Liv Tyler – Who Do You Think You Are – “Drummer Boy”

On Monday’s season finale of Who Do You Think You Are? (airing Monday, April 24 at 8/7c on TLC), actress Liv Tyler unravels the mystery of her father Steven Tyler’s maternal family line, uncovering ancestors who took part in famous American battles. She also learns truths that change the way she will see herself and her family, forever.

Please note that this, the last episode for this season, airs on MONDAY, not Sunday, this week.

This episode will especially appeal to Civil War buffs.

Liv focuses on her father’s family line. Her father is Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. Liv’s family has been immersed in music as far back as she knows.

Liv begins her journey with a genealogist who was able to extend her family back several generations, to her great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Elliott who they found on the 1860 census in New York as a shoemaker.

Coming forward another decade to the 1870 census, Liv discovered something in the race column of the 1870 census that did not match the 1860 census – spawning questions that many of us have experienced as well.

Genealogy isn’t so much about whether you will find surprises, but when and what those surprises will be.

Liv travels to Clinton County, NY to discover more.

Liv discovers that Robert served in the War of 1812, as a drummer boy.

I had absolutely no idea about the role that drummers played in early wars, the War of 1812 as well as the Civil War.

Drummers apparently served a much more important function than I ever imagined, especially since many were in essence children, too young to really serve as a soldier. They drummed commands, a language that all the soldiers understood and apparently could hear over the din of warfare. The drum rat-a-tat-tat” was a specific set of instructions relative to how to advance, or retreat, or whatever they were supposed to do.

I always learn something interested in each of these episodes. In addition to this tidbit, I learned that the state of New York outlawed slavery in 1799 and mandated that males that had been held in slavery serve as indentured servants until they were 28 years of age.

Robert’s son, George Washington Elliott served in the Civil War, at both Antietam and Gettysburg. He did survive, to have 17 children, but not unscathed. Liv traveled to the National Archives to find George’s service records and the records of his unit.

I really enjoyed the special treat that they had in store for Liv at the National Archives!

From there, Liv visited Gettysburg with a historian that explained the troop movements of that fateful day.

I have visited the Gettysburg Battlefield, and just being in that place where so many fought and died is a sobering event. Somber doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling there.

The peace and tranquility of the fields today belie the events that took place there in July of 1863 where someplace between 46,000 and 51,000 men were killed, injured or captured. More than 12,000 died.

Liv discovered that George eventually applied for a pension, listing Schuylerville, Saratoga County, NY as his place of residence in 1889.

Liv wanted to learn about George’s life after the Civil War, so she traveled to Schuylerville and met with a historian there.

Liv desperately wanted to see what George looked like, and not only was she able to do that, she also discovered that he was a Mason.

Unusual for these episodes, Liv’s father, Steve, joined her in Schuylerville where she told him of her discoveries and how connected their family had been to these men that they previously knew nothing about.

The family resemblance between Steve and his ancestor, above, is remarkable.

Together, Liv and her father visited George Washington Elliott and his wife.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s episodes of Who Do You Think You Are.  I have and look forward to next season. In the mean time, I hope you make discoveries of your own!!!

John Stamos – Who Do You Think You Are – “Honor and Family”

On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, actor John Stamos explores his Greek heritage for the first time and learns more about his grandfather’s sad childhood. He also meets a relative he never knew and hears firsthand about his family’s enduring strength. In a suiting coincidence and homage to John’s heritage, the episode premieres on Greek Easter, which is usually celebrated on a different date but this year coincides with the Western calendar’s Easter Sunday.

Warning – get the box of Kleenex.  Yep, this is one of those – in a good way.

John begins by explaining that he never wanted to go to college, and how supportive his parents were of his decision to pursue acting.  John’s parents and grandparents were all very family focused.

His parents are gone now, and of course, he and his sisters wish they had asked many more questions while they could have. 

He said, “I always thought Mom and Dad would be around.”  Yea, John, you and so many others, right up until they aren’t anymore.

As it turns out, for John, the information he was able to glean from a trip to Greece wasn’t anything that his parents were likely to have known.

John’s grandfather, for whom John’s father and John himself are both named, certainly did know, and perhaps intentionally left that part of the family story back in Greece.

John and his sisters think they remember the village name in Greece, but they have different memories, so John will need help figuring out where his family is from.  He thinks they were from someplace near Tripoli. Turns out that he was close – about 40 miles or so distant. And of course, the family name was changed in America.

John heads to the Greek National Archives to begin unraveling his own personal Greek tragedy.

Courtesy TLC

At the National Archives, John works with a historian who has put together as much as she can from what is in essence a Greek census document and school records that show John’s grandfather as a 13 year old boy and have him marked as an orphan.

John never knew this about his grandfather, and wants to know more, but of course, he must return to the county where his grandfather was raised.

The Greek countryside is stunningly beautiful, but be prepared…for snow.  I had no idea it snowed in Greece, and John is driving on those mountain roads in the snow, with the flocks of sheep.

