Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle

From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription

From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via GenealogyBank.com and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!

Tracing My Unknown Ancestor in the Martin Family

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott discovers the name of an ancestor he never knew about—and turns to old newspapers to fill in this blank on his family tree.

Recently my sister phoned me to ask some questions about certain members of our family who had passed through Ellis Island. As I was talking to her, I pulled up some of the documents I had for our grandparents and started reciting facts and information about them. As I was wrapping up our phone call a bell was ringing in my mind telling me something wasn’t quite right.

I looked at all the information again and there it was: on her Ellis Island documentation, my future grandmother had listed her brother-in-law, Thomas Martin of Cleveland, Ohio, as her contact in the U.S. Since I knew that her sister, my Great Aunt Rose, had married a Martin, finding this contact listing was not a surprise. As I looked at our family tree, however, I could see that the Martin her sister had married was named William, not Thomas.

photo of Rose Cottle Martin Jones and Ina Cottle Phillips

The author’s Great Aunt Rose Cottle Martin Jones on the left, with her sister (and the author’s grandmother) Ina Cottle Phillips on the right. Photo from the author’s collection.

So who was the Thomas Martin my grandmother had listed at Ellis Island?

I needed to look into this! I went to GenealogyBank.com first to see what I might discover. As the old saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” This family history search led me down a very long—but delightful—path.

First I discovered the old obituary for William Martin, my Great Aunt Rose’s husband. It was quite a genealogical find.

William Martin obituary, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1933, page 23

In just its seven short lines, it provided my great aunt’s name complete with her maiden name. It also gave the names of their two daughters (Edna and Dorothy) and William’s three siblings (Grace, Charlotte and Jessie). The obituary listed the street address where William and Mary Rose lived. I was about ready to move on, when that last item caught my attention.

I went back to the Ellis Island passenger manifest that I had been reading to my sister, and noted that the street address listed for Thomas Martin happened to be the very same as the street address given in William’s obituary. Nice way to close that circle! The link was looking quite strong, but still a puzzle remained: there was no mention of a brother named Thomas in the obituary.

Next, I started a search on the three siblings listed in William’s obituary. First up, I searched on Grace Bowhay. What I found was mention of her name in her sister Charlotte’s obituary.

Charlotte Martin obituary, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 September 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 September 1944, page 78

This old obituary not only made reference to Grace Bowhay and siblings Jessie and William, but also listed the so-far elusive Thomas (deceased). Oh, and don’t let me forget to tell you that it also included three additional siblings: three sisters (complete with married names) all still residing in England!

With Thomas Martin being such a common name combination, I decided to make a quick check of the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s Office website for Thomas Martin. Sure enough, not only did I get a “hit,” but it was for the purchase of a home on—again—the same street as all the other notices. Plus, the property record informed me that this Thomas had a wife, Mary.

While I am still on the trail of Thomas Martin and have more searching to do, I am more convinced than ever that I am on the right path! And I am bound and determined to find this ancestor that I never knew about and add more information to our family tree!