Finding Hattie

Recently, while leafing through an old album of my father’s family, I came across two large adjacent cabinet card photos of a couple I didn’t know labeled “Hattie Gordon” and “Lawrence Gordon.” There is only one Hattie Gordon (Harriett Frances Gordon Cony, 1849–1922) in my family tree, and this lady is not she; there is no Lawrence Gordon, either. Had I missed some cousins? An aunt or uncle, long-lost or abandoned? Maybe they were just good friends of the family. The questions began circling. No one I asked recognized these people or their names. Of course, I had to figure out who they were and why they were in this album (organizing materials can wait, right?).

I vaguely assumed that because the photos were in my family’s album the Gordons lived in the area. Using the “shotgun method of research” (both barrels, buckshot, and from the hip to hit something), and considering the couple’s clothing but lacking relevant 1890 census records, I looked at the 1900 U.S. Census as an arbitrary starting point. It listed them as lodgers at 53 Garfield Avenue in Medford, Massachusetts. The 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. Censuses listed the Gordons still in either Medford or Boston with no children and no other family. City directories agreed and confirmed.

I found some old handwritten notes that one Lawrence Gordon had served a short time in Boston’s Deer Island Prison for debt, but I hadn’t noted where I found that list and couldn’t find the source again (a true confession – ouch!). No one in my extended family during those decades had any residences in Massachusetts, particularly not at Deer Island. It was beginning to look like finding Nemo and Dory was easier than finding Hattie and Lawrence and their place in my family tree.

So perhaps Hattie’s maiden name would help. Marriage records show that Harriet E. Gordon, daughter of Solomon and Mary (Glassid/Glasset) Gordon of Augusta, Maine, married Lawrence G. Gordon, son of Daniel W. and Sarah (McCann) Gordon of Augusta, in 1887. My innate skepticism said that there couldn’t be three Gordon families in Augusta with no immediately discernible connection to each other – the only Gordons of the period, by the way, in my family tree.

My final error was in thinking I was done with Hattie and Lawrence, or that they were done with me.

While I don’t always listen to my intuition (more’s the pity), I always listen to my skepticism, and I wasn’t disappointed. Using more census records and a published family history,[1] I discovered a common ancestor for Hattie, Lawrence, and Harriet Gordon Cony: they were all second cousins, great-grandchildren of Caleb and Mary Ann (Mapes) Gordon. Dawn broke over Marblehead: they really were family, not just friends, a distant part of my Cony line that I had not followed.

My final error was in thinking I was done with Hattie and Lawrence, or that they were done with me. While I was at last sorting through a mountain of old snapshots, discarding the multitude of unnamed photos of horses, cattle, dogs, barn cats, and unidentified landscapes, I picked up a snapshot of four women, three of whom I recognized as my grandmother Winifred (Lee) Church (back, right), great-grandmother Nellie (Cony) (Church) Hayward (back, left), and great-great-grandmother Mary Ann (Stone) Cony (seated, right).

On the ragged back of the photo the names of each were written, and there was “Hattie Gordon, nurse,” sitting next to my great-great-grandmother Mary Ann. A partial answer to my mystery was right in my bins of photos, waiting for me to stop procrastinating and start sorting. The album photos (perhaps their wedding photos) were taken well before the snapshot, which dates to about 1914.

A partial answer to my mystery was right in my bins of photos, waiting for me to stop procrastinating and start sorting.

I found an indication that Hattie and Lawrence moved to Winthrop, Maine – a town about 10 miles from Augusta – sometime after 1930. Cemetery records show that Lawrence died in 1936 and Hattie in 1938; both are buried in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Augusta, near other family plots.

What I had in this inquiry was an example of a “tail wagging the dog wagging the tail,” circular thinking proving the worth of good, basic research. The many unnamed photos (and some of the unknown-named) in all those family albums might be family members I’ve missed, but unnamed family friends do make their way into family albums making identification of those people even more difficult. I have a mountain of family memorabilia for a reason – however much I avoid sorting it; above all, some notation of sources, good or bad, is critical.

I’ll start sorting and organizing immediately . . . um, right after coffee tomorrow morning.

Note

[1] Mary Lovering Holman, Ancestors and Descendants of John Coney of Boston, England and Boston, Massachusetts (Concord, Mass.: Rumford Press, 1928).

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

13 thoughts on “Finding Hattie

  1. Great story and research Jan!! – It is always so validating when we persevere in following the trail of clues to find what we had been looking for. I wonder if we are ever really done “sorting” those unnamed faces? – (I can’t believe you threw out pictures of the barn cats though 🙂

  2. I understand completely. While going through my in-law’s pictures, I came across a picture of a priest who I did not know and couldn’t fit into my mother in-law’s family. A few years later as I expanded my research on her family to aunt and uncles I found the priest was her second cousin. Now my problem is I’m not sure were I put the picture. I guess I’ll have to go back to square one.

