John Q. Public Writes and Having Writ…

Jul 27, 2016 | 2 comments

The Portrait in Question

The Portrait in Question

This week’s Chinook Observer contains a number of interesting Letters to the Editor – interesting to me, that is, because they involve matters near and dear to my heart.  Among them are Cyndy Hayward’s straightforward message about Oysterville’s Design Review Board, Terri Miller’s letter concerning Verna Oller’s bequest and, the one by Les Genert directed squarely at me:
Witch photo was a mystery
About this time last year, my wife informed me that it would be in my best interest to join her on a two-week cruise to Norway, what I learned on that cruise were two things, one, I have a short attention span and two, after seeing five or six fjords, I’ve seen all of the fjords I will ever need to see, which sets up the purpose of this letter.
Sydney Stevens writes a column for this newspaper and her prime subjects usually are Oysterville and her own family’s history. I must admit that after reading a dozen or more stories on these two subjects my interest level plummets, (Did I mention that I have a short attention span?) But her column in the July 6 Observer really caught my attention, not so much for the subject matter in which she told the tale of one of her female ancestors having been hung as a witch in 1692, but because the picture of the lady that accompanied the column could not have been of that particular ancestor, the fact being that in 1692 cameras did not exist that could process a printable image. The image of the woman in the picture, by my best guess, based on her clothing and hairstyle, was probably taken some time around the 1860s or later.
The mystery to me is; who was that lady and why was her picture used for that story?
Ocean Park

Piortrait of Rachael

Portrait of My Great-Great-Grandmother, circa 1865

Despite Mr. Genert’s rather snarky tone (or is that my usual thin-skinned reaction to criticism?), I think he has a good point.  I, too, wondered at the technique used for this portrait of my seventeenth century ancestor.  Although I tried to find its source and tried, even harder to find other likenesses of Mary Towne Esty, this was the one that is used in the numerous published works about her.  I finally decided to submit it with my column, even though I could not nail down any definitive information about it.  I probably should not have done so.

What prompted me to ignore that cautionary voice from within was the large portrait of my great-great grandmother, Rachael Medora Pryor Taylor (1839-1872) that hangs above the dresser in my bedroom. I have ‘known’ Rachael Medora all my life, and when I was a child I thought that her likeness was a photograph.  I’ve simce been told that, instead, it is a charcoal drawing and I assumed that Mary Este’s portrait was similarly executed.  Never assume.

Since reading Mr. Genert’s letter, I’ve put out some queries, hoping to learn what I should have researched in the first place.  Lesson noted.


  1. Stephanie Frieze

    It does make on wonder how numerous publications all attribute the picture to Esty. These trails grow so cold. I am having trouble just tracking people from my graduating class 47 years ago. We are a visual society and pictures make stories so much more lively. I hope it turns out to actually be of her.

    • sydney

      Check out my answer to Mr. Gernert in next week’s Observer.


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