It Came from the Archives: The Wiregrass Archives’ Oldest Photos

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly series continues with a look at some of the oldest collected photos in the Wiregrass area.

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly series continues with a look at some of the oldest collected photos in the Wiregrass area.

The Wiregrass Archives didn’t intend to collect large quantities of photographs, but we have accumulated images in many 19th-and-20th-century formats – cased photos, glass-plate negatives, “tintypes,” panoramic prints, cabinet cards, as well as hundreds of paper prints, slides and negatives.

The oldest photographs in the Wiregrass Archives collections are ambrotypes in the Michael Matthews Collection (RG 180). They are from his Wiregrass family, the Petermans.

Ambrotypes were the second kind of commercially viable photograph after the daguerreotype and were popular from 1853 into the 1880s. They were cheaper than daguerreotypes (for which they are often mistaken) and sturdier than the ferrotypes (“tintypes”) common at the same time. Photographers made ambrotypes by exposing treated glass plates to light through a camera, bleaching the emulsion with nitric acid to make a negative, varnishing with Canadian balsam, placing on a black background (often velvet) to make it into a positive image, then sealing everything into a presentation case.

The five Peterman ambrotypes came with no written identification, so to know who they represent and when they were taken, we rely on family lore, records in the collection and conjecture. Judging from the age of the baby in the last ambrotype, below, and believing that all the images were taken at the same time, we surmise that they were made in 1861. Note the presentation cases, intact in the first image. They protect the ambrotypes and display them properly.

Benjamin Peterman

The first ambrotype depicts Benjamin Peterman, patriarch of this family branch. Born in Delaware in 1785, he moved to Oglethorpe County, Georgia, where he married Malinda Dowdy (1797-ca. 1857) in 1812. They had 11 children, and in 1857 Benjamin moved to Henry County, Alabama, possibly following one of his sons. He owned a number of slaves, indicated by a personal estate of $17,500 in 1860 and his gift of 10-year-old Delia to one of his granddaughters. His last record is the 1870 census; he died without a will.

Henry George Peterman

Henry George Peterman (1813-1883) was the oldest son. The 1840 census notes that he owned six slaves, and his personal estate in the 1860 census indicates he owned many more. He lived in the Shorterville area of Henry County with his wife, Melissa Noell (1814-1885). They had 11 children.

Thomas E. PetermanJulia Armstrong Peterman

First cousins Thomas E. Peterman (1835-1923) and Julia Armstrong (1841-1921) married in 1859 and moved to Henry County soon after. His reported estate in 1860 was so small that he probably owned no slaves and certainly owned no land. He was a private in the 38th Georgia Infantry, CSA, during the Civil War, lost a leg at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and drew an Alabama state Confederate pension from 1917 until his death in 1923. The family moved to the recently incorporated town of Dothan in 1892, where they built three brick stores and a house on North Foster Street. They had eight children.

Martin Peterman

This is the baby who lets us estimate the ambrotypes dates as 1861. Martin Dave Peterman, oldest son of Thomas and Julia, was born in December 1860, and is less than a year old in this image.  He lived in Dothan from ca. 1900 until 1939, farmed and invested in property so he and his wife Sallie could retire very comfortably after World War 1.

A very different photo – a positive paper image pasted onto a stiff backing similar to cabinet card  — taken ca. 1900 at their home in Dothan, Julia and Thomas Peterman sit on the porch with their children, sons-and daughters-in-law, and grandchildren on the steps. The baby in the ambrotype, called Dave by this time, is the dapper man in light pants and mutton chop whiskers second from the right.

Photographs tell us more than what’s on their surface and they offer an entrepot into the visual culture of their age. To see more collections of photographs at the Wiregrass Archives, consult this Troy LibGuide, or search through all our collections.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.