John’s next stop is the notarial archives which have records of things like land sales.  Indeed, John’s grandfather’s mother sold land in 1916.  The historian explained to John that this was her dower land, near and dear to her heart because it was given to her when she married.  To sell it would have probably meant she was in some kind of trouble.

As John said, “a desperate act of a desperate woman.”

But to find out why, John had to go on to the actual village, Kakouri, to discover what was actually going on, and why. John is now in the part of the world where villages hang on mountainsides, roads are one lane and addresses are given by description.  “Look for the house with the green gate.”

John discovers that he is literally related to half the village, and probably the other half too, if he went back more than a couple generations or did some DNA testing.  I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to do a village genealogy and DNA test everyone, but I digress.

John discovers the secret that his grandfather very clearly knew, and left behind.  He meets a most amazing woman and finds a photo of his grandfather’s mother, hanging on the wall and learns the story of this amazingly strong woman from someone who knew her.  She sacrificed her dower land for honor and family. 

John’s reunion in the village and his discoveries there are nothing short of amazing, and heartwarming, and heart-wrenching too.

Courtesy TLC

I’m so glad John made this journey and took all of us along. The views of Greece and the cemetery, especially if you are a cemetery buff, are worth watching alone. I love learning about the cultures and records of other countries.

But for John, it truly was a journey home in ways he could never have imagined.  It’s amazing how much “distance’ is created in just two generations, and how much can be recovered when you physically visit the location where your ancestor lived.  There is just something about standing where they stood and seeing what they saw that gives you roots.

Don’t forget the Kleenex, and enjoy!  It’s wonderful way to spend Easter evening.

Smokey Robinson – Who Do You Think You Are – “Overcome with Joy”

Courtesy TLC

On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, Motown legend and icon Smokey Robinson dives into his late mother’s family history. He searches for answers behind the mystery of why his grandfather disappeared from his children’s lives, and finds a man tangled in a swirl of controversy. Then Smokey uncovers the story of his great-grandfather, and comes face to face with an unbelievable history.

Anyone in my generation is familiar with Smokey Robinson, nicknamed “Smokey Joe,” from his days with The Miracles beginning in the mid-1950s through his more recent continuing performances even though he’s no youngster anymore.

You can hear his infamous “Agony and “Ecstasy” here.

One of the aspects of this episode that I really enjoyed was that Smokey seems so “real.” He’s not an actor, and you can tell that what he says is absolutely sincere and often, the same exact emotions we feel as genealogists. It’s so easy to relate to him. In fact, I checked the We’re Related app, just to see, with no luck.

Smokey’s music is iconic, as is the man himself. Someone many can identify with, struggling through and triumphing over poverty, infidelity, drugs and many other stumbling blocks that life has to offer.

As it turns out, his ancestors, and probably many of ours as well, struggled with the same temptations in one form or another.

I have one thing to say to Smokey Robinson – “I feel you!”

Many people whose ancestry reaches back into the times of slavery find pursuing their genealogy somewhat difficult, but they aren’t the only people with this problem. I have the exact same issues with one of my family members who just seems to “disappear” from time to time, and in both cases, Smokey’s and mine, it has nothing to do with slavery at all. It has to do with human choices!

Smokey’s Parents

Smokey begins by telling us the story of his parents. His mother, Flossie Mae Smith, born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1907, died when Smokey was 10, and as he said, “the world stopped.” She was his closest friend. Such a sad moment. Even more than half a century later, these early painful memories are so close to the surface.

Courtesy TLC

Smokey’s parents were divorced when he was 3, so he didn’t know much about either side of his family. He did know that the Warr surname was one he had heard on his mother’s side, but he didn’t know how it connected and was anxious to find out. Smokey said he knows that his mother is going with him on this journey.

Yes, Smokey, I’m sure she did.

Smokey met with a genealogist at the LA Public Library to review what he did know, finding census records showing his mother as a child in the 1910 census. However, that record proved to be confusing, because while his mother was age 2, and his grandmother’s marital status was married, her husband was not listed with the family.

Who was the grandfather and where was he? Why was he not with the family in the census? Why had Smokey never heard one thing about the man?

I swear, I think Smokey and I must be related, because my father’s side of the family is full of this kind of intrigue. It’s fun when it’s someone else’s story, but it’s not one bit fun when it’s your story AND you can’t find the next step.

Thankfully, Smokey had help.

Memphis, Tennessee

Smokey was off to Memphis, Tennessee where he met with both an archivist and a professional genealogist at a restaurant in old town that I thought sure had something to do with the show, but apparently did not.  I kept waiting for the genealogist to say, “And this is the building he owned” or “where he worked,” but it didn’t happen. I would have loved to have vicariously sampled some southern food.

Smokey found his grandfather, Ella Smith’s husband, Benjamin J. Smith, in various records in Memphis, including a 1914 divorce record. That does explain why Smokey had never heard of him, but it doesn’t explain where he was on the 1910 census.

