Last year, Elizabeth Jones stumbled on a Texas fashion mystery.
She could not precisely date an image from a family photo album, so she tried to interpret the 19th-century apparel and accessories depicted in a portrait of a woman taken by a professional photographer probably in Austin.
“The hat, scarf and hair pulled back but with frizzy bangs suggest the 1880s,” the longtime Austinite says. “As does the close-fitting bodice with tight three-quarter-length sleeves. But the seams of the top are split over the hips, and the top does not match the skirt, which was very uncommon at that time, especially since the skirt is lighter than the top.”
Eagle-eyed Jones also noticed that the jewelry worn in the print was painted over in gold, which would have incurred an extra charge for the sitter. That produced another mystery.
“The hat, scarf and jewelry could have been supplied by the photographer,” Jones guesses about the mismatched outfit. “And she may be wearing pieces of two different garments, which suggests some economic difficulties. If so, how did she afford to pay for gold over-painting?”
Too much historical information for one family photo in an album assembled by a Round Rock relative from the 1860s to the early 1900s? Not in this case.
Jones, a happily retired lawyer who worked for years at an architectural firm, has been closely analyzing two family albums since the 1990s, using all sorts of resources as they became available.
Given this decades-long project, you might think that Jones was some sort of historical detective. But no, she simply had the time, curiosity and research skills to investigate every aspect of the albums that she acquired from a distant relative.
The outstanding fashion question was among the last mysteries that Jones wanted to answer before she donated 135 photos — including the gems in the albums, where their placement is part of their meaning — to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
To be sure, this state agency does not accept just any family photos. Jones’ treasures, however, are in excellent condition, have been thoroughly cataloged with voluminous notes by the owner and contain some rarities, such as images taken by an Austin woman who made her living as a professional photographer in the 19th century.
House of images
Before the carefully preserved albums came into Jones’ hands from a distant relative on her father’s side, she had a number of loose family photographs. Those with personal meaning are displayed artfully around her living room in the 1960s Wooten neighborhood.
Some of those pictures pop out: Her grandmother, who defied her parents and attended the University of Texas on a scholarship and on her own dime, posed sidesaddle on a longhorn in 1915. Her mother, photographed in 1925 in Gonzales with a friend in front of a black car, both of the girls laughing with wild abandon.
As soon as one sits down with the albums, however, it is time to get some names and places straight. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to get started.
Her mother was Gwyn Vosburg Jones; her maternal grandparents were Eunice Dikes and Ruel Vosburg, who lived in Gonzales. Jones’ father was Mackin L. Jones, a dentist in Bryan, where his daughter, an eighth-generation Texan, was born and grew up. Her paternal grandparents were Cora Morris Lyons Jones and Ezley Jones, a dentist who practiced in Galveston.
“The photos that I cataloged and am donating to the archives are from my father’s side,” Jones says. “None of the loose photos scattered around the house have been cataloged yet, but they are from my mother’s and father’s sides, and those on display are just the tip of the iceberg. I have boxes of old photos. I intend to catalog most if not all of them, and if the archives want them, I will donate those, too, but I have years of work of ahead of me.”
Not content with just historical images, Jones is working on a book about one ancestor, Elizabeth Jewell, who in 1833 journeyed with five children under the age of 6 from Tennessee to Texas to become one of the founding citizens of San Marcos.
It was Jewell’s great-great-great-grandson Jack Carlson who gave the family albums to Jones. They were assembled by Jewell’s granddaughter, Annie Graham Harris, who lived in Round Rock. Annie was married to Jack Harris, whose parents owned the recently moved Round Rock Stagecoach Inn, one of the oldest buildings in that city, where Jack and Annie raised all their children.
Information found on the reverse side of the prints tells us that they were photographed in Georgetown, Austin and Round Rock as well as in California, Mexico and Cuba.
“The descriptions in my research include the name of photographer, date, subjects, bio information, backdrops and props, clothing, format, dimensions, type of image, miscellaneous notes,” Jones says. “Catalogs of photography supplies can also help date the photos. Most people don’t want to know all this. But for the people who want to know it, I want them to know where to find it.”
