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Physical Characteristics of an Ancestor. 6 Steps to Discovery:


Oh, how you wish sometimes you had some photo of an ancestor. You have gathered information about their life, but have no idea what they look like. Did they have a round face, were they tall, have blue eyes and is it possible you look like them?


There are a few sources to turn to that might help provide some general physical characteristics of an ancestor.

First, if there was ever a passport application or an official passport issued there will be some physical description of the person. It was in the 20th century, 1920s, that photos started being attached with a passport application. Before that the height, weight, hair and eye color, facial shape, nose shape, scars, etc. were provided. So investigate if a passport was ever applied for and see about a description.

Second, military draft registration forms and military service pension documents are excellent sources of physical descriptions. The World War I draft registration covers many men born in the 1870s to about 1902. Every male registered (including recent immigrates) even if they did not serve later. Also men who might have been in a county jail or state prison also had to complete the registration. If there was a physical handicap or problem, such as the middle right hand finger had been cut off, it would be listed. It is an excellent source since it was signed by a witness. Also the service pension records (American Revolution to the 20th century wars) have good information because if they had been wounded or suffered fro a disease that affected them it would be listed.

Third, the ship manifests (passenger arrival lists since the early 1900s) to the United States have a description of height, hair color, complexion and even physical handicaps listed. Read any side notes on those manifest, it can tell if they was a special medical concern about that person.

Fourth, voter registration records do vary from state to state and even county to county on the information provided. Some in the 1880s have listed applicants with their age, height, complexion, eye color, hair color along with any special as marks or scars on their body or face.

Fifth, the intention to become a citizen of the United States and then the series of naturalization forms a person filled out can provide a good deal about an ancestor’s physical appearance. There would be skin color, height, weight, eye and hair color, as well as distinctive marks. Some in the 1930s and beyond also had a photo attached to the form (that is how I got the only portrait of my grandfather, I had some candid shots with other people, but it was the only portrait found).

Sixth, if an ancestor had been in prison or in a medical institution, there would be a written description or a photo of that inmate (the name also applied to the patients in a medical institution).

Photo: 1918 World War I draft registration of Harry George Kershaw (medium height, built, brown eyes, black hair and no physical disabilities).

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