  3. I have a folder on my computers full of Unknown. I still don’t know who they are but in case I ever need them, they’re there!

  4. If you are the person who inherited a box of photos, and you don’t know who they are. Try to connect with other family members, and see if they would either keep them, or share theirs with you. I found a distant cousin who had a box of photos that she had little idea of who the photos were of. She patiently scanned them, and between us we identified almost all of them by comparing what each of us had. One was a photo of my grandmother at about age 17 with her mother that I had never seen. Apparently the photo was sent from Kansas to my grandmother’s aunt who had moved to Oregon in 1880, and her descendants kept this big box of photos. Hooray! And, yes they are all carefully marked on the reverse now, and identified in the scans.

  5. Enjoyed your story of connecting poorly documented photos to family, and your pithy asides! I’ve had similar experiences with old photos, and probably will again, just as soon as I finish my coffee.

  6. One of my 1st cousins from our McCLELLAN line, not especially keen on in-depth research, posted photos of our McC gr-gr-uncles in full military regalia online, all of whom were CW officers from Illinois. She also posted a photo that makes me chuckle each time I see it because even though it’s labled “Maj. Schaefer”, I know him to be NO blood relation whatsoever to us through our (thoroughly researched) SHAFER line. From regimental histories, I know the Major was simply the commanding officer of one of the McC brothers. The site allows family members to add additional info to photos. Call me wicked, but I’ve refrained from doing so for the Major’s pic, choosing instead to let Cousin continue believing he’s one of our Shafers until such time she or her children do as I did – look up the regiment’s history, and discover he’s no relation to us at all. A “payback” of sorts for the weeks I spent trying to ID various photos from her dad’s (not my) side labeled “Uncle Such-and-such” or “Cousin Somebody” who turned out to be only neighbors or close friends of the family. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for sharing information with others, but draw the line at being conned into doing the legwork for relatives too lazy to plug a few names into Google or a genealogy site themselves.

    That said, I’m ever thankful to have been entrusted with shoeboxes of mostly-unlabeled old family photos and the secrets they hold. One (hopefully) develops an eye for facial structure and features that remain unchanged over a lifetime, allowing one to match, say, a photo of a teenage girl with those of her as a married woman and later a grandmother or gr-gm. The advent of home copier/scanners allowed me to unearth even more secrets in the tiny box-camera snapshots from the early 20th century. Enlarging a photo of my then-10-yr-old dad, his parents and siblings taken outdoors from a distance, I could see my otherwise-serious dad sticking his tongue out at the photographer! By scanning old (full-size) negatives in reverse, I now have “positive” copies of photos whose originals were, not in those shoeboxes. Also by enlarging old photos, I’ve zeroed in on the number on the house relatives were standing in front of, and via city directories and such, discovered other heretofore “unknown” relatives or a temporary residence family mebers had forgotten. The possibilities are endless!. .

  7. I saved some photos from the trash pile of a friend, promising to get them to someone who would want family photos. He was just going to chuck them out, unsentimentally and unceremonially. I bleated that- gasp – he couldn’t! For my efforts I have inherited some old family photos of a family I know nothing about, and cannot find to give them to. The laugh is on me- so far – but, they will be precious someday, when I find the relatives who don’t know they exist.

    1. Judith, good for you! Photos are pieces of *someone’s* history even if you personally can’t identify the people in them. I’ve no doubt, though, that you will eventually. Did the friend who was tossing them provide any clues at all? If not, I’m guessing you probably started with his/her name, etc, to build a family tree from public records, censuses and such. Have you thought about posting the photos on Facebook (for instance) headlined by “Do You Know US?”. A shot in the dark, but who knows?

  8. Thank you. Read with interest of a very similar problem that so many of us have. But, I wanted to let you know that your details also struck a chord with me, as I have a Gordon line on my mother’s side. Fanny Gordon Spaulding’s father & mother were Daniel and Martha (Trask) Gordon; her grandparents were Caleb & Miriam “Mary Ann” (Mapes) Gordon. So, for once in my research, I stumbled onto another current relative!! Hello cousin!

  9. I’ll never forget the time I was visiting my mother and sister, and we went through an attic at my sister’s house in Seattle. This was in the 1980s and the house had been in the family since the early 1930s. We found boxes of old photos dating from the 1880s to the 1910s, almost none of them labeled. If they didn’t know them, they went in a trash bag. I begged and begged for them. At that point, my mother still had many cousins still alive in MN, WI, and ND, and even I recognized some faces and houses. I just couldn’t put any names to them. But I was beginning to do genealogy, and my mother still corresponded with some of these cousins. I was willing to do the research but they didn’t think it was worth the effort. I still regret that those pictures went out in the trash. I only got half a dozen, and identified at least one person in each of those.

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