Photos for Posterity and Wedding Picture Envy

My only wedding photo

My 2nd Great-grandparents, John Miller and Mary Theresa Nagley. When John disappeared before they were married, Mary’s family had to track him down (rumor says in Tennessee) and make him come back.

Recently, my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary, as well the anniversary of our meeting for the first time 20 years ago. Yes—we’re one of those couples.  We met in high school, survived college together and now have a great marriage.  I’ll count my blessings Bing Crosby-style later tonight.

So the other day I pulled out our photo album and had a nice stroll down memory lane.  As I looked through the pictures, the day came back to me: everyone’s smiling faces, the candid shots of guests, the quirky inside jokes with friends. Then it hit me. I have no other wedding pictures of any of my family members for over a hundred years.

I know many of the stories, told to through the years by parents and grandparents.  Several ancestors eloped, or went to the county courthouse.  Heck, my parents spent the morning cleaning and stocking my dad’s store, went to the courthouse in cut-off blue jeans and t-shirts during their lunch break, got married (his cousin and her mother were witnesses) and then came back to work.  I still don’t think they have ever understood why I wanted an actual wedding.

Still—no pictures. Just a few fragmented memories passed down. But the few stories I have are priceless.  There’s a jilted-at-the-altar bride, who made the society column of the local paper.  They—by the way—were married for many years after he came to his senses and begged forgiveness.

Or, there was the couple that married out of financial necessity. During the Depression, there was an opportunity for a good job. The only catch: He had to be married.  Her mother wouldn’t recognize the union until they re-did the whole thing in a Catholic church nearly a year later.

Best yet, there is the story of a father wooing away the soon to be fiancé of his oldest son, then marrying her himself.  Can you say “awkward family dinners”?

The only wedding photo I do have is of my 2nd Great-grandparents, John Miller and Mary Theresa Nagley (or Nagli / Negle). Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that for reasons hinted at below, John disappeared when it became clear that he would have to marry Mary. Her family had to track him down (rumor says in Tennessee) and make him come back. They were married in Indiana on Feb. 19, 1889.  On the 1900 census, there is a John Miller Jr. listed, who was born in 1884 to the then 17-year-old Mary.  They were married for over 40 years, had 10 children and lived peacefully on a large farm.

It makes me giggle with joy that I have such a colorful family history.  I have never been one for the dull and boring; I love knowing the spice of people’s lives.  This proves that they were just like us.  They lived, they made mistakes, they succeeded or failed, had their hearts broken, and best of all, they really, truly lived.  Hearing these stories, and then seeing the pictures of couples at various stages in their lives, makes me feel that I know them that much more.  They become more than just names and dates on a page.

Needless to say, the absence of photos of these happy occasions has remained a nagging question.  I will admit to being green with envy when I see people post lovely old wedding photographs.  They are so lucky to have them!  On the upside, it has reinvigorated my desire to write family stories down for future generations and to label all the photographs that I do have. And maybe someday, in a century or two, my descendants can smile fondly at the photos of my husband and me.


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.


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6 thoughts on “Photos for Posterity and Wedding Picture Envy

  1. Sorry to spoil your lovely story but Mary Theresa’s dress is not from 1889 as your story says. It’s from the mid-1890s. Perhaps this is an anniversary photo rather than a wedding photo. Still precious, no matter the date.

  2. My mother, who took lots of pictures of her friends and family, and was often photographed herself, refused to have pictures taken at her wedding to my dad in 1926. She even sold her wedding dress, though I do have a newspaper clipping in which it was described. I never did understand why she didn’t even have any snapshots taken by attendees, let alond a formal photo.

  3. I had my grandmother and grandparents’ photo for many years before my aunt told me it may have been their wedding photo. They were married in 1910, and the bride often wore black for weddings then.

  4. I feel your pain. My parents eloped, on an afternoon when they were supposed to be going to an auction. I do have a snapshot that I got from an aunt, my Mom in a jacket and skirt, and Dad in a suit, taken on their wedding day. And both sets of my grandparents went to the courthouse for their wedding days–NO PHOTOS! I have often wondered if my grandfather’s went back to work after the wedding, or maybe they took the afternoon off?

  5. Ava: Thanks for letting me know that. My grandmother had been told by her mother (one of thier daughters) that this was their wedding portrait. You are right, maybe they took it for another special occasion, I will never know.

    Part of me wonders if my fascination with wedding photos comes from an idea that you are supposed to have a wedding. After reading and looking around a bit more I wonder if it is more a bit of romantic programing and not the reality for a lot of our ancestors.

  6. I’m lucky enough to have many wedding photos from my Mom’s side of the family, but my Dad’s side is another story. His family was one that never talked about their families, it seems our family was prone to rifts and good at holding grudges. It wasn’t until I started looking into my dad’s family that we found out my grandfather had siblings.

    The closest thing to a wedding photo I have for my dad’s parents is a portrait taken sometime after they were married of them with their 5-6 month old son. They were married in January 1912 (he was 32 and she was 16), and their son was born 5 months later, in May. I’ve always assumed that was why there wasn’t a “wedding photo”. They went on to have 10 more children (my dad is the youngest) over the next 23 years. My grandparents were married for 29 years, until his death in 1941. This photo of them as newlyweds & new parents is the only photo we have found (so far) of my Grandparents together. I am very grateful that we have it, but I completely understand “photo envy”.

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