Smokey says, “I want to know where he was.” Can I ever understand that feeling. How DARE our ancestors be missing in a census!

Smokey knows that his uncle, Dewey, was born in 1901, so by inference he knows that his grandmother was married to Benjamin Smith since at least 1900 until their divorce in 1914.

Or does he?

Enter Euzelia – the other woman. Except no, maybe she wasn’t the other woman. Maybe his grandmother was.

GRANDMA??? The other woman?? Nooooooo

No one wants to think of grandma as the other woman. Surely, there is some mistake here.

Looking at the 1900 census, sure enough, Benjamin was married to Euzelia. Ok, so maybe they got divorced.

They did, in 1902.

Uh, Ok.

But Uncle Dewey was born in 1901?????

Smokey said, “I am very confused.”

Like I said Smokey, I feel you.

But then, but then….they found Benjamin in 1910.

In Birmingham, Alabama.

Doing the last, and I mean the VERY last thing you would have expected him to be doing.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you will be…let’s just say…shocked.

Smokey got it right when he said that his grandfather was “A Player” and he didn’t mean in musical terms.

Warr

Having reached the end of the Smith line with Benjamin, Smokey shifted to his grandmother’s side of the family to see if he could discover where the Warr surname came from – which involved a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Unlike grandfather Benjamin’s death certificate which listed his parents as “unknown,” his grandmother Ella’s death certificate listed her parents as Adam Warr and Sarah, surname unknown.

Ella was born in 1889, in Fayette County, near Memphis, so Smokey has already gone back quite some time using her death certificate information. Once again, using the census, they found Adam Warr in 1870, living with his family. With a lot of digging, they discovered one document where Adam Warr gave a deposition, in his own words. That was an amazing discovery, actually, given the circumstances…and something we all hope for. Those are the only words from Adam’s mouth that Smokey will ever hear.

Since they were looking at original documents, the “X” where his grandfather signed was also by his own hand.

The genealogist told Smokey that she had found the location where Adam Warr lived, in Fayette County, Tennessee. So back Smokey went, to Fayette County, outside Memphis.

Roots in the Land

Smokey is a man after my own heart. He had to go back to his ancestor’s land. He was drawn there. He wondered if his grandmother, Ella, visited there often. That’s probably where she was born. This is the field where the grandmother he knew and loved would have played as a child. She walked here, and so did her parents, Adam and Sarah.

Courtesy TLC

Smokey needed to stand where Adam stood. Where Adam lived, where he worked, and probably, where he breathed his last.

Courtesy TLC

Adam’s bones as well as Sarah’s may even rest on this land.

Courtesy TLC

Smokey is simply “overcome with joy.”

This is such a positive, uplifting story. I was sorry to see it end. But isn’t that the best way to feel at the end of anything. I hope you enjoy it on Sunday evening as much as I did during the screening.

Noah Wyle – Who Do You Think You Are? – “Shaken to the Core”

On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, actor Noah Wyle unravels the mystery of his mother’s family line, searching for answers to a lifelong question about his family’s participation in the Civil War.

Battle of Shiloh Military Park

One of the things I really like about this series is that often, they open by showing the individual talking to their older relatives about their ancestry. I hope this example encourages others to do the same, because often, so much slips away with our older relatives.

Courtesy TLC

Many times they can identify people in photos, tell us where and when the photos were taken, and stories about the people. Noah’s mother points to her grandfather. This photo was taken in Lexington, Kentucky, but the next generation earlier was from much further north (New York) and much further south (Mississippi), both. Tantalizing tidbits.

Another thing I like about this series is that there is so much “on location” history. In some cases, they visit locations where my ancestors lived too. In other cases, like this week, places I’ve never visited and enjoy seeing from a historical perspective. And then there are snippets from episodes that can connect with just about everyone.

Courtesy TLC

Can’t you almost see your ancestor sitting in this old schoolhouse? I can. A portal to the past.

History Buff

Noah tells us that he has always been a history buff and fascinated with the Civil War. He asked his now-deceased Uncle Sandy about his own family’s participation in the Civil War and Uncle Sandy told him that more well-to-do families hired replacements to fight for them, in their place, and their family had probably done the same. Noah was disappointed with that answer. Knowing his relatives lived in Kentucky, a state clearly deeply involved in the Civil War with regiments who fought for both sides, Noah was more disappointed that his ancestor had not stood up and fought for what he believed, regardless of which side of the conflict.

Noah’s mother was able to help him track their family back through several generations to John Henry Mills, born in New York in 1843 but found in 1860 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Noah’s mother had no idea they had relatives in or from Louisiana.

Noah wants to go further, find an objective truth about his ancestors, beyond just a photo and a third generation anecdote, to put meat on their bones.

Noah looks at his mother and asks, “Where do we go from here?’ Well, of course, we know the answer to that!!!

