Feature Article: Who Exactly Were These Children? And Why Is This Boy Dressed as a Girl?

This watercolor painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Museum states that this artwork, "The Starbird Children," was painted in 1841 by Clarissa (Peters) Russell. Penciled on the back of the painting is an inscription explaining that these are the children of Nathaniel W. Starbird, and gives their names and ages:
  • Henry E. Starbird, age 10
  • Caroline M. Starbird, age 8
  • Louis D. Starbird, age 5
So, they are Starbirds.

In my experience I am related to every Starbird—at least, to all the Starbirds that I have found in my family history research over the past 50 years. So naturally, I'm very interested in this painting and want to do some research on the three children shown.

OK. We know the painting was done in 1841 and we have the suggested ages of the children.

First, there's Henry E. Starbird, age 10. That looks like the boy standing in the middle. He would have been born about 1831-1832.

What about the two others in the painting?

Caroline M. Starbird was age 8, so she would have been born about 1833.

As shown in this painting, she looks really grown up for an 8-year-old.

So—that leaves Louis D. Starbird, age 5, who would have been born about 1836.

Hmm...look at that painting of Louis wearing a dress. Maybe "Louis" should be "Louise"?

I checked and I don't have this family on my family tree.

Let's see what we can find out about them.

I looked first for an early census of the Starbird family that might list the names of all of the children.

I did find one: the 1855 State census of Massachusetts that has been put online by FamilySearch.

Credit: Massachusetts, State Census, 1855," index and images, FamilySearch

This census record is promising: the family is headed by a Nathaniel and there are two children that are possible matches: Henry D. Starbird and Louis D. Starbird.

Henry is listed as 24 years old in 1855, which means he was 10 in 1841—matching the Henry in the painting.

Louis is listed as 19 years old in 1855, which means he was 5 in 1841—again, matching the Louis in the painting.

Hmm. The 1855 census says that Louis is a male. If this is a match, then why was Louis dressed as a girl in the 1841 painting?

Look also at the last child in the census listing: Nathaniel W. Starbird. Remember, "Nathaniel" was the name of the father of the children in the painting. Being only 5 in 1855, Nathaniel was not yet born when the 1841 painting was done.

I'm not sure why the family's daughter is listed as "Elizabeth" when the girl in the painting is called "Caroline."

Let's continue to look for more clues about this family.

The father of the Starbird family listed in the 1855 census, Nathaniel, was born in about 1805 in New Hampshire—but as of 1855 he was living in Malden, Massachusetts, and worked in the clothing business.

Let me see if I can find an obituary for him.

Here's one that seems to be him.

Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1888, page 1.

N.W. Starbird, a tailor, who lived in Malden, Massachusetts; born in 1804 in Northwood, New Hampshire. OK, that all fits.

Let's dig deeper for records of the painting's children and see if we can prove this obituary's Nathaniel is the same Nathaniel W. Starbird listed in the census.

Henry Starbird

In looking at FamilySearch I found a Henry Starbird that married an Elizabeth W. Baldwin on 27 September 1854 in Malden, Massachusetts.

The Henry Starbird in the painting would be about 22 in 1854, so this marriage record is a good fit for our Henry.

Digging deeper I found the obituary of a Henry E. Starbird:

Boston Evening Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 April 1884, page 1.

This obituary gives us his exact birth date by giving us his age at death—52 years, 11 months and 4 days—which works out to 9 May 1832. That fits with our target Henry.

Louis D. Starbird

I found Louis Starbird's obituary in the Boston Herald, and it supplies us with a lot of information to tie together the family clues that we have been finding.

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 September 1926, page 2.

This obituary tells us that Louis:
  • Was a tailor
  • The son of Nathaniel W. and Mary D. (Horn) Starbird
Good, we now have the mother's maiden name. Plus, the son of a tailor named Nathaniel W.—that matches with the tailor "Nathaniel W." from the 1888 obituary and possibly the "Nathaniel" from the 1855 census.
  • Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and moved to Malden when he was 11 years old
There's Malden again. Another match.

There is a lot of family information in Louis's obituary!

Look particularly at the last line: "He leaves a brother, Nathaniel W. Starbird."

That's another match with the 1855 census.

This Starbird family from the 1855 census is looking like our target family—the Starbirds of the painting.

Caroline M. Starbird

A quick search on FamilySearch shows a Caroline M. Starbird getting married in Malden, Massachusetts.

Credit: Massachusetts, Marriages, 1841-1915," index and images, FamilySearch

The name is a match, the father's name is Nathaniel Starbird, the date of the wedding is consistent, and they got married in Malden, Massachusetts.

FamilySearch also has Caroline's death certificate online.

Credit: Massachusetts, Deaths, 1841-1915," index and images, FamilySearch

Now we have more evidence.

The father's name is listed as Nathaniel W. Starbird, born in Strafford County, New Hampshire, and the mother is Mary Horn, born in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

That fits with Louis D. Starbird's obituary.

Digging further I found many articles on Nathaniel W. Starbird's clothing and tailor shop business—just as his obituary described the history of his business.

He was in a partnership in Boston known as "Allen & Starbird."

Boston Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 May 1847, page 1.

The partnership broke up and Nathaniel moved into his own store.

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 July 1850, page 3.

GenealogyBank even tells us what happened to his partner B.F. Allen: he moved to Nebraska and ran for public office.

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 30 September 1900, page 22.

So: the preponderance of the evidence is that we have identified the three children in the 1841 painting.

They are the children of Nathaniel W. Starbird (1804-1888) and Mary D. (Horn) Starbird (1812-1873).

However, I haven't yet found a reason why Louis was painted in 1841 wearing a dress!

Don't let your family history be lost.

The oil painting of these three children survived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—but the children were not fully identified in the records on file about the painting.

Now they are.

This is a great day for genealogy.

Tools like GenealogyBank and FamilySearch are making it easy for us to research and preserve our family heritage.

Find your family's stories.

Don't let them be lost.