When crime fighters reconstruct a crime, they gather as much information as possible about the villain. Witnesses are interviewed and forensic evidence gathered. An artist may even be called in to create a sketch from facts investigators have gleaned: height, weight, skin tone, facial features and notable physical characteristics, such as eyeglasses or a limp.
1. Family sources
People and their memorabilia are my favorite sources for photographs and physical descriptions. Not just older relatives, but also their spouses or widows, my own siblings and cousins, and more-distant relations, too. I’ve often been surprised at who ends up with (but never mentions having) the family photo albums, portraits and shoeboxes full of memorabilia. The wider I spread my search, the better my chances at finding old pictures. My favorite find came from a second cousin, who shared the only photo we have of my husband’s great-grandfather.
Look to your relatives for recollections, too. Family memory is a powerful and underappreciated genealogy resource. Ask an 80-year-old relative how her 60-year-old grandfather looked when she last saw him as a 10-year-old child. Her description would likely be limited, but she might recall his dark skin, stooped posture, curly gray hair and rimmed glasses. That mental image would date from around 1942, and describe a man born around 130 years ago.
Especially during the 1900s, newspapers often “featured photos of local business people, recent graduates, military enlistees, engaged couples, newlyweds, community organizations, church and family gatherings, athletic teams and newsworthy individuals,” says Cheryl Felix McClellan, a library staff genealogist in Chardon, Ohio. She recommends checking dates such as 50th anniversaries, high school graduations or the week after a relative’s death. Don’t neglect ethnic newspapers, which you might find in local or ethnic repositories (including the Immigration History Research Center).
“Yearbooks and school photos provide more than just a glimpse at how an ancestor looked in high school or college,” says Teri Brown, owner of two websites for collecting and sharing heritage photos. “You can get an idea of your ancestor’s character: Class president, class clown, most beautiful.”
5. Funeral home records
This might seem a surprising source for your composite sketch. “The first descriptive record I ever got that struck me as a really lucky find was a funeral home record, which included the embalmer’s records,” avid family historian Cynthia Turk says. “It was for my great-great-grandfather, for whom I had no photo. The record included some gory details, but it was a delight to find him described.” Turk learned her ancestor was 5’6”, weighed 140 pounds, with blue eyes, grey hair and beard, and bad teeth. “When I finally inherited the only known picture of him, he was pretty much as I had imagined.”
6. Draft registration cards
Millions of men had to register for the draft in both world wars. Three successive versions of the WWI draft registration card requested basic physical details: height (tall, medium or short); build (slender, medium or stout), eye and hair color, and whether the applicant was missing a limb or otherwise visibly “physically disqualified.” WWII draft cards requested more detail. The registrar estimated height and weight, selected a complexion (sallow, light, ruddy, dark, freckled, light brown, dark brown or black), and noted “other obvious physical characteristics that will aid in identification.”
7.Military service and pension records
Military records can add to your composite sketch of your ancestor, especially if he claims a disability. My own ancestor Samuel McGahey applied for a pension after the Civil War. His 1887 application tells me he was 5’8”, with a light complexion, auburn hair and blue eyes. He also had untreated “piles [hemorrhoids] from which he never recovered.” In 1892, another application gives more-specific (and creatively spelled) physical details: “piles, dislocated rist wright knee Cap dislocating the grate toe damaged. Dispepsey. Skull cracked. Wright lung damaged, dimness of sight. Shortness of memory.”
8. Naturalization papers
9. Passport applications
Passports were required for traveling abroad early in the Civil War (1861-1862), during World War I (1918-1921), and from World War II (1941) forward, but Americans could apply for them as early as 1789. All except the earliest passport applications request physical descriptions; photos were added in December 1914.
10. Heritage photo collections
Almost every research repository has a photo archive, and massive digital image collections are searchable online. Published collections of photographs await you on library bookshelves and on Amazon.com’s virtual shelves . You never know what portraits or group photos you may uncover: your ancestor’s grade school, minor league baseball team, sewing club, church or company picnic, or military unit. I never thought my husband’s great-grandfather would appear in a book, but there’s his photo in West Virginia Panoramic Coal Field Photography: 1900-2005 by Melody Bragg (GEM Publications).
First, look for photo collections in the catalogs and websites of archives, libraries and societies. The Wyoming State Archives, for example, has a half-million images in its Historic Photograph Collection. You even may find digital photo archives, such as the Denver Public Library’s 120,000-image Western History/Genealogy Digital Collections. On Cyndi’s List, browse the Photographs & Memories—Photo Archives, Collections and Libraries category.
- When you search auction sites for your last name and genealogy, be sure to also look for the common misspelling geneology.
- Run a Google Image search for your ancestor’s name, hometown, church, school, employer and groups he belonged to.
- Family History Detective
- Finding Your Family in Old Newspapers on-demand webinar
- Military Research Guide CD
From the February 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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