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Everybody Has a Grandma Emily!

Updated on January 25, 2016

She lived a hard life.


They just haven't found her yet.

What I mean is that everybody has an ancestor (or a genetic ancestor if you're adopted) that had a life very similar to my Great Great Great Grandma Emily. If you're descended from royalty, well then maybe it's a distant relative from back in the medieval days that lived a life like hers.

This photograph pertains to everyone in the world, but I will concentrate on the United States. In the United States, we have ancestors that were either already here in America (Native American), that were brought as a slave or indentured servant, or came off the boat, plane or car as an immigrant (from Colonial days to now).

All of us have had relatives that either recently or long ago lived HER LIFE. Now, I don't mean her exact history, I mean a life in which the main goal was survival.

How Do You Start?

Be a Photo Detective

Funny story: My mom started taking nice portraits from stacks of old family pictures and framed them. She placed two attractive looking full body portraits of my 'great grandfather' and 'great grandmother' in a double frame, really nice.My Mema (my father's mother) looked at them one day and said something like, "That's interesting that you put My mother's portrait with my father-in-laws (my father's father) portrait." So my mom had 2 separate parts of the family presented as a married couple in one frame! My mother said she would change it and Mema said, "You don't need to change it, it looks kind of nice like that!"

Some Guidance Can Help

Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries

Looking at old family photographs can be tricky. It's easy to make mistakes. I've spent time going back and forth over giant clumps of old family pictures. This book will give you some ideas on how to organize them and even date them.


I Absolutely Treasure This Picture


What can you surmise by the picture?

Look at her carefully. Emily was well over 100 years old when this picture was taken around 1925. It was probably taken in Virginia where most of my relatives come from. What are the clues to her life? I can tell you one thing, it was a hard life. Probably spent outdoors in the fields all day. Was she at least part Native American? We think so. Could she have been a former slave? Based on some family history, very likely. I also imagine her smoking a corncob pipe, but that's a stretch.This was originally one of those tiny, 1 1/2 x 2 photos they made in the twenties. When I enlarged it, so much detail sprang into view.

Update: What I Found Out added some more records. I was able to get some information based on the census and other records. I could not find any record of her maiden name.

She could not read or write. She was considered mulatto. She was born in 1804 and had at least 10 children into her fifties; one of which was my great great grandfather. At a 1920 census she was listed at 115 years old.

Emily, I have found you!


Dorothea Lange Photography

Her most famous photography is from the Great Depression. These extraordinary photographs by Dorothea Lange demonstrate the deep grit and emotion of that time.

Looking at the Details

I'm still trying to figure these things out.

Musings about Emily :

  • Her dress was old fashioned at the time of the photo.
  • Her cap or scarf possibly hiding thinning hair?
  • She wore an apron? What's that about, she couldn't possibly be still working at home?! Maybe it hides a stained dress?
  • Her face had seen it all, the good and the bad.
  • Most of her life was not easy.
  • She was a strong and tough woman.
Questions about the background:
  • Was this the shack she lived in?
  • The picture looks like it was taken outside but they brought out a chair and rug to make her more comfortable.
  • What is behind her? I see a tilted chair behind her with someone on it?
  • Who took this picture?

The History and the Land

Whether you have a picture of your Grandma Emily or not, reading the history of her land and it's people is a wonderful journey.

Best Little Stories from Virginia
Best Little Stories from Virginia

The reading goes more pleasantly when the history is presented in a storytelling way. Enjoyable read.


Where is the Trail?

The trail goes through my mother, to her father, to his sister (my Great Aunt Sally) who was born around 1908. This was her photograph and she told me that this was HER Great Grandmother. Arrington was Emily's married last name. We have no documentation on her maiden name.

The family legend is that she was born in 1799 (!) and lived till she was 126 years old. This was taken not long before she passed on. Realistically, she probably was born after 1799, but not by much more.

The History and The Music

It's hard for me to think about the history without the music.

Anthology of American Folk Music (Edited by Harry Smith)
Anthology of American Folk Music (Edited by Harry Smith)

A broadly inclusive collection from Smithsonian Folkways. Very complete, but being an expansive boxed set makes it a higher price.


Start Some Digging - Here are examples of software that can keep you organized.

You can make that journey more personal by going into the genealogy of your family. is a good start. Since my family is mostly from Virginia, there is TONS of information there.

For those of you that are adopted, you can scrape together as many records as you can from adoption records. Maybe you can visit the town in which your biological parents are traced to. For my daughter who's adopted, we are keeping all the records and place names so she can visit whenever she wants.

Here's to Good Fortune

Coming Your Way

Lastly, we all can take DNA tests to determine ethnicities in our background.My advice is to make copies of information you know and old photos you have. Spread them out to children and grandchildren. Even if they're not interested now, somebody in your family in the future is going to want to know about your Grandma Emily.

Who do you think was your Grandma Emily?

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    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      5 years ago

      @TanoCalvenoa: Is is. That is really cool to have an ancestor who was a chief. has filled in some for. Good source.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is a great lens. I enjoy finding out whatever I can about my own ancestors. I discovered one of my great grandfathers (not sure how many greats) was chief of the Wampanoag (Native American tribe), for example. Cool to know this stuff.

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      5 years ago

      @SteveKaye: Thank you Steve.

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      5 years ago

      @Genjud: This is great information. Can't remember if I told you privately. Will check it out!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Certainly there were many of them, scattered out over the centuries before me. And there will be more to come. Excellent lens.

    • Genjud profile image


      5 years ago

      Nice lens. I too do genealogy and I find the most help on Family It is so full of wonderful tips and helps. Did you know they are adding over One Million names a day to their site and it is totally FREE!

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      5 years ago

      @CaztyBon: That is so cool, it's great you have the name. All of our family history is so interesting. Some parts of my family are total dead ends. Maybe someday I'll hire a researcher that can do better than me!

    • CaztyBon profile image


      5 years ago

      Nice lens. I have a great great great Grandma Anna on my mothers side of the family.

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      5 years ago

      @Virginia Allain: Thank you for writing. It's good to bet more feedback about the book. I'm the family archivist. I'm hoping my children will get interested in it someday.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      5 years ago from Central Florida

      I've been reading that book, the photo detective. Very helpful to analyze old family pictures like this. Quite fascinating.


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