off to Oregon City to find his uncles Dow and Norval to come dig a grave.  Soon, however, Nat was ill along with his uncle Dow and grandfather Nathaniel and his father reported that “Nat was the lowest I ever seen anyone to recover.”  Later his sister Nancy Adeline wrote “…for two weeks he couldn’t speak above a whisper.  Just laid on a bed on the floor.  But at last he got well.”

Nathaniel Spencer Robbins

Some information about Nat’s three wives, such as all of their birth and death dates is not known.  He was first married to Sarah Evans about 1873.  She died in 1880 at approximately thirty years of age.  Together they had three children:  Clara, Hampton (“Hamp”), and Stella.  After Sarah’s death he married Martha Jane Rodgers in 1882.  No additional information is available about her except that she was the mother of Nat’s youngest son William Berry Robbins.  Thirdly, Nat married Anna Marie (Mary) Kunst, who survived him.

The 1870 agricultural schedule of the U.S. census provides a little detail of Nat’s farm in Washington County.  In the year leading up to the census enumeration he had 14 improved acres, 306 acres of woodland, two horses, three milk cows and four other cattle, and eight swine.  He produced 63 bushels of spring wheat, 108 bushels of oats, 83 bushels of barley, 50 pounds of tobacco (not the most common crop in Oregon!), 40 bushels of Irish potatoes, 7 tons of hay, and 200 lbs of butter.  That is a lot of produce for 14 improved acres of land.

N. S. Robbins signature (1892)

According to his obituary Nat Robbins, who passed away in 1895, died of “la grippe” followed by typhoid fever, just short of his 58th birthday.  What is “la grippe?”  That’s another term for influenza.  Medical experts of the 1890s sometimes reported that it was hard to differentiate between the two diseases, and whether one really followed the other. Whatever the real diagnosis, his death saddened his family and the community.  The Portland Oregonian reported Nat “was an upright man and respected by all who knew him.”

(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins-William Franklin Robbins-Nathaniel Spencer Robbins)