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Detective Work

Who was Electa Barrett?

I’ve been exploring a box of photographs that belong to my husband’s family and that focus on the Gildersleeve family of Gildersleeve CT. One envelope held a treasure trove of about a dozen cartes de visite. 

Cartes de visite are small (2 1/2 x 4 inch) photographs that were popular during the late 1850’s and through the 1860’s.  The press of the time called the obsession with these little photos “cartomania.”  Special albums were created for storing them and they were traded between friends and family. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of them, “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”  Facebook is apparently not the first social media craze.

One photo in the stack caught my attention right away: that of a young woman whose name is given on the back as “Electa Barrett.” She has a fascinating face: attractive, intent. To me she seems thoughtful and intelligent. I wanted to know more.

My husband’s grandfather, Willard Harvey Gildersleeve, was a genealogist so I had high hopes as I started my research. Unfortunately, his focus was very strongly on the Gildersleeves, and while I can find the Barrett name in his mother’s lineage it is not explored in the material I have. Time for the internet.

The clothing style and the carte de visite format make it likely that the photograph was taken in the 1860’s.  I might guess Electa’s age in this photo to be somewhere in her early teens.  And that would make her birth date somewhere in the late 1840s-early 1850s.  The photographer’s stamp on the back is for a studio in Jamestown, NY. A second photo in the stack shows two children and is labeled “Henry and Electa Barrett.”  So I’ll assume she had a brother Henry.

Using Family Search I’ve located an Electa Barrett of the right age in Dresden NY, but there is no brother Henry listed, and it seems too far from Jamestown NY.  A second search turns up an Electa of the right age, living in Jamestown NY.  She is listed in the 1865 census as the niece of the head-of-household (Lerant Brown), but Henry is not listed. A search for Henry Barrett turns up several possible candidates, but none with a sibling named Electa.

So the mystery remains.  I’ll continue the search.  Meanwhile, I’ve tried to bring her closer to us with a digitally colored version.


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