April 8, 2021
Do you know the details of what your ancestors looked like? What color were their eyes? Were they tall or short? Blond or red-haired? In spite of doing years of research on my family, I know the answers to surprisingly few of the above questions. For more recent ancestors, I do have photographs, but the earlier ones are black and white and don’t really tell me a lot about things like hair and eye color.
The other day I was thinking about my grandparents, all of whom have been gone for years. In addition, all of their children are now gone too. For some reason, I was thinking about eye color, which is an inherited trait. My eyes are blue as are those of my siblings. My parents both had blue eyes, as well. But what about my grandparents?
I knew my paternal grandparents very well; they lived until I was a teen-ager. Both were Scandinavian and had the stereotypical sky blue eyes and light hair of Nordic people. My maternal grandmother lived until I was in my thirties, and I remember her piercing blue eyes that never missed a trick, even when she was well into her nineties. But what about my paternal grandfather. He died when I was only five, and he had been sick for years prior to that. I really only have one memory of him as an old, scary man who couldn’t talk well, sitting in a wheelchair. I certainly don’t recall what color his eyes were.
Sadly, there’s no one left to ask. I thought there was a possibility he had brown eyes, since at least a couple of my mother’s eight siblings did too. That should mean a brown-eyed parent for them. I dug out the three or four pictures I had of my grandfather, but he died in 1953. Most photos from that time and before were black and white. Grandpa’s photos were no exception.
My Heritage has recently developed a program to colorize black and white photos. I’ve tried it a few times, but I find the results to be problematic. My own blue eyes invariably turned out deep brown in all the photos I tried, and my red-haired sister was always given brown hair. If these inaccurate results are common for living people, I’m sure the results are no more accurate for folks who are gone too. So what can a genealogist do who really wants a more reliable way to find out about physical characteristics of her ancestors?
At least for men, physical characteristics are sometimes quite readily available through various military records. In the case of my grandfathers, both were of an age to register for the World War I draft, although neither was ever called up. For my paternal grandfather, the draft card verified what I already knew. My grandfather was listed as having light hair, blue eyes and as being of medium height. My theory about my paternal grandfather’s brown eyes also turned out to be correct. He was listed with brown hair and brown eyes and of medium height. World War I draft registration cards are readily available in various locations online such as Ancestry and Find my Past.
Other military records can give information about ancestors who may have served in the United States military over the centuries. For example, Ancestry.com contains a database called “U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914” where I found a great description of my third great grandfather Stephen Hadlock who served in the War of 1812. He was listed as being of light complexion with brown hair and blue eyes and stood 5 feet 9 ½ inches tall. This was an especially great find because Stephen was born in 1790 and died in 1847. Because photography was in its infancy during his lifetime, it’s not surprising that no photos of him have ever been found. The military description is the nearest we’ll probably ever come to what he may have looked like.
As with most genealogical research, finding physical descriptions of women is more difficult than finding them for men. Women (and men) who immigrated to the United States after about 1900 may be found on databases such “U.S., New York, Arriving Passenger Lists (Castle Garden and Ellis Island) 1820-1957” on Ancestry.com. I was able to find my paternal grandmother on a passenger list from 1914 which gave her height as 5 feet 5 inches. Her hair was described as blonde, and her eyes as blue. Otherwise, there are few sources of physical descriptions for women, although some family histories may include a mention of an unusual hair or eye color or other physical feature. According to one family history, my fourth great grandmother, for example, was called “Tiny” because of her small stature. Not a great description of her, but better than nothing.
I suppose in the big picture figuring out our ancestors eye or hair color isn’t a major goal. But, for me, that kind of detail is worth seeking out since it helps me feel a connection to my ancestors. It helps make them seem more like the real people that they were rather than just names on a page. So far the sources for this kind of information have been few and far between, but I plan to keep looking. After all, I’d really like to know what color my fourth great grandfather’s eyes were.
Researcher/Director at Large