Summerside sleuth reuniting family portraits with descendants

Colin MacLean
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Glenda Coughlin, of Summerside, a hobby genealogist, recently put her skills to the test to find the descendants of some people in portraits she found at a local antique store.

Uses combination of census information, info on Ancestry.ca to connect descendants of people in photographs

There was something about the photographs in her hand that called to Glenda Coughlin, of Summerside.

They were small things, obviously very old. In modern terms, they’d be wallet-sized portraits.

All three featured well-dressed people. Two were women, one obviously younger than the other and one was a man with large muttonchops and a mustache.

Coughlin was standing in Rose Cottage Antiques in Summerside as she examined the portraits for the first time. There was a large stack of old photos she’d sifted through, and these three were the only ones with identifying information.

Two of the three, the older woman and the man, were of similar make and had an identical distinguishing feature in the surname “Small” written on their reverse. The third portrait featured only the first name Barbara and the name of the portrait studio.

“These, I feel, have to go home to their families,” she told the proprietor as she paid $2.95 for each photo.

It took a bit of genealogical sleuthing, but Coughlin made good on her observation.

She’s managed to track down the great-grandchildren of the two Smalls in the pictures, one in North Royalton, Ohio, and another other in Anaheim, California.

It turns out the man and woman were siblings named David (1846-1920) and Janet (Jennie) Small (1849-1928).  Their parents were John Darby Small (1800-1884) and Jane Glover, of Summerside.

Coughlin used a combination of census information and old photographs available on the website Ancestry.ca to eventually connect to the descendants of the people in her photographs, one of which was eager to purchase the photograph from her. She declined payment, but still plans to send along the photos to their descendants.

“I told him, ‘all hearts go home for Christmas,’” she said.

Sandra MacDonald, a descendant of Janet Small who lives in B.C. and who has been working with Coughlin said she's grateful for her efforts. 

"It is so heartwarming that Glenda would look at a small bit of information on a stranger’s photograph and take the time to find her family.  It was a very kind and thoughtful gesture and an unexpected gift from far away in both time and miles.  And now, although I live on the other side of the continent, I hope some day to come to Summerside to see where my ancestors lived and worked."

It made me feel so bad to look at those beautiful pictures; they had lives and stories to tell, and they had no identity. People would just sort of pass by. So when I saw those three with names on them I just couldn’t pass by. I wanted to know their story. Glenda Coughlin

“It made me feel so bad to look at those beautiful pictures; they had lives and stories to tell, and they had no identity. People would just sort of pass by. So when I saw those three with names on them I just couldn’t pass by. I wanted to know their story.”

Coughlin is a life-long genealogical researcher with a penchant for mysteries.

She’s undertaken these kinds of projects before, both for her own interest and occasionally as a hired consultant.

She was adopted into the Coughlin family, she said, so she’s always had a strong interest in family ties, both biological and adopted.

Her grandfather lived with them for many years as well so she grew up listening to his stories, and both her parents had strong historical interests.

“(History) kind of stuck and it went from there. I couldn’t wait to get to Grade 5 so I could get a history book,” she said.

As for the third photo Coughlin bought, the girl marked Barbara, she’s got a strong lead on some descendants. She suspects her name was Barbara Ann McKenzie and that she was born in Charlottetown, eventually moving to Boston, Mass.. She’s reached out to a suspected grandson who lives in Anaheim and is hopeful they’ll be able to confirm her identity.

However, if they can’t confirm Barbara's ID, it’s back to square one for Coughlin’s research but that’s OK in her books.

It only adds to the mystery.

If anyone else has an ancestral mystery they think Coughlin might be able to help solve, they can contact her at gcoughlin@pei.sympatico.ca or 902-436-5927. 

Colin.MacLean@JournalPioneer.com

Geographic location: Anaheim, California, Summerside, Smalls North Royalton, Ohio B.C. Charlottetown Boston, Mass. Anaheim

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