Discovering your own history can be easier than you think.
Everyone has a fascinating