Louisiana

Noah began his journey of discovery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the Louisiana State Archives, hoping to discover more about his ancestor John Henry Mills who married in Mississippi in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.

Noah discovers that indeed, John Henry Mills did serve in the Civil War, joining for a 90 day enlistment, which was typical for the timeframe. Almost exactly 30 days later, John fought in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the war in which 23,000 men were killed on April 6th and 7th of 1862.

I had to ask myself how a person with literally no military experience, “an amateur” as Noah said, would feel about finding themselves in that situation.

I so wanted to tell Noah to search for John’s compiled service record at www.fold3.com or to order his compiled service record from NARA, but so far, TV is a one way communications!

Noah already knew that John survived the battle, because his mother had told him that John married Mary Emily Brown in 1863 in Summit, Mississippi, which was Noah’s next destination.

Mississippi

Noah discovered in Mississippi that his 3X great-grandfather retired in 1899 after 24 years as a public servant, much loved, as the local Treasurer, a career he began in 1875.

However, nine years later, by 1904, John’s life had spiraled out of control. Surprisingly so, so much that I gasped when I saw the headline. So did Noah.

I’m not going to give it away, but I will say that John’s tragic end and the very unusual circumstances really gave Noah pause to reflect and reconsider.

The entire town closed on the day of John’s funeral and the church’s bells were tolled for the man “whose love for his family was as beautiful as it was great.”

After discovering the shocking news about John, and the selfless lengths that he went to in order to attempt to save his family, Noah wanted to know what happened to John’s wife, Mary Emily.

Mary Emily

The historian had found Mary Emily Mills on a 1913 list of Mississippi Confederate widows who had applied for a pension. This pension was state funded, not like the federal pensions for the Union widows, and was restricted to those impoverished. The message here, sadly, was that John’s attempt to save his family had failed and his death had been both tragic and pointless.

Mary was on the pensioner’s role until 1927, when she disappeared. Being a genealogist, I, of course, assumed that she died at that point, but that’s not the only reason one was removed from the rolls. Remarriage or a move out of state would also cause removal.

It was suggested that Noah visit the Beauvoir Soldiers Home in Biloxi, Mississippi and his response was a surprised, “there’s more?” As irony would have it, Beauvoir was the original home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the failed Confederacy.

The Beauvoir home for the aged in the early 1900s was for those pensioners or their widows who were destitute. Mary was admitted in 1926 under emergency circumstances, where she lived out her final days.

The photo below shows Noah sitting in the rocker on the porch of the buildings that were built for the residents.

Courtesy TLC

Noah went in search of his ancestors, and he certainly found more than he bargained for.  John Mills was described as a “gentleman of the old school,” his wife, an educated lady who was caught up in a tragic spiral in a turbulent time in our Nation’s history.

I hope you enjoy the episode. Remember, if you can’t tune in, episodes are available online within a day or so of airing. You can also watch back episodes.

Jennifer Grey – Who Do You Think You Are – “Her Name Was Shendyl”

I have such fond memories of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in their Academy Award Winning timeless love story, Dirty Dancing.

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11428295

My friend and I used to have Dirty Dancing stitch-a-thons, watching and stitching, both of us being cross-stitchers at the time. It’s hard to believe that was almost 30 years ago now. That friend moved away long ago, Patrick, sadly, passed away, but Jennifer is the same lovely lady – matured a bit.

On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, Jennifer is the star once again, uncovering the truth about the emigrant grandfather she thought she knew, learning how he survived adversity to become a beacon of his community. Jennifer also uncovers the devastating tragedy that stopped her great-grandmother from ever making it to America.

Jennifer says that “beyond my parents’ story, I knew so little.” I think that’s true for many, especially today with the hustle and bustle of our hectic lifestyles. By the time we realize we want to know, it’s too late.

Jennifer knew her grandparents, but didn’t know the name of her grandfather’s mother. That struck her as very odd, that her mother, still living, didn’t know her own grandmother’s name. How could they not know her name?

As a child, Jennifer’s grandfather, Izzy, below, struck her as beaten down and sad.

Photo courtesy TLC

Izzy’s real name was Israel Brower. He was a Jewish immigrant at the age of 16, in 1907, from Russia. He and his siblings traveled alone to American onboard a ship to join their father, already here. The family story was that Izzy had immigrated with the family silver sewn into the lining of his coat.

If that’s true, that’s probably all they had.

It’s worth noting that even in the 1900s, surname spellings can differ dramatically. Brower here, Braver on the ship’s manifest and Browerman in Russia.

Izzy, even as a young person, exhibited a great deal of drive and ambition. Many job postings of that time included phrases such as “Jews need not apply,” which motivated many Jewish people to enter the professional world, where they were not beholden to anyone for a job. Izzy went from being a printer, his occupation upon arrival, looking for work, to a pharmacist, owning his own drugstore by 1910. For some people, including Izzy, deprivation, anti-Semitism and challenges translate into the development of tenacity.