Where would that be? Most of this sort of historical background can be found online these days with just a little rigorous searching, whereas Jones began this project when one had to visit archives in person. Even now, the staffs of more than 25 Austin archives are ready and willing to get you started.
Jones picked up a lot of juicy stories along the way. Among the characters on her matrilineal branch were Col. George Brackenridge, a Union sympathizer, banker and major UT benefactor, not least as donor of the controversial Brackenridge Tract, as well as rascally Isaac Graham, an important figure in early California history. She owns the only known image of him.
“Then there was this little thug — I think he was a thug — who ended up in the Jesse Evans gang,” Jones points out a petulant young boy in a lace-trimmed blouse. “His name was Jesse Wayne ‘Dollie’ Graham. He was killed by Texas Rangers during a shootout in Presidio County in 1880.”
Later, she shows Jesse at an older age, no more lovable than as a child: “This tintype was taken in Williamson County, probably shortly before Dollie’s death by James T. Cook. You can see that Dollie was a bit of a dandy with a pinkie ring.”
At this reporter’s request, Jones provided extra information on some of the most memorable family images. Here are some samples:
Mary Lyons Brackenridge: Mary was born in 1857, so she was a teenager when this photo was taken in the 1870s. Her hair is short, so that indicates she was not yet an adult. Mary was a popular young woman and was tiny, about 5 feet tall, according to her great-niece, who knew her. She was a schoolteacher, like her father, and the principal of La Grange Academy before marrying Dr. Robert Brackenridge, namesake of Brackenridge Hospital, in 1885.
The Brackenridges were not pleased about the match. Robert had been married before to a woman whom the Brackenridges had loved, but she died in 1874. Mary could never live up to the ghost of the first wife, and apparently the Brackenridges never let her forget she was not acceptable.
The Brackenridges also were staunch Presbyterians and Mary was — gasp! — an Episcopalian. The Bracks were from a prominent, educated and well-to-do family in Indiana, so they probably thought Mary was not worthy because her deceased grandmother (Elizabeth Jewell, the pioneer) was illiterate, and her deceased mother was not formally educated. Nevertheless, her father was educated in Virginia and came to Texas to teach in the 1850s.
Annie’s father and uncles: I know this photo was taken in California, but these are all Texas boys. The man on the left is Isaac Wayne Graham, father of Annie, who put together the photo albums, along with his brother, the famous Jesse Graham, seated to his right, and that’s their half-brother, Hassel Jewell, standing, with the impressive mustache and beard.
They were all sons of pioneer Elizabeth Jewell, although Hassel was one of her two children conceived “without benefit of marriage.” Hassel was born and raised in Texas, and Wayne and Jesse were signers of a petition to the state Legislature in 1848 to form Williamson County out of Milam County.
Jesse Graham was the character who was tried for murder 38 years after the fact. It’s a long story about bad blood between Isaac Graham’s son by his first marriage, Jesse, and the family of Isaac’s second wife. The second wife’s mother was a piece of work who encouraged her daughter to try to kill her husband, Isaac, by putting a poison spider in his dumpling — I am not making this up! — and who encouraged her son to try to kill Jesse by packing his gun so that it would explode. It was the second wife’s brother who Jesse shot and killed. Got all that?
There have been books written about all this mayhem, and that’s why Elizabeth Jewell’s story is so complicated to tell in the book I’m writing. She was the most stable and uncomplicated member of the family — and she was plenty complicated.
Mystery street scene: I think this is Round Rock, and if so, it was probably taken in 1899, when it snowed in Round Rock. The low building second from the left is a carpenter’s shop; the tall building to its right is the City Drug Store. To the right of the drug store is, I believe, a flour and feed store. Wherever it was, it was important enough to the family to include it in the family photo album.
House in Round Rock: This house belonged to Annie Harris’ parents, Wayne and Eliza Graham, and the women in the photo include Annie, her mother, Eliza Graham, one of Annie’s sisters and some of Annie’s daughters and nieces. I think it was taken about 1904. The family called it the “gray house.”
Decipher your photos
Elizabeth Jones began her project when one had to visit archives in person. Most of this sort of historical background can be found online these days with just a little rigorous searching. The staffs of more than 25 Austin archives are ready and willing to get you started. Go to austinarchivesbazaar.org/archives for a list of available archives.