Are these Photographs of James McDonald & Sarah Ferguson?

We’ve all heard “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but what if the picture isn’t who you thought it was?   The photographs of James McDonald & Sarah Ferguson McDonald on the left of this web site are from Ila Maughan’s book.  She identifies them as photographs of James & Sarah that she obtained from Cynthia Sophia Clyde Duke, youngest daughter of James & Sarah’s oldest child Jane McDonald Clyde.  Apparently there was no question in her mind, and she did not anticipate any descendants of James & Sarah questioning who were in these photos or how she knew they were “taken in  Ireland about 1829”. Doubt has been expressed about whether these are pictures of James McDonald & Sarah Ferguson.  This is a question that deserves an answer.

Could they have been taken in 1829 Ireland?  The answer is NO!  If Ila Maughan could have gone to the National Geographic web site History of Photography she would have known the very first image (daguerreotype) of a person was captured by the inventor of the process in 1839 Paris.  So we must dismiss the 1829 Ireland statement as impossible.  If they were taken in Ireland they must have been taken in  1843 before James & Sarah left Belfast for Nauvoo.  That does not mean these are not James & Sarah, but they could not have been taken in 1829.  The 1829 date does not match the ages of the people in the photographs.  They appear older than the 27 years of age that James & Sarah would have been in 1829.  They appear to be about 40 which again points to 1843.

Daguerreotype images were the rage in the early 1840’s and portrait studios quickly spread to cities such as Belfast, Ireland and New York City.  The first daguerreotype portraits in Ireland were produced by Francis Beatty in October of 1842 in Belfast.  By then James & Sarah had relocated to Belfast after selling their Crawfordsburn home.  They may well have purchased daguerreotype images before they set sail for Nauvoo.

The next question is why do these appear to be photographs rather than daguerreotype images? Photographs (as we know them) on celluloid coated paper and the original box camera were unknown until George Eastman invented the process in 1884  The problem with daguerreotypes was the process did not allow duplication (no negative) and they were very small by today’s standards (smaller than a wallet size photo).  Most surviving daguerreotypes have damaged areas were the dried chemicals cracked and separated from the metal backing.  The best preserved daguerreotype images are actually photographed copies of the original daguerreotype. This is consistent with Ila Maughan’s statement that Cynthia Sophia enlarged, framed, and preserved these photos of her grandparents.  Everything about the obtaining of these photographs is consistent with known history other than the 1829 date.  If they are photographs of James & Sarah we are indebted to their oldest daughter, Jane McDonald Clyde and Jane’s youngest daughter, Cynthia Sophia, for the excellent condition of these images.

If the daguerreotype images were not taken in 1843 Belfast is it possible they were taken in Nauvoo between 1844 and 1846?  Recent exhaustive studies of a possible daguerreotype image of Joseph Smith answer with a resounding YES! An ad placed in the 1844 Nauvoo Neighbor is evidence that L.R. Foster set up a studio and produced daguerreotype portraits in Nauvoo while James & Sarah were there.  The ad read:  MINIATURE LIKENESSES.

L.R. FOSTER, is now prepared to take Likenesses, by the Daguerreotype process, in the most beautiful style of the art, either plain or coloured, at his Daguerreotype Rooms, on Main Street, a few rods above Ivin’s Store. Specimens may be seen at the Rooms, and at the Nauvoo Mansion;

Price only three dollars, including a handsome morocco case.

That leaves us with the question, “Would James McDonald have spent $3.00 on such a luxury?” That was more than a days wages that could buy a week’s worth of food.  William said his father’s first purchase in Nauvoo, after paying the Irish Saints’ tithing directly to the prophet, was to buy an ax with his last 75 cents.  It is probably more likely something they would have done before leaving Belfast.  They had just sold their home for 40 guineas (about $200.00) and raised additional funds through Sarah’s successful piglet enterprise in Belfast. If they indulged in this luxury, either in Belfast or Nauvoo, Sarah must have treasured those daguerreotypes the rest of her days.  They would have been familiar items to her children.

The suggestion has been made that the images are actually photographs of William McDonald and his wife Sariah Jane Shirts (photos to the right).   The similarity is apparent between a later photo of William and the purported image of his father (to be expected), but not the same facial features in the photo of Sariah Jane as are evident in the purported photo of Sarah Ferguson McDonald.  The photo of Jane McDonald Clyde does show the same facial characteristics as in the purported photo of Sarah as does the confirmed 1883 Heber image of Sarah Ferguson McDonald.  Are these photographs of the original daguerreotype images of James McDonald & Sarah Ferguson?  It is certainly possible.  Though the date they were purportedly taken is not possible, there is nothing to dispute the strong family tradition that these are our ancestors.  The facts & the images are presented here so that you may judge for yourself.

Two additional photos of Sarah Fergusen (sic) were provided by Rex McDonald who obtained them from Giles McDonald, James & Sarah’s great grandson through Joseph Smith McDonald (John McDonald’s son named after his uncle).   We need to be careful not to confuse these two Joseph Smith McDonalds.

I recently found another picture of James McDonald on family added by Arthur Young Gardner, but no explanation is given of where the picture comes from.  It appears to be the original of the well known photo that someone has straightened his collar!   It appears identical to the one we have seen for decades except James’ collar is straightened and the eyes have been darkened in the one we know.   It looks like someone decided to correct the collar when they made the copy of the original daguerreotype!  Here is the original. Ila Maughan may have concluded the image was captured in 1829 because of the baby on Sarah’s lap. James & Sarah lost a baby boy in 1829. But knowing what do about the history of photography forces the conclusion the baby is most likely Joseph Smith McDonald born in Belfast in 1842..

Thank you Becky Rasband and Arthur Young Gardner for sharing information on these photos on Family  If Anyone has the story behind this photo and who has it please share that information at Family or email me at