Archive for April, 2023

A Family Portrait

Photographs of ancestors can put us in more intimate touch with them. We are often challenged, however, to identify the individuals in the image.

I and my siblings have inherited from our mother a tantalizing photograph of her Moates Family from about 1911, according to my reckoning.

On the obverse of the print my mother Audrey Moates Matteson (1936-1998) identified, to the best of her knowledge, the individuals present in the photo. Below is the image. On the back she wrote:

As an aid to singling out efficiently the individuals I have added a number tag to each.

The individuals with whom she would be most familiar 50-plus years later would be her Father “Papa” Noah Theodore Webster Moates (back row labelled #4 ), her Grandmother “Mammy” Ruth Ann Dew Moates (seated row labelled #2 ), her Grandfather “Daddy” James Marion Moates (seated row labelled #6‘), and her “Mother” Katie Robertia “Bertie” Holland Moates (seated row labelled #7 ’).  In addition, she identifies from photos she must have seen over the years of her elder siblings Ruth Dew Moates (“Sister” later Mrs. Howell Kirkland) (child labelled #5) on her grandmother’s lap and Noah Bernard Moates on his mother’s lap (labelled #8“).

Mother may have attempted to identify the other individuals by inference since she may not have immediately recognized them because they appear as they were about 14 years before her birth.  I believe that she was correct in identifying “Aunt Docie,” i.e. Theodocia Ernestine Temple Moates (labelled seated #1) and several of her children, but erred in the detail attribution of some of the other individuals.

In our approach we first establish the probably date that the photograph as taken and use that information to test conjectures about the potential identities. If our hypothetical designations are correct, then each individual must correspond in age to their age on the date of the image, for example. Lap babies #5 and #8 help date the photo. Mother Audrey identified her siblings respectively as Ruth Dew Moates (born June 1908 and known to me as “Aunt Sister”) and Noah B. Moates (born Jul 1909). They appear to be at least 24 months and 12 months. Therefore, the date must be later than the summer of 1910.  At left is an image from another archive (the Moates-Kirkland archive curated by Dorothy George Taylor, grand daughter of Miley Moates). The individuals are identified as James Marion Moates with infants Noah B (left) and Ruth Dew Moates (right). The inserts are extracts from the photograph above for comparison. Each is wearing the same clothing. Thus, the image was made the same day and as the same people.

A careful examination of the background also reveals that the image was made outside of a house in the side yard. We can discern clapboards on the left and a sash window on the upper left periphery that are consistent with the house the Moates family occupied in Brannon Station near Dothan. The individuals who sat for this group portrait are wearing heavy clothing, coats and blankets. Thus, the date of the portrait is one of the cooler months which suggests a date in very late 1910 or early 1911. It is possible that the occasion of the photographic session was the 45th anniversary of Rutha and James M in February 1911. The National Weather Service records inform us that for Houston County, Alabama in February 1911 the low temperature was 46°, high of  69° and an average of 58°, temperatures that would not prohibit an al fresco photo-shoot. Interestingly, this was the month that was the nadir in precipitation that year.

A key person in the image is the seated figure #1, whom my mother did not recognize. I believe it to be Genera Bell Moates Hunt. There are two other nearly contemporaneous photos of her and one from 1894 (far left).  The similarity is striking.  The most confounding feature in the visage on the far right is the obscuring shawl presumable worn against the chill. Nevertheless, she looks very much like Genera Bell Moates Hunt (1876-1951), who in early 1911 would have been 35 years old.

In the posing of such a portrait, the husband of the wife customarily stood behind or at least near his respective wife, as is the case for Noah W (#4), who stands behind Bertie (#7 seated).  This implies that Genera’s husband Will Hunt, whom she married in January 1911, is probably the standing gentleman #1 on the left. This contention is consistent with a date around February 1911, possibly commemorating the elder Moates’ 45th anniversary. This would be the first and only photo to date of Will Hunt known.

But is gentleman #1, really, Will Hunt or is he “Tommie” Moates or John Adams Moates, as Audrey suggested? Let us compare #1 and # 2 with photos of these two Moates men with other images.

John Adams Moates (1878-1964) [above]

James Thomas “Tommie” Moates (1874-1941) [above]

To this observer’s eyes gentleman #2 standing behind Docie is, indeed, a Moates boy, while #1 bears little resemblance to the Moates clan.

Therefore, we conclude that it is likely that Standing Man #1 is, indeed, Will Hunt and #2 is my Mother’s Uncle Tommie. I never recall meeting him, since he died in 1941 beforee my birth. Uncle John-A as we called him, however, was part of my childhood. In his later years he lived with my Aunt Nell Moates Jenkins. Nearly blind, hard of hearing, suffering from sleep apnea Uncle John-A was “the oldest man in the world” to me.  Once I shared a bedroom with him and my cousin Nelson. When Uncle John-A stopped breathing I thought that he had died, much to my dismay.  In the morning when I awoke I was relieved to find that I was not sharing a bedroom with a dead man. Such was thee impression he made on me that I think I would recognize him in the photograph even in his early manhood. In 1911 John Adams Moates would have been 33 years old, in 1911, and James Thomas Moates would have been 37. While there is a familial resemblance between the siblings, the proximity to wife Docie suggests that Gentleman #2 must be my great Uncle James Thomas Moates, her husband.

Let us now consider the remaining Moates children. In 1911 Tom and Docie had six children. Below is a reproduction of the 1910 U.S. Census where they are enumerated.

All of their children who had survived until that time can be accounted for in the photo. (Zadok had died in 1899 at age two,) Below are my identification of each of the children of Docie and Tommie along with other images.

Thus, we have ascribed a name to each individual in the photo except for the lad on the floor (#5).  I believe that he is Willie Hunt, Genera Moates Hunt’s step son.

Willie Leon Hunt (Aug 1905-1975) age 5 yr 7 mo  compared to Gentleman #1. Note the similarity in their faces: downward curving eye brows and similarly set eyes; thin-lipped, narrow mouth and protruding chin. The more rounded shape of the by may be attributed to his youth.

Consequently, we can with appropriate caution tentatively identify this lad a Will Leon Hunt. He and his sister appear in the 1910 census living with his aunt, Mary Ida Hunt Mershon in Russell County, Alabama while recently or soon to be widowed William the elder is found boarding elsewhere and working at a sawmill. I may have been that Will and Genera had not set up their household completely and Fannie Lee had not joined them yet. Ultimately, the Hunt family moved in next door to the N. W. Moates family. Ruthie Dew Moates became good friends with her step-first cousin. So much so that when her pal died tragically at age 17, Ruthie wrote a touching tribute to her memory.

Thus, we have—with varying degrees of confidence—identified all of the individuals in this photograph. In summary they are

A photograph is a moment in time frozen. When we identify the people in the image we can begin to know their story. It must have been a chilly day when the photographer posed these seventeen Moates family members. If the date proposed for the portrait is correct, both Mesdames Moates were many months pregnant. They may have experienced some especial discomfort. These facts may account for the sour look on Docie’s face. The far away gaze of the newly married Mrs Hunt, may reflect the sadness at the realization that her child-bearing days were past. The evidence suggests, however, that she embraced her role as step-mother to Will Hunt’s children, Fannie and Willie. My mother always spoke with admiration about her “Aunt Navy,” who resided for years next door to the Noah Moates family. This photo provides a peek into the history of a big, loving family. It is indeed a treasure.

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