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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

My Mystery Photo Identified - Genealogy Blog Picnic Challenge

The Genealogy Blog Party invites us this month to a "pot luck" picnic  to feature  a family history issue and how we solved it.

        My topic - How I broke down  a brick wall and identified a mystery  photograph. 

For over 10 years I puzzled over  "Who is this striking family group?"   The photograph mounted on heavy dark card,  came to me in 2001 in the large collection of my great aunt Jennie, only daughter of my great grandparents James Danson and Maria Danson nee Rawcliffe. of Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire.    Unlike many of Jennie's photographs, she had not written anything on the back - perhaps because of the dark mount. There was also  no photographer's details  to indicate where it had been taken. 

So how did I go about solving the mystery? 
  • I quickly established  that it was not a connection with  Jennie's father's side of the family.
  • But Jennie's mother Maria had four sisters - Anne, Jane, Alice,  and Jennet.  Surely  it must be one of them? 
  • I set out to research the sisters' background, using Family Search and Ancestry.   Anne, Jane and Jennet were all traced relatively easily through to the 1901 census,  all living in the Poulton area. But the composition of the family and ages of the children  in my photograph  ruled  them out.   But what about Alice? 
  • I traced Alice's birth on 26th December 1853.  She was christened Alice Margaret - with her middle name perhaps in remembrance of the baby sister who had died a year earlier.   In the 1871 cesnus, she was a domestic servant  and two years later she married James Mason, a gardener. 
  • The 1881 cesnus saw the family living in Fleetwood, Lancashire, with four children - Robert William, aged 7, Jane Elizabeth 5, John Thomas 3 and baby James Richard,  9 months - their names all reflecting those of extended family members.  
  • And there the  trail ran cold.  I could not trace the family  in either the 1891 or 1901 censuses.
  • The research into my Rawcliffe ancestors had led me to assume that they were very firmly based in the Fylde area of Lancashire around the small towns of Poulton and Fleetwood.
  • So it was a huge surprise to find, in a very casual browsing for Rawcliffes on Family Search , an entry for Alice Mason, nee Rawcliffe, born Hambleton 1853,  but that she had died in Jamesburg, New Jersey on 24th February 1930 - the first time I was aware of any American connection.
  • These were the days when Family Search gave contact details of the submitter of the information, so I wrote away.  Frustratingly my letter was returned "Not known at this address". 
  • I put an enquiry on various message boards with little success.  I did get one positive response of a connection, but my request for more information was ignored.  - more frustration! 
  • In the meantime I traced the  New York Passenger Lists on Ancestry  to find that James had emigrated from Liverpool in 1886, joined a year later by Alice, aged 34  and now with six  children aged from  13 to 1 year (and two pieces of baggage).   How on earth did she cope on the voyage?  This was the first revelation of another son George Rawcliffe Mason, born in 1885.  

  • I turned to  Ancestry.com and established that the family took out American citizenship in 1895. The 1900 census found that within  twelve years of landing in America,  James and Alice had a further five children - Arthur Valentine, born appropriately on 14th February 1888, Harold Arthur Victor,  Lilian Eveline, Bessie Irene and Florence Adelaide - their names in sharp contrast to the family names of their siblings, born in England. 
  • Further research established that Arthur, Lilian and Bessie sadly died in infancy.
  • At some point the family moved across the river to New Jersey, for in the 1900 census, they were living in Jamesburg, Middlesex County,
  • So was my mystery photograph Alice and John Mason?   Eldest daughter Jane Elizabeth was still unmarried as late as the 1920 census, so she could be the woman on the back left, and is that her younger sister and brother - possibly Florence and Harold?  

  •  I then set up my blog, with an early post in 2011  telling Alice's story as a "Lancashire Lass in New York".  
  • SUCCESS!  came a year later, when Bonny, the granddaughter of Florence Mason was pointed to my blog by another relative.  She got in touch and she had the very same photograph as mine,  but mounted with the name of a photographer in Brooklyn, New York.

My newly found third cousin, Bonny is the granddaughter of Florence, the young girl in the middle  of the photograph and we have exchanged e-mails, photographs and information of our ancestors down the generations and still keep in touch with one another.

It was special to receive a much later  photograph of the Mason family (below)  with all eight surviving children. 

Top - Robert, Jenny (Jane Elizabeth), Mother Alice, Father John, Harold
Bottom - Thomas (John Thomas), Alice (Margaret Alice), Florence, George and James
Alice died in 1930 and James 7 years later, both buried in Fernwood Cemetery, Jamesburg, New Jersey.


So it is all thanks to the power of the Internet and of blogging, that my mystery photograph was eventually identified.  Patience paid off!   And it is worth celebrating in this Genealogy Blog Picnic Challenge.

If only I could discover why the family  took this step of adventure from a small Lancashire coastal community to the teeming streets of New York.     That will be my next challenge!

The 2nd Annual Genealogy Blog Potluck Picnic: How I Did It

Adapted from posts first published in 2011-2013.  


  1. Not only the power of the internet, but your powers of deduction! My Mom used to tell me "Good things come to those who wait" and I find that is never more true than in genealogy! Wonderful!

    1. Thank you, Diane, for such an enthusiastic response to my post - much appreciated.

  2. Blog as cousin bait! Love that your cousin found you this way and solved the mystery. And I really appreciate following along as you explain, step by step, your research process.

    1. Thank you, Marion, for taking the time to comment. It was such a long, heavy text to compose, that I thought it important to give some thought to layout, and I am pleased you found the information easy to follow.


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