Jennifer visited the pharmacy school that Izzy attended and was able to view original documents. No white gloves needed this time!

Photo courtesy TLC

It’s interesting to see how different the pharmacy profession was then and now. Drug stores were an integral part of every community and neighborhood, with the druggist dispensing medical information as well. The line between practicing medicine and filling prescriptions was much greyer then.

Jennifer goes on to discover more about Izzy, bringing the story of his life to light in ways she certainly didn’t expect.

Still, pieces were missing. She had found Izzy’s siblings and father, but what about his mother? Where was she? What was her name?

Jennifer wondered why she didn’t know. Why her mother didn’t know. Why no one spoke of life before America in her Jewish family. Why?

As the Jewish historian told Jennifer, “Immigration is a rupture.” The stories get left behind. As someone else said, which is so true, “What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.” What we view today as interesting heritage, they viewed as bad memories that needed to by confined to the past.

Many immigrants didn’t immigrate because they simply wanted to. In the case of Jewish families, they immigrated for survival. Their memories of the homeland weren’t good ones, and they wished to put the bad, whatever it was and however awful it had been, behind them forever. They only looked to the future. Sometimes that future didn’t hold everyone from the past…

Her name was Shendyl. Shendyl. And as for what happened to Shendyl, you’ll need to tune in or watch online after the episode airs.

Julie Bowen – Who Do You Think You Are – “Pride and Forgiveness”

I just love the Who Do You Think You Are? series. Each episode is like a genealogy “who done it,” chocked full of history and sleuthing, travel and of course, good guys and bad guys. Try to ignore the unfortunately huge commercial load. The mute button works miracles and you’ll have plenty of time for a BR break or to pop some popcorn or even to go online and check your DNA results if you haven’t done that yet for the day.

On this upcoming Sunday, March 12th, the new episode of Who Do You Think You Are? airs at 10/9c on TLC.  Actress Julie Bowen uncovers fascinating stories of her ancestors on both sides of her family.

First, Julie travels to Chicago to learn about her mother’s side of the family. She knew that her ancestor, “Big Charlie” was the artist in the family. Born the son of a plumber in Denver, Big Charlie headed east, instead of west, to Chicago, the land of opportunity for an up and coming artist.

Big Charlie’s art was fresh and new and even by today’s standards, looks quite contemporary. Still in his early 20s, he founded his own company and was the “big bright light of advertising illustration.”

Charlie was the poster boy for the American dream, ambitious and talented, but then…the rest of the story. You knew there had to be a “rest of the story,” right?

The next revelation pulls Julie down a dark hole…one that affected my ancestors too, but that I had never heard of before this episode. A dark chapter in American history that is oh so relevant once again today and is guaranteed to make you think.

You’ll have to watch this one for yourself. All I can say is that you’ll never, ever guess this plot twist…and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Big Charlie wasn’t exactly what he seemed, nor quite how he was remembered by the family.

Next, Julie looks to discover more about her father’s ancestor, a man rumored to have been a doctor associated with the underground railroad. Is this story too good to be true? Julie said she had never looked into this family lore because she loved the legend so much just the way it was. She didn’t want to risk finding out that maybe it wasn’t accurate, that maybe her ancestor had been a slave-owner instead. I think, in one way or another, we can all identify with that sentiment.

Julie travels to Washington County, Pennsylvania, and you know it’s going to be a good story when your ancestor’s home is now the local historical society. How often has that ever happened to me? Exactly none!

Julie learns that her 3 times great-grandfather, Francis Julius LeMoyne, was a highly sought after speaker and a radical abolitionist who risked his life and the lives of his family repeatedly, for years, decades actually, to help free fugitive slaves. Francis’s activism began long before the movement to free the slaves became a reality. Francis signed on early, before 1837, as a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. All of this was at incredible personal risk to Francis and his family who clearly supported his efforts.

Francis’s lectures and meetings didn’t always go well, even in the North where he lived. At one event, when a group was meeting at his house in the garden, an unhappy crowd gathered outside. Standing on the balcony, surveying the unruly crowd, Francis’s father, also a physician, suggested that if the crowd became threatening, that he kept bee hives underneath the porch roof. I’ll let you guess what happened next!

The revelations that Julie experienced in Washington County are as heart-warming as the ones in Chicago were bone-chilling.

Julie, in the end, can’t help but notice the parallels between the acts of her ancestors with what’s going on in today’s world. She reflects that it’s nice to have heroes and that your ancestors, for bad or good, make you ask yourself “who you want to stand up for.” It’s certainly “not the easy choice to fight for people who had no choice.”

It’s difficult to discover ancestors whose actions and sentiments chafe at everything we believe. It’s emotionally unsettling, and for Julie to find both a hero and a villain in such a short time must have been akin to an ancestral emotional roller-coaster ride. Her perspective is both encouraging and enlightening. She closes by saying that we must “love them, hear their story, and find a better way.”

A great episode that will keep you on your toes all the way to the end.

