Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elodie's Gift: A Family Photographic Mystery

This article is a draft at present:

Here is a photo that my great aunt, the late Elodie Bernard (married name Fontenot), gave me when I visited her around 1980.

The mystery photo.
(Author's collection)

I remember Aunt Elodie as an elderly, white-haired woman, thin and gaunt.  She seemed a stranger to me because, for whatever reason, Elodie never came to family get-togethers, whether for Christmas or Easter or what have you.  Only rarely had I heard her name mentioned, and while I have no reason to believe there was any schism that kept her apart from us, it seemed odd to me that the extended family on my father's Cajun side of my family was hardly as close as the extended family on my mother's Anglo-Saxon side of the family.  I am by no means making a sweeping implication about Cajuns: on the contrary, Cajuns, if anything, are known for the closeness of their extended families.  It just seemed odd that Elodie never showed up at our family gatherings and that I really knew nothing about her, so much so that as a child I barely knew her name, much less what she looked like.

When Aunt Elodie gave me this photo, she explained that it depicted some of our ancestors.  She explained to me that it showed my paternal great-great grandparents.  It certainly did not show my paternal great-grandparents, for my grandfather's father was the splitting image of his son and I would have recognized him instantly.  I recognized no one, however, in this image.

I remain uncertain who is shown in the image and if they are even really my relatives.  So I thought I might analyze the photograph and try to determine who these people are.

Often mistakenly called a daguerreotype (including by me), the image is actually a tintype, which the Library of Congress describes as a "Direct-image photograph . . . in which the collodion [a viscous or syrupy solution] negative supported by a dark-lacquered thin iron sheet appears as a positive image."  This process, notes the Library, was "Popular [from the] mid-1850s through 1860s" but still "in use through 1930s." (Source: Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials,, accessed 18 April 2012)

The tintype overall is in fair condition, with some chipping of the layer of collodion around the edges and some scratching and aging apparent on the image itself.  The section of the image showing the subjects, however, is in fair to good condition, with none of their faces obscured or badly damaged, though some bear scratches.

The image shows two men and two women, dressed formally, and their physical pose, with one of the women touching both men, suggests a comfortable familiarity.

The writing in ink in upper left corner of the image, which presumably identifies the subjects, has faded, but by "tweaking" it in PhotoShop I've been able (tentatively) to discern these words:

Aunt Marie
Uncle Richard
Uncle Homer

Bringing out the faded words using PhotoShop. (Click to enlarge)

Of these words, only "Uncle Homer" rings a bell with me, since my great-great grandfather was named Homer Bernard — Homer being pronounced "O-MARE" in the Cajun French manner.  I know nothing about him offhand, except that his father, Joseph Desparet Bernard, fought as a Confederate in the Civil War.  I have Homer's vital statistics somewhere in my files, however, in genealogical material I collected in high school (an interest that played a major role in directing me toward a career as a historian). I believe Homer would have been from St. Landry Parish, possibly from the town of Opelousas itself, because that is where my Bernard family has lived for many generations.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that all the common nouns written on the photo ("Aunt," "Uncle," "Grandma") are English words, not French.  Because my family spoke French as its primary if not only language in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the words must have been added later, after my family adopted English as its primary language — perhaps in the 1920s or '30s.  (My grandfather, L. V. Bernard of Opelousas, told me that he did not really learn French until he married my grandmother, Irene Bordelon of Port Barre — indicating that despite his small-town Cajun heritage he was raised speaking English, not French.  L.V. would be the grandson of the persons in the photo, if they are in fact Bernard ancestors as Elodie stated.)

I will check if Homer Bernard had a brother named Richard or a sister named Marie, or in-laws with these names.  Or could "Aunt Marie" be the wife of "Uncle Homer," and not the wife of "Uncle Richard"?  I will report back with my findings.

In the meantime, if anyone knows who these people are (all Cajuns pretty much being related to each other one way or another), please let me know. . . .

Addendum of 18 April 2012

According to my genealogical research — which, admittedly, I am unsure I entirely trust, since I conducted it as a teenager in the 1980s — my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Homer Bernard, was born 6 March 1864 in Opelousas.  He had two sisters named Marie — Marie Lelia, born 20 July 1861, and Marie Lydia, born 25 October 1868 — either one of whom could be the "Aunt Marie" in the photograph.  Homer did not have a brother named Richard, so perhaps the "Uncle Richard" in the photograph was the husband of one of these two Maries.

Homer himself was married to Louise Alma La Morandiere, who cannot be the other woman in the photo, else the person who wrote on the image would have identified her as "Aunt" (to his "Uncle") and not "Grandma."  This other woman in the photo is possibly another of Homer's sisters, either the second Marie or his sister Josephine, born 2 March 1866.

But now I am speculating too much.

Still, if I can prove that one of Homer's three sisters had a husband named Richard, it would go far toward suggesting that the persons in the tintype might indeed be my ancestors.

(My source for this genealogical data is Reverend Donald J. Hebert, Southwest Louisiana Records [Eunice, La.: Hebert Publications, 1978], multiple volumes.)

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