What did your American ancestors look like?

Have you ever wondered if you inherited your unusual height or your hazel eyes from a certain American ancestor? If that ancestor was an American who traveled abroad, you may find the answer in our National Archives.

Because the diarist in my book had traveled in 1831, when Louis Daguerre was still experimenting with what would become known as “daguerreotypes,” I thought I’d never learn what the writer looked like, but I was wrong. Once I’d discovered his name, the doors to storehouses full of original documents flew open.1831 Passport Application

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D. C., http://www.archives.gov/research/passport/, I readily found not one, but two passport applications for my diarist. The first one, dated 1831, was a handwritten letter from a local official to the Secretary of State, “The Hon. Martin Van Buren.” The wealth of information included the traveler’s birthplace, age, reason for travel, plus the physical characteristics of height, eye and hair color, complexion, and the size and shape of his forehead, nose, mouth, chin, and face. (This application gave me a “two-fer”—it also described the diarist’s traveling companion, Charles Dutilh.) Combine these details with a second application from 1835, dress the man in the fine clothing he bought in Paris, and a police sketch artist could give me a good likeness, in color no less.

Though most foreign travel in that age involved immigration from Europe to America, a surprising number of Americans wanted passports to sail to Europe, whether for pleasure, business, or to visit with relatives in “the old country.” Applications archived at NARA date back to 1795, although the indexes that enable easy searching start in 1810 and contain some gaps in the early 19th century years. Even if you’re not sure that your American ancestors traveled abroad, it’s worth a look to see what pops up. Maybe your great-great-great-grandfather had hazel eyes, too.


6 thoughts on “What did your American ancestors look like?

    • It’s amazing how much information is catalogued and stored there. Also, the personnel were exceptionally helpful in guiding me straight to the answers.

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