Seventh Season “Who Do You Think You Are?” Airing March 5th

I received a very welcome e-mail this week about the 7th season of my favorite genealogy program, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? (WDYTYA). I can hardly wait!

These programs are inspiring to everyone, novices to experienced genealogists. They embody the search and the discoveries we all seek. Not only are the shows just plain fun and interesting, we can pick up valuable research tips and historical information relevant to our own family.  We all seek those AHA moments that the featured celebrities often find – and you just never know where your AHA-producing tidbit will be found.

I mean, let’s face it (pardon the pun), who among us DOESN’T want this expression on our face relative to a genealogy discovery?

wdytya-season-7

From the press release:

TLC’s Emmy Award-winning series, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? returns this spring with a new group of celebrities ready to delve into their lineage and get answers to the questions they’ve wondered about their entire lives. Eight new one-hour episodes bring more unexpected turns and surprising discoveries of great historical significance. Executive Produced by Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky, the new season premieres on Sunday, March 5th at 10/9c.

This season’s celebrity contributors include:

  • Jessica Biel makes surprising discoveries that change what she thought knew about her heritage.
  • Julie Bowen uncovers the story of two relatives whose moral codes are from opposite ends of the spectrum.
  • Courteney Cox traces her maternal line back seven centuries to the Medieval times to discover royalty in her lineage and an unbelievable tale of family drama.
  • Jennifer Grey uncovers new information about the grandfather she thought she knew, learning how he survived adversity to become a beacon of his community.
  • Smokey Robinson searches for answers behind the mystery of why his grandfather disappeared from his children’s lives and finds a man tangled in a swirl of controversy.
  • John Stamos digs into the mystery of how his grandfather became an orphan, and learns of tensions between families that led to a horrible crime.
  • Liv Tyler learns that her family is tied into the complicated racial narrative of America.
  • Noah Wyle unravels the mystery of his maternal line, uncovering an ancestor who survived one of America’s bloodiest battles.

For a sneak peek, take a look at this link.

I’ll be writing about each episode and I hope many will include DNA. If not, we’ll discuss how DNA might aid and abet the search!

Conferences, Reunions and Flavors of Family

riddell

Jim Brewster (FTDNA), Gail Riddell (New Zealand), me with Linda Magellan peeking over Jim’s shoulder at the ISOGG reception at the 2016 FTDNA conference. Photo courtesy Gail Riddell.

What do you call an event where you’ve seen the same folks for a dozen years? An event that brings people from the far corners of the earth, literally? A conference that feels far more like a family reunion.

What do you call those people?

Family.

New family.  Old family.  Family of heart.  Sisters or brothers by another mother maybe.  Friends you just haven’t met yet.  And sometimes…real, honest to blood cousins.

The 12th annual international family reunion, er, I mean International Genetic Genealogy Conference sponsored by Family Tree DNA occurred this past weekend in Houston.  I’m still on the road, typing on a tiny keyboard, and I really can’t do it justice just yet but I want to take this opportunity to send you a couple teasers and just to say how wonderful it was to see everyone again.

Sadly, some were missing.  Hopefully we’ll see them next year.  Unfortunately, a few have passed over to where genealogists get to meet all of their ancestors, so we have to cherish their memories and hope they will help out by sending us answers from their current location.

It’s hard to believe it has been a dozen years now.  The first conference was in 2004 – a one day event in Houston.  Little could we know or dream what the next decade+ would bring.

Another thing I find amazing is just how many people in this group of 230 or so people I am related to in one way or another.  All of these, bar none, were discovered via DNA testing.  Whoever would guess that in a room of 230 random people you would find several cousins? Certainly makes you wonder looking around the bus, at the people at work or in a restaurant.  How many share your ancestors?

I’m still on the road and will be for a few days, so you’ll get an article to do the conference justice when I get home.  In the mean time, I encourage you to read Jennifer Zinck’s wonderful summary articles on her blog, Ancestor Central.  Jen can type much faster than I ever could and she is able to listen at the same time too. The bad news is that there were several breakout sessions that ran concurrently and Jen can only be in one place at a time.  We have not yet defied the laws of physics.

Jen and I discovered that we have Mayflower ancestors in common, in addition to being friends – having met at this same conference years ago.  There just might be another ancestor trip in the planning stages….just saying.

Speaking of Jen, she contributed the photo below.  Many thanks, Jen.

We had a once-in-a-lifetime special event at the conference this year. Max Blankfeld and Bennett Greenspan were presented with rather unique Lifetime Achievement Awards by the genetic genealogy community.  Max and Bennett were both very grateful, not to mention….nearly speechless, a second once-in-a-lifetime event!

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Left to right: Linda Magellan, Roberta Estes (talking), Max Blankfeld, Bennett Greenspan, Nora Probasco and Katherine Borges. Photo courtesy Jennifer Zinck.

