Finding Your Ancestors in Thrift Stores

How many of us have no photos of our older ancestors? On my Wilson line, I have photos only going back to my grandfather. Prior to this generation, my ancestors were poor and mostly farmers in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Whether photos never existed or were lost to time, I do not know. 

That is, until last month, when a red dot appeared on top of Ancestry.com’s message icon letting me know, “I’ve got mail”.

(Side commentary: I don’t know about you but getting within app messages on Ancestry is like Christmas in July or winning the lottery. I literally hold my breath in anticipation until the messages load. I send out a lot of messages to my DNA matches but only receive about a 10% response rate at best. So, when that red dot appears, to say I get a little excited is an understatement.)

The reward was worth the wait. The message read, 

“Hi there, my name is Jackie. I found a photo of Absalom Wilson at a thrift store this morning…I would love to get the photo home to its family.”

Spoiler alert – Absalom Wilson is not a direct ancestor. However, he is my first cousin, six-times removed! Absalom was born 2 August 1796 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and died 3 April 1879 in Philadelphia.1 Philadelphia City Directories indicate he was a grocer and gentleman.2 He was also born a Quaker.3 He married three times and had five children with two of his wives.

What makes this story amazing is that Jackie found the photo in thrift store in Lockhart, Texas, which is 28 miles from my home in Austin! Absalom Wilson died in Philadelphia and there are no records of any of his descendants living in Texas. I’ve built out his tree to the present day. (Tracing the photo’s provenance would make for an interesting exercise if it could be done.)

On the back of the photo is written Absalom’s birth and death dates, his place of burial, and the names of his dauther, Marietta (Wilson) Dalzell, and his grandson, Ben W. Dalzell.

A quick search in Ancestry and Newspapers.com, showed that the family moved to Missouri by 1910,4 which might explain how the photo came this far west. I’m guessing it fell out of the family’s hands through an estate sale and into the sellers and resellers of antiquities. 

While I was overjoyed that Jackie contacted me, part of me said, “Why me? Why not contact someone else about the photo?” So, I asked her. Jackie said she looked up Absalom Wilson in Ancestry’s Trees and selected the person to contact who was active that day. I thought that was a wonderful way to get the family heirloom to someone who would treasure it. It also reinforced my habit of doing a little bit of genealogy each day (as if I needed another reason to maintain my addiction).

Paying It Forward

The whole experience of Jackie finding and sending me Absalom Wilson’s photo made me want to pay it forward. Immediately, I knew just how to do so.

This past January, I was in Ft. Lauderdale with friends. With luggage in tow, we walked a quaint shopping area biding time before our car was to pick us up for the airport. As luck would have it, it started raining heavily. We quickly darted into the nearest store – a thrift shop. After trying on some fun newsboy caps and admiring overly ornamental cufflinks, I found myself in front of a stack of old photos. Within seconds, a picture of a women dressed in a black dress with contrasting white embroidering caught my eye. She was holding riding gloves, but it was the horseshoe hanging from the fence post next to her hand that made me take a deeper look. The props of the day would make for an interesting study. However, it was her stoic face and the slight stare in her eyes that seemed to dare me to pick her up. So, I did.

Turning the photo over, I discovered her name – Lily Creasy. The photo was taken by Landes studios in Roanoke, Virginia. The era in which the photo was taken was difficult to discern, but it looked like some time in the late 1800s. Something made me purchase the photo, and I’m not entirely sure why. I have no Creasy ancestors nor had any of my ancestors lived in Virginia. I paid $5, and stowed her away in my luggage.

For the past eight months, Lily patiently waited in my “genealogy drawer” for me to be do something – to be inspired.

That day came last month. In my mailbox, amongst credit card offers that would go unanswered and postcards from unknown politicians, was a handwritten manila envelope from Jackie. Absalom Wilson’s photo had arrived and with it, my inspiration.

With my first cousin six-times removed staring back at me, I began to search for Lily Creasy’s family on Ancestry.com. With only a name and a city, I wasn’t sure I would find anything. I didn’t even know whether Creasy was Lily’s maiden or married name. Yet, it took less than an hour, and I believe Lily Creasy is Lillie Estelle Creasy, who was the daughter of Robert Creasy and Sarah Turner. Lillie was born 25 March 1880 in Lynchburg, Virginia and died single 26 October 1961 in Roanoke.5 She lived most of her life in Roanoke.

Armed with her name, I then looked for family trees where Lillie Esttelle Creasy was listed. Only six trees included her. Taking a page from Jackie’s playbook, I looked to see which of the six family tree owners were most recently active. 

I sent a message and waited. In less than a day, Linda responded. After a pleasant conversation, I mailed her the photo. I paid it forward and encouraged her to do the same. 

I used to think I had to visit thrift stores in the place where my ancestors lived. As this story amazingly tells, you do not. My cousin’s photo was 28 miles from my home despite having died 1,700 miles away and 143 years ago. So, the next time you pass a thrift store, look at the antique photos and see if you can find an heirloom that needs returning to its family. Be sure to pay it forward


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1. “Public Member Trees,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com, accessed 3 September 2022), “Wilson120411” family tree by rwilson7135, profile for Absalom Wilson (1796-1879).

2. Philadelphia City Directory, Absalom Wilson, grocer (1850), Edward C and J Biddle Publishers, p. 452; database with image, Fold3 (www.fold3.com, accessed 9 September 2022). And Philadelphia City Directory, Absalom Wilson, gentleman (1863), EC and J Biddle and Co. and A McElroy and Co. Publishers, p. 812; database with image, Fold3 (www.fold3.com, accessed 9 September 2022).

3. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935, Green Street Monthly Meeting, Record of Births 1807, Abraham [Absalom] Wilson (2 August 1796); database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 3 September 2022); citing Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Record of Births 1807, Collection: Quaker Meeting Records, Call Number MR-PH 218.

4. Philadelphia Inquirer, (1910, 24 August), “Marriages Licenses Issued” (Benajamin Dalzell, Lincoln County, Mo., and Florence Taylor, Lincoln County, Mo.), p. 7, col. 2.

5. Virginia, U.S., Death Records, 1912-2014, Lillie Estelle Creasey (1961), certificate no. 996, image 372 of 500; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 9 September 2022); citing Virginia Department of Health, Richmond.

Published by Rick T Wilson, PhD

As the Family Pattern Genealogist™, I detect and analyze patterns in genealogically relevant data using DNA and other traditional records.

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