What Did Your Ancestor Look Like?  7 Ways to Find Physical Characteristics

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As we all know, there are no photos available for all of our ancestors, especially many of those who lived primarily in the 1800’s or earlier. On the other hand, we may have photos in our collection in what I call my “Unknowns,” where they have not been identified, and may never be identified.

So how do we know what our ancestors looked like if there are no identified photos? Well, there are several artifacts that are available to family historians and genealogists that at least describe their physical characteristics.

Below is a list of 7 different  examples. I am sure that there are many more.

World War I or II Draft Cards – on the second page of the card, questions were asked about the applicant’s physical characteristics: height, build, eye color, hair color, possible disability, and in one version whether he was bald.​
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Naturalization Records – there have been a few variations of naturalization forms, but several of them asked for skin color, height, weight, eye and hair color, as well as distinctive marks.

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Passport Applications – although some applications indeed have photos (although less than high quality), a number of physical characteristics were requested by the applicant, such as stature, forehead, eye color, nose, mouth, chin, hair color, complexion, face characteristics, and distinguishing marks.​
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Military Records – there are an abundance of forms in the military, and many of them record physical characteristics. In this example from my father’s discharge from the Marine Corps, height, eye color, hair color, and complexion were noted.
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Voter Registration – in some voter registration logs, physical characteristic information was requested. In this example from 1882, applicants recorded their age, height, complexion, eye color, hair color as well as marks or scars.

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Pension Applications – In pension applications, there often is a place to enter physical characteristics.  In this example for a Civil War pension, there is a place to enter age, height, weight, complexion, and eye and hair color. In this example of a Surgeons Certificate, there is an abundance of health information as well.
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Immigration Records – In immigration records for specific years, some physical description info was required. In this example, health condition, deformities, height, complexion, eye and hair color, and identifying marks were required.
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These are 7 examples that at least give us some clues as to what our ancestors may have looked like. Maybe that red hair that you have came from your great grandfather, which was noted in his naturalization papers or voter registration from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. These artifacts provide us with some distinguishing information – at least or until those unknown photos get identified, or a supportive cousin appears with the photos that we seek.

What other examples of artifacts and documents have you used to determine physical characteristics?  Please specify in the comments!

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19 Comments

  1. I took one look at my mother’s brothers and picked the one who didn’t belong! Pretty sure I know what her father looked like! And from other things I’ve read/seen they all look alike, generation after generation. My cousins prove it.
    But I find myself scrutinizing the faces of local men for a resemblance to my grandmother’s illegitimate son.

  2. I find a lot of good physical description info on World War I & World War II Draft Registration Cards!

    1. My father had osteomyelitis as a child. One leg was several inches shorter than the other and that hip didn’t bend. When he sat on a chair he perched on the left side with that knee down and the lower leg back. The clerk saw no problem. The form did only ask if anything was missing. I wouldn’t take the draft registration of evidence of much of anything.

  3. Well.. I used the prison record for my grandfather… though I did know him until he died in 1969 (born 1895). It even gave a notation on his “temperament”. I have used the WWI draft registrations the most.. and not only did it provide appearance.. but another interesting notation. My grandfather had loss of hearing in one ear. So does my father, so does my daughter.. is that genetic? I compare old pictures… and note the resemblance. A hatchet mark in the chin always signifies to me that person is a “Blackwell”! Great article!

  4. Passenger lists for arrivals to the U.S. after abt 1905 include descriptions. However height is omitted for children and returning American citizens (if not listed with non-citizen family members) might reference only their passports. Watch out for amended ditto marks and medical notations!

  5. Two of my ancestors served in the Civil War. Their pension papers I obtained from the National Archives give a physical description for them.

    1. Good to know, Mary Jane. Thanks for visiting and sharing that information!

    2. How do you go about getting civil war info. I have relatives who served and it would be fascinating to have that info

  6. I have recently acquired scanned copies of photo albums belonging to my grandmother. These have been hidden for over 50 years. There are many unknown folks, assumed to be family but could be neighbors for all we know. Have you found a face recognition program that works to ID children to adults? What have you done in your personal collection with the “Unknowns”? I get “emotionally” attached to these beautiful old photos and wish there was some way they could be displayed by city/state/ family name or something for others out there that might recognize our family members. Any thoughts or ideas? Sorry… that was several “comments” and Questions. PS – I’m new to your site and really enjoy your comments and help. Elaine

    1. Thank you for your comments Elaine. I have not found such a face recognition program but I think I recall one. I create an “Unknown” Album and make it available so relatives can see if they recognize them. It has worked to a certain degree. It is also a Public album but since I have no facts regarding location or name it is hard for the search engines to tag them so to speak so that others who aren’t known relatives can weigh in. Thank you so much for enjoying my site. Makes me feel good. 🙂

    2. Facial recognition software is still a developing technology. As such there are bugs to be worked out. I work with old photos and find that the human “trained” eye is best for photo identification. Please see my website http://www.sherlockcohn.com for more information. I also have a site called MatchMaker where my clients can post their unknown photos provided I have properly dated them first.

      1. Thanks for both websites. I’ll check them out. I agree the “trained” eye is probably the indicator… if we had a comparison base to begin with. The more I work with the photos the more familiar they become, however identification still eludes me. Thanks for your response.

    3. Picasa has a facial recognition program.The best thing is that it’s a free download. I love it.

  7. I also have a slew of old photo that were sent to me by a cousin… not even sure if we are 3rd or 4th cousins… my gg grandmother and her gg grandmother were sisters. There are numerous photos.. one I had professionally dated to the mid 1860’s. I start by trying determine location of photo if the studio happens to shown. Then I try to eliminate people by time frame and who they could NOT have been. It is a challenge..and as previously mentioned in another post.. I form an emotional attachment and wish the photos would “speak to me”! I so badly want to know who these people are.

  8. Looking for Kennedy’s told they were lowlanders, the problem I dont’ have any dates except the birth of their son John Kennedy 1849 born in Scotland! H e did go to Canada in 1860’s, can’t find anything about parents!

  9. We tried a different technique. My daughters are photographers. We had a photo of 3 sons of an ancestor 1763-1837. We wanted to see what he possibly looked like. My one daughter scanned the sons’ pictures into her photo software. They all would have been in their 60’s or older. She photoshopped them to make all look younger (no grey hair, no wrinkles, etc). and printed out the results. Amazingly, all three looked a lot alike. Although this doesn’t prove their father looked the same, but with genes passed on – we have a closer idea of what he looked like too. Plus we pretty know what the sons looked like when younger!

  10. I was lucky to find my great-great grandfather’s military enlistment record at the Public Record Office in London. As a former Napoleonic soldier who was captured by the British and became a POW, he was given the chance to sign on to fight in the War of 1812 for the British in Canada. The enlistment document provided his age, height, hair color, etc.

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