As many of you may know, I’m a quilter and yes, I made the double helix quilts.  I asked Katherine Borges, Linda Magellan and Nora Probasco to help me with the presentation process since I could not hold up 4 corners of two quilts by myself….and these ladies have attended all 12 conferences as well.  Not to mention, they are quilters – so they were glad to be co-conspirators.

We were all very honored to present these awards and want to thank Janine Cloud at FTDNA for clandestinely working us into the schedule without raising suspicion!  While that sounds easy, believe me, it wasn’t.

I will be writing an article about Max, Bennett and the awards shortly, and a separate article about the quilts themselves.

Until then, I’m still basking in the glow of two days of hugs, meals with friends, collaboration, and newly discovered information and opportunities. I encourage each of you to find a reunion or conference to attend so you can have the same wonderful experience.  There is just nothing better than family, regardless of which kind of family you have – of blood or of heart – or maybe yet-to-be-met!

Molly Ringwald – Who Do You Think You Are – “The Swede”

Molly Ringwald wearing a white sweater while sitting in her dad's house.

If you have Swedish ancestors, you’ll enjoy this episode immensely. There is a great deal of historical content in addition to lots of records available in Sweden.

Additionally, I learned something about the Homestead Act of 1862 here in the US I didn’t know before as well, so this episode might be helpful if you’ve ever wondered how the heck your ancestors picked some location west of the Mississippi to settle.

Film star Molly Ringwald was born in Roseville, California to Robert “Bob” Ringwald and Adele Fremd. She knows a considerable amount about her Ringwald line, but knows next to nothing about her father’s maternal family. Molly thinks she has Swedish origins because of rumors her father’s grandfather was called “The Swede.”

Extremely close to her family, Molly is interested in learning about her paternal grandparents’ ancestors and sharing the information with her parents and children. Molly thinks her dad, Bob, might have additional information about The Swede, so she meets with him in Brooklyn. Bob recalls that “The Swede’s” real name was Edwin Jenson and believes he came to the US when he was about three years old, but that’s about all knows.

Molly heads to a local library to meet with genealogist Brian Schellenberg to learn more about her great-grandfather Edwin Jenson. Molly reviews Edwin’s death record which shows that he was indeed born in Sweden – in 1885. Molly continues to scan the record and sees that Edwin’s parents, Gustaf Jenson and Carolina Grip, were also born in Sweden.

This is the first time Molly hears the names of her two-times great-grandparents and wants to know more about them. She searches for clues on a 1900 US census and finds an entry showing Gustaf and Carolina Jenson living in Nebraska with their six children, including their son Edwin. She wonders where the family came from in Sweden and why they would have left for America. Brian suggests Molly visit an archive in Sweden to dig deeper into her family.

Molly travels to the regional archive in Lund, southern Sweden, where she meets with archivist Petra Nyberg. There, Molly discovers that her two-times great-grandparents Carolina and Gustaf were from a nearby coal-mining town called Höganäs, and that Gustaf was a laborer in the mines.

Reaching farther back, she uncovers the names of Carolina’s parents and Molly’s three-times great grandparents: Carl and Kjersti. Molly heads to Höganäs to visit with a historian well versed in mining communities.

Together with historian Erik Thomson, Molly experiences a coal mine first hand, encountering the narrow, dark, and dangerous conditions both her ancestors endured. I have to tell you, it was all I could do to watch this – even though my own family worked the mines – just not in Sweden.  (Yes, I’m a bit claustrophobic.  So it Molly, but she perseveres anyway.)

But that’s not all, there is more to this story. But I can’t tell you without ruining the story line.  I have to say, I don’t know how this woman endured…but she did…and her daughter Caroline succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Molly marvels at how Kjersti’s daughter Carolina – Molly’s great-great-grandmother – escaped with her miner husband Gustaf and wonders what life was like for them in Nebraska.

Molly heads back to America and meets with historian Tonia Compton in Nebraska. Molly reads a warranty deed and discovers that Carolina personally purchased land for her family in 1905, an incredible feat for a married, immigrant woman! Molly locates the land on a 1908 Plat Map, which shows that the acreage is only about 15 miles from where she stands. Before Molly leaves to visit the land, Tonia hands her an obituary notice, which highlights Carolina’s incredible reputation in the community and the love felt for her by her family.

Molly arrives at the property and takes in the landscape as she walks in her ancestors’ footsteps. She regards with deference the life that Carolina made for herself and marvels that her 2x great-grandmother changed the narrative of her family.

Aisha Tyler – Who Do You Think You Are – Which John Hancock???

The TLC series, “ Who Do You Think You Are?” returns for a new season this Sunday, April 3 at 9/8c on TLC, premiering with Aisha Tyler.

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Aisha Tyler uncovers the astonishing tale of a prominent ancestor whose struggle to keep his illegitimate son a secret made the papers.

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Aisha discovers the impressive tale of her two times great-grandfather, who dove headlong into controversy, took a stand for his people, and left a mark so great that he is commemorated today by one of America’s capital cities.

