Explore resources to find what your ancestor looked like and if you are indeed their doppelganger. Learn which genealogy records you should research.
Do you know what your ancestors looked like? Do you know their physical characteristics? Do you know how tall they were? How short? The color of their eyes and hair? Did they have any physical deformities?
And the BIG burning question on your mind….. Do you look like your ancestors?!
Do you have a doppelganger in the family tree?
What is a Doppelganger?
In German folklore, all living things have a spirit double. They referred to that spirit double as a doppelganger. Other folklore traditions refer to a doppelganger as an “evil twin”.
I prefer the friendlier modern definition. The modern definition of a doppelganger refers to a “look alike”. Someone who looks very similar to you.
As genealogy researchers it is of no surprise we wonder if that look alike (or look alikes!) are in our family tree.
The next question becomes…..
How Do Find Out What Our Ancestors Looked Like?
Being able to see a photograph of an ancestor is on every genealogy researcher’s wish list. If the photographs do not exist in your family, how do you find old family photographs?
You have a number of options for finding photographs of your ancestors outside of your family.
Distant relatives and collateral genealogy researchers – Remember other family lines (collateral lines) may have photographs of your ancestors. Reach out to them. You’re family history and photos may be in their closets.
Yearbooks – Yearbooks are an underutilized source of genealogical information. Of course, you’re after those photos!
County Histories – County histories are typically user submitted information, and this is a good thing for you the family researcher. The submitter will often provide a photograph(s) of one or more ancestors.
Flickr – Check university and state archives collections.
Vertical Files – Check local and regional libraries in the areas where your ancestors lived. You can find “new to you” photographs and lots of other pertinent genealogical information.
Passport Applications -The information found on passport applications will vary based on the time period you are research, but they are absolutely worth checking. Below is a the passport application for my husband’s great grandparents Abraham Jacobs and his wife Minnie that included their photographs.
(Yes, there might have been a genealogy happy dance occurring when I found those photos!)
Besides the photographs, passport application can include descriptions of height, weight, eye color, forehead, face shape, chin, mouth, hair color, complexion, and physical deformities. That’s a lot of information for a physical description. Even without a photograph, I would have a good idea of what the couple may have looked like.
For those with family trees on FamilySearch.org, a fun tool to experiment with is Compare-a-Face. This fun tool allows you to upload a photograph of yourself and compare it to all the ancestor’s photos in your family tree to see who you most look like. Give it a try and share your results in the comments below.
Find What Your Ancestor Looked Like Even Without A Photograph
What about those ancestors you just cannot locate a photograph for? It certainly happens. In my own family history research, I have experienced that.
Are we just out of luck when it comes to knowing what our ancestor may have looked like? Not necessarily. Records exist that will give you a physical description of your ancestor. Some of these descriptions are quite detailed.
WWI and WWII Draft Cards – Draft cards include a man’s height (tall, medium or short), weight (slender, medium or stout), eye color, hair color, if bald and physical deformities.
Physical descriptions found on WWI draft cards helped me identify photographs once belonging to my great grandmother Esther Richardson. Esther was a beauty and sought after eligible young woman. Fortunately for me, she saved all of her letters and postcards from her potential suitors. I was able to match the young men’s names with their WWII draft cards and find their physical descriptions. Those descriptions provided valuable clues to identifying unidentified photographs that had been in Esther’s collection.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Records –CCC records are very complete and descriptive of the individuals. These records include height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion, and physical deformities. CCC records are not online and must be ordered from NARA. Be forewarned these can be expensive!
Jail Records – Jail records will include such descriptors as height, weight, eye color, hair color, tattoos, scars, physical deformities. Some will provide mug shots, but not all.
Note: Individual state’s privacy laws can limit the researcher’s access to these records. For example, jail records in North Carolina regardless of the time period are not available for research purposes.
Notice just one of the details on this inmate of Deer Island, NY in 1940. On his Left lower arm is a tattoo of a cross in memory of his mother and a tattoo of an eagle with Liberty.
Early prison records from Sing Sing prison also offer very detailed descriptions of individuals. In this example, you come away with a good idea of what the inmate Charles Miller looks like. Charles was 5’9″ tall and weighed 164 pounds. He had a ruddy complexion, hazel [?] eyes, dark brown hair and a “small dark mole on the left side of nose”.
**Bonus** Oral History – Don’t forget your family’s oral history. While you may not get specifics, you can get clues to general characteristics. Statements like “The Carrs were always short.” It may not be much, but you can begin to see which characteristics you inherited from which side of the family.
Maybe you have discovered a doppelganger in your family tree and maybe not. Either way, discovering what your ancestors looked like and their distinguishing characteristics brings them to life.
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