30 September 2013

What Did My Ancestor Look Like?

Freedmen's Bureau Confidential File for US Colored Troops
We often ask this question.  In this age of ever present cameras (either actual cameras, cell phones, Ipads, etc), many born now find images of themselves and others ubiquitous!

It’s hard for some to realize that photographs were a rarity until say the 1900s or so and even then most families didn’t have a camera and it required a trip to a photo studio. Even drivers licenses didn’t have pictures, nor school ID cards. Do read about the History of Photography.

I was fortunate that my dad was into cameras (still and movie in the 1950s and 1960s) and so he probably played around a bit more than an average person taking photos and videos.  By the 1970s, I had my own cameras – I can’t remember the first one I got and it had a heft to it that I do still remember and my first pictures (taken in England) are still a part of my collection (though they weren’t very good). Though, for future generations, there won't be any questions about what we looked like!

That said, since we often won’t find pictures of our ancestors, this article on The Ancestor Hunt (Kenneth R Marks) was a fun read, What Did Your Ancestor Look Like? 5 Ways to Find Physical Characteristics.

Besides the 5 Ways listed in the article, some of the comments mentioned other sources for physical descriptions:
·    prison records
·    passenger lists

I would also add to the list:
·    early drivers licenses (history of NY ones)
·    civil war documentation (Pensions, Freedmen’s Bureau – USCT Confidential files, etc)
·    newspaper articles about missing soldiers, runaway slaves & wives, etc

And, even if photos were taken and are now in our possession, they weren’t always labeled.  I have a few of individuals that I would love to identify.  It’s kind of funny, and I have used some of the documents listed above to then identify some of my mystery people in photographs!  A good description is always valuable!

Where else have you found descriptions of the physical characteristics of your ancestors?

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