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Images of Our Ancestors: Genealogy databases

A guide to finding images of people online and at The New York Public Library.

Consider your ancestors life events. Did immigration law require that they had some form of identification? Did they become a U.S. citizen? Did they apply for a passport? Did they serve in the military? Where did they work? Has a hitherto unknown third or fourth cousin uploaded an image of a family gathering to a genealogy database public member tree?

This section describes the some of the most common sources of images available in genealogy databases, most accessible with a NYPL library card.


California, Federal Naturalization Records, 1843-1999 for Joan de Beauvoir de HavillandAccording to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service

Declarations of Intention records issued on or after July 1, 1929, included a photograph of the declarant (signed by the immigrant and partially indented with the court's seal) on the duplicate (Bureau of Naturalization) and triplicate (declarant) copies.  (The picture will not appear on the court's original copy).

If your ancestor naturalized on and after that date, their declaration of intention may include a photograph, and that record, held at the National Archives, may have been digitized and made available via a genealogy database, like Ancestry Library Edition (currently free at home with a NYPL library card), Fold3 (free at NYPL), and FamilySearch (free online when you create an account). If you are lucky, the digitized record will have been scanned from the original record, as was the clipping (right) from the 1939 Declaration of Intention for one Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, better known as the classic Hollywood actor, Joan Fontaine.

Is it possible your ancestor traveled, for business, pleasure, or to see family in the old country? If so, they may have applied for a passport. Passports are a treasure trove of information about our ancestors, and include

Low Yin

  • Name of applicant
  • Birth date or age
  • Birthplace
  • Residence
  • Date of application or issuance of passport
  • Father’s and/or husband’s name
  • Father’s and/or husband’s birth date or age
  • Father’s and/or husband’s birthplace
  • Father’s and/or husband’s residence
  • Wife’s name
  • Date and place of immigration to the U.S.
  • Years of residence in the U.S.
  • Naturalization date and place
  • Occupation
  • Physical characteristics

Passport applications provide clues to the frequency of your ancestors overseas travels, and may include an itinerary, listing the places they intended to visit. Most importantly, for the purposes of this guide, from 1914, U.S. passport applications had to include a photograph of the applicant. Passport application photographs may include family members, as men would include information about wives, children, and servants. Married women traveling without their husbands would include information and images of children traveling with them.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has passport applications from Oct. 1795-Mar. 1925, and many of these have been digitized and made available through genealogy databases, like Ancestry Library Edition and FamilySearch.

Marguerite RobillardFamilySearch

  • United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925
  • Hawaii, Passport Records, 1874-1898

Ancestry Library Edition

  • U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925
  • Connecticut, Passport and Birth Certificates, 1852-1928
  • U.S. Consular Posts, Emergency Passport Applications, 1915-1926
  • Hawaii, Passport Records, 1849-1850, 1874-1900


  • United States Passport Applications


  • Passport Applications, 1795-1905

There are numerous other documents associated with travel and immigration that may include photographs. Immigration cards, applications for travel, and letters of identity, for instance. Some records are international, and describe Americans traveling abroad, the FamilySearch collection Brazil, São Paulo, Immigration Cards, 1902-1980, for instance. Some collections include travel documents for U.S. territories, such as U.S. Virgin Islands, Applications for Travel Identification Cards, 1918, described below.

Use the advance or card catalog search option in genealogy databases to hunt down collections, using key words like travel, passport, or visa.


Jenet Leigh Brazil Immigration CardBrazil, São Paulo, Immigration Cards, 1902-1980 (FamilySearch) Registration cards for foreign citizens with permanent residency in São Paulo, issued by the Office of Public Safety and housed at the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo. Included in this collection are many traveling Americans, business people, and even some celebrities.

The Virgin Islands became a territory of the United States, March 1917. With travel restrictions in place during World War I, identification as U.S. citizen by right of birth in the Virgin Islands was necessary to travel to the United States. This collection comprises applications for travel identification cards made during 1918, including photographs and often baptismal or birth certificates.

Seen here, from U.S. Virgin Islands, Applications for Travel Identification Cards, 1918 (Ancestry Library Edition), is an application and identification card for Brithania Beatrice Bastin, 23, born St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands.

The Ancestry Library Edition collection American Samoa, Passenger Lists and Travel Documents, 1918-1965, includes

  • passports
  • petitions for naturalization
  • visas
  • travel permits
  • letters of identity.

​Letters of identity include affidavits, thumbprints,  medical certificates, physical descriptions, and, later, photographs of individuals and family groups applying to travel with United States protection.

Other collections

National Archives

Immigration Arrival Investigation Case Files, 1884 - 1944 

"Arrival Case Files" document immigration agency investigations of persons applying to land and reside in the US. While the investigation proceeded, immigrants applying to enter the US at San Francisco were detained in Federal custody- initially on board their ships, during turn-of-century years at a substandard "detention shed," and during the years 1910-40 at the famous Angel Island Immigration Station. The case files contain documents created by agency officials during the investigations such as memoranda, interrogation testimony, and case cross-reference sheets, as well as documents which became part of the case file when submitted as evidence by the immigrants. The latter may include family photographs and marriage certificates. In some instances, there are "village maps" of ancestral home villages. There are also occasional instances in which "confession documents" generated during the early 1960s "correct the record" regarding immigrants who outwitted immigration officials by obtaining residential status under the "assumed identify" of a "paper son," etc.

