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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Where to Find Physical Descriptions of Your Ancestor

Descriptions of our ancestor’s physical appearance can help us see them in our mind’s eye. But how can we discover their appearance if we don’t have videos or photos to provide evidence?

Discover some of the best resources for physical descriptions. Then use these clues to improve your family history writing projects as discussed in How To Describe Your Ancestor’s Physical Appearance.

Military Draft Cards

The documents are a gold mine of information. Sadly, they primarily describe males because the government required men to register in the US during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. The features recorded include:

  1. height (tall, short, medium)

  2. weight (slight, medium, stout)

  3. hair color

  4. eye color

  5. race

  6. physical markings – tattoos, scars, large moles

  7. physical deformities (if applicable)

You can access military draft records on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Fold3.

Check out this video to see how you can turn these documents into physical descriptions.

Passport Applications

Passport applications are incredible because they are not reserved primarily for males. Additionally, some passports come with photos. You have to love that!!! Passports vary over time, but the more recent ones record:

  1. height

  2. weight

  3. hair color

  4. eye color

  5. complexion

  6. defining marks

You can access passport records on Ancestry, Find My Past, and FamilySearch.

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Prison Records

I love these more modern records, but what about a collection that can document ancestors before the 1900s?

The further back in time you research, the more difficulty you may have in finding records describing what your ancestor looked like.

However, there is one record set that you may enjoy, even though it might document that your ancestor served time for a crime.

That’s right. I’m talking about prison records.

Prison officials needed to know the names of persons within their confines, the terms of their sentences, and identifying details about each prisoner.

UK Prison records from Ancestry UK, Prison Commission Records, 1770-1951 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2020.: PCOM 2 1770-1951 Home Office and Prison Commission: Prisons Records, Series 1. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives.

Notice these identifying marks.

  • W R D S ❤️ on the right arm.

  • W+D+W 8 1806 on the left arm!

Suppose your ancestor is William Darose, aged 65, standing 5 foot 3 inches with light hair, hazel eyes, and fair complexion, sentenced for seven days in 1841 in Derby Goal for stealing. In that case, you now have a nice little feature that might not be recorded elsewhere. Plus, questions about what all the symbols mean!

You can then use these details to discuss the life of William.

  • What happened in his life before or after his jail time?

  • Was his story similar to that of Jean Val Jean?

  • Or was this incident the beginning of William’s life of crime?

Additional Sources to Find Physical Descriptions:

There are other places where you might obtain physical descriptions of your ancestors. I’ll refer you to the Ancestor Hunt’s Quick Sheet on this topic, which can give you nine more ideas.

Have I forgotten any resource you have discovered with physical descriptions of your ancestors? If so, share them below.

Further Reading – Describing Our Ancestors Series:

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