Actress and producer Aisha Tyler knows very little about her mother’s side of the family, and wants to know if it has any connection to her unstoppable drive and ambition. She’s reached out to her great aunt and family historian, Sheila Gregory Thomas, who Aisha hopes can provide some clues about her maternal side. Sheila is the sister of Aisha’s grandfather, Eugene Gregory, who died when Aisha was in her 20s.

Aisha receives a letter from Aunt Sheila and learns the name of her 2 x great-grandfather, Hugh Hancock; and that he attended school in Oberlin, Ohio, and died when Sheila’s mom, Hugh Ella, was just a teenager. Sheila writes that although she has done a lot of research into their family history, that is as far as she got. Armed with this information, Aisha heads to Oberlin, Ohio to see what she can find out about her 2x great-grandfather Hugh Hancock.

Aisha arrives at Oberlin College to meet with a sociologist. Aisha learns that her 2x great-grandfather attended Oberlin’s college preparatory school between 1872 & ’73, and to her surprise, hailed from Austin, Texas. In 1835, Oberlin began accepting Black students on an equal basis, one of the few contemporary institutions to do so. This move made Oberlin a hub for racial equality at a time when slavery still reigned in half of the United States and very few African Americans had access to education.

To learn more about Hugh in Oberlin, Aisha tracks him down on an 1860 census, which shows he is 5 years old, attending school, and listed as “mulatto,” and living with no family members. Christi explains that “mulatto” was essentially a designation based on how white an African American person looked. This means that Hugh was born Black in Texas in 1855 – because of Texas law, he almost certainly would have born a slave.

Wondering how a 5 year old from Texas made it to Oberlin and who his parents were, Aisha finds a newspaper clip from 1880, which reveals that a reporter from Cleveland had investigated Hugh Hancock’s paternity, and narrowed it down to two people; a politician from Texas or a another politician who was a candidate for president, both with the same name – John Hancock! Aisha is shocked to see an article centering on her 2x great-grandfather’s paternity and heads off to another archive in Ohio to see if she can determine who her 3x great-grandfather was.

At the archive, Aisha finds the entire article about her 2x great-grandfather’s paternity, and discovers that her 3x great-grandfather was a white Southern politician from Texas named John Hancock, who gave his son money – but would not allow him to acknowledge him in public. Both John Hancock’s were famous, or infamous men, one known as General John Hancock and the other as Old John Hancock. But which one was Hugh Hancock’s father?  Where is Y DNA testing when we need it!!!

Unfortunately, a 1900 census reveals that Hugh is living in Evanston outside of Chicago with his wife Susie and four daughters. Among them is Aisha’s great-grandmother Hugh Ella.  Without a male to test, Y DNA would not be helpful, so that tool is not available.  Additionally, we don’t know if General John Hancock and Old John Hancock shared a common ancestor, but without a male from Hugh’s line, it’s a moot point.

In order to find out more about John Hancock’s politics and the relationship with his son Hugh, Aisha heads to Austin, Texas.

At the Texas State Archives, Aisha discovers that her 3 x great-grandfather was a prominent southern unionist who opposed rights for black people. Aisha is disturbed to uncover the great hypocrisy of her ancestor who fathered and financially supported a black child, but actively worked against his kin’s rights.

Digging back into her 2x great-grandfather’s story, Aisha comes across an article that reveals Hugh Hancock moved back to Texas as an adult and was charged for assault!

In order to find out more, Aisha heads to the Travis County Archives.  At the archives, Aisha is unable to uncover more details about the assault charge, but is able to review an 1890 court case file for Hugh Hancock. Aisha discovers that Hugh was indicted for running an entire gambling set-up, and was the owner of a bar in Austin called “The Black Elephant.”

The elephant had become the symbol of the Republican Party by the 1870s, so the saloon’s name could indicate it was a gathering place for Republicans of color. While saloons were a place for gambling, drinking, and relaxing, they were also crucial centers for community organization and political participation – saloons in the 19th century were the places where voting, campaigning, and other political activities took place. For the Black community in particular, saloons and churches were places to organize against racial injustice..

Curious about her 2x great-grandfather’s involvement in politics, Aisha uncovers an 1896 article which reveals something very unexpected about Hugh – but you’ll have to watch the episode to discover that detail.  No spoiler here!  In a very real way, Hugh Hancock was one of the last men standing.

Finally, Aisha reads a 1910 Obituary for Hugh which proclaims that he was a well-regarded man held in high esteem by his community in Austin. As a final part of her journey, Aisha heads to a local address the historian has recommended she visit.

Aisha approaches a home in Austin and reads a Texas historical marker commemorating this former home of her 2x great-grandfather Hugh Hancock, a successful black businessman of the city. Aisha contemplates Hugh’s accomplishments in Austin, despite the challenges he faced to get there. She’s proud to have found the origins of her drive and passion in her blood.

Aisha’s ancestor’s story is both fun and educational with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Tune into TLC Sunday evening at 9/8 central.