Alien Case Files, 1944 - 2009

Most people have an ancestor who served. In addition to published materials, like regimental histories, personal narratives and biographies, there may be a treasure trove of records that contain information not only about our ancestors service, but also information of great interest to genealogists, including clues to births, marriages, and deaths, in pension applications, for instance. A sample lists of the kinds of records one might find include: 

  • Draft cards
  • Enlistment recordsSerg't Maj. Frierson and Orderlies, Tenth Cavalry.
  • Muster rolls
  • Service records
  • Pension applications
  • Bounty land warrants
  • Casualty lists and reports
  • Wounded and missing
  • Imprisonment records
  • Burial records
  • Medal of Honor recipients
  • War diaries
  • Correspondence
  • United States Sanitary Commission archives
  • Personal archives

Images of our ancestors might appear in published materials, like regimental histories and newspapers, in family archives, family files at genealogical societies, in photographic collections at museums, libraries, and historical societies, and online. If an ancestor's service record does not contain an image, look for them in regimental photographs. That way you'll also get to learn who their comrades were, which can only enrich your understanding of your ancestor's story.

For further information on researching your ancestor's military career at The New York Public Library, please consult 

Military Records for Genealogy Research.

Above: Image from The black soldier: or, the colored boys of the United States Army, 1918. (NYPL Digital Collections).

Ancestry Library Edition

undefinedAncestry Library Edition: a selection of military collections that include photographs

  • U.S. Civil War Photos, 1860-1865. 6,900 photographs from the time of the Civil War
  • New York, Cartes-de-visite, 1860-1865. Civil War-era portraits of men from New York State, search by name, or browse by regiment.
  • New York, World War I Veterans' Service Data, 1913-1919. Documents assembled by state historians with a view to preparing a history of New York's involvement in World War One. Never published, research files include service records and photographs of veterans. Search by name, or browse by county and town.
  • California, WWI Soldier Photographs, 1917-1918. Includes newspaper clippings, war programs, war addresses, photographs, manuscripts, documents, posters, and other memorabilia.
  • New Mexico, World War II Records, 1941-1945. Enlistments, service records, discharges, and photographs of hundreds of New Mexicans who served in World War Two.
  • U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009. Cruise books are yearbook-style books put together by volunteers on board ship to commemorate a deployment. They usually include portraits of the sailors, officers, and other personnel aboard the ship.
  • Jewish Welfare Board, Military Chaplaincy Records, 1917–1984. Packets containing questionnaires and other documents, including photographs, related to Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military.

Search for more records at Ancestry Library Edition> Home > Military Records > View all in Card Catalog > Photos

Published sources

Regimental histories

The New York Public Library collections currently include 2386 regimental histories with the subject term United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Regimental historiesRegimental histories typically includes a history of the regiment, it's involvement in different military campaigns, stories of bravery, and photographs of the regiment, individual officers, and notable veterans. 

Fold3 includes Military Yearbooks. Right, is a sample page from the 1943 yearbook for the Army Airforce Training Command Ninth Academic Group, Gulfport Field. Mississippi Station Hospital, showing members of the Army Nurse Corps.

You can also search for published regimental histories at, the Internet Archive, and FamilySearch Books.

Personal narratives and biographies

Over the years veterans of military conflicts have described their experiences in autobiographies, memoirs, or personal narratives. If you know which regiment your ancestor served in, but you know they didn't publish a book about their service, then you may be able to find a book by on of their comrades that includes photographs. Right is a photograph taken from Cold ground's been my bed : a Korean War memoir / Daniel Wolfe (2005).

Search for similar titles in the NYPL Research Catalog using keywords to find subject terms in bibliographic records in the catalog. For instance:

For more information on consulting the personal narratives of military veterans, consult Military Records for Genealogy Research.

Other sources

Photograph of Sallie JeffriesPersonnel Files

Historical city directories, newspapers, and census records tell us that Sallie Marshall Jeffries served as a nurse in World War One. Jeffries' passport application from the period includes a photograph of her in uniform. Jeffries also nursed for the American Red Cross, and her personnel file includes a photo of her in civilian attire. Both images are digitized and available through Ancestry Library Edition.

Below, left to right: Sallie Marshall Jeffries, 1917. U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Volume 155: Great Britain; Sallie Marshall Jeffries. U.S., American Red Cross Nurse Files, 1916-1959. (Ancestry Library Edition)

Identification Cards

Depending on their occupation, your ancestor may have had some sort of work identification that included a photograph. Again, other sources provide clues as to their existence.

The Burlington Daily News of February 18, 1938 ( includes an obituary that records the profession of Izzy Einstein. Isidor "Izzy" Einstein was a Federal Prohibition Agent, and his ID card can be found in the Ancestry Library Edition collection, Files of Prohibition Agents, 1920-1925



Ancestry Library Edition

U.S., Family Photo Collection, c. 1850-2000

This Ancestry Library Edition database is a collection of customer-submitted ancestral and relative photos. Photos are primarily of individuals and families. This collection only contains photos taken in the United States and covers a range of years from the mid nineteenth century up to the year 2000. Information provided about the photos includes:

  • Title
  • Notes or comments
  • Locality (which may include city, state, and/or country)
  • Names of people photographed
  • Date of photo

Public Member Trees

Public Member Trees includes 1.8 billion images of documents in family trees submitted to Ancestry by users who have indicated that their tree can be viewed by all Ancestry subscribers: including researchers using Ancestry Library Edition. Many of the submitted family trees include a Gallery where account holders have uploaded photographs and other images of family members.

Find A Grave

Find A Grave is a free, crowd sourced, online database of cemetery records, that includes photographs and/or inscriptions of tombstones, along with genealogical and biographical information, and, sometimes, photographs of people. Find A Grave is also searchable through  Ancestry Library Edition.

Accessing Research Collections at The New York Public Library

Further reading