By: Rob Burt
Have you ever heard the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? That is definitely true for family history work. You can learn lots of valuable information from family and historical photographs . . . as long as you interpret them correctly.
Take the following picture as an example. It is a well-known photograph of Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney—better known as Billy the Kid.
For years, historians, writers, and aficionados of the West used this image to argue that the infamous Western outlaw was a minority in the gunfighter community—a left-hander. This idea was so common that a film titled The Left-Handed Gun on the life of Billy the Kid and starring Paul Newman was released in 1958, and many history books note that he was a southpaw.
In this picture, the rifle Billy is holding is a Winchester Model 1873. If you look closely at the gun, the loading gate (where bullets are put into the rifle) appears on the left-hand side of the gun. (See highlighted area below.)
However, an observant historian eventually noted a problem with the picture: the 1873 Winchester didn’t have a loading gate on the left side—only on the right side. The picture was reversed! In the early days of photography, most negatives were produced backwards as a result of the technical process used in the first cameras. If the technicians were not careful when developing the film, they would produce a mirror image of the actual scene. This is what happened to the famous photo of Billy the Kid.
The correct image, depicting Billy as a right-hander, is shown below.
This example illustrates how important family photographs can be. Not only do they give us an image of our ancestors, but important clues about the past can be found in the details surrounding them. Clothing, hairstyles, pins, military awards, automobiles, even rocks and plants can all help tell our ancestors' stories, even if they have not left a lot of written information for us. Some of these details are easily identified; others are more difficult and may need a specialist’s eye in order to be fully understood. Regardless, a picture may be worth a thousand words of an ancestor’s life story, so don’t delay! Pull out those old pictures and see what they may tell you about the lives of your loved ones.
Have you found interesting facts from old photos? Tell us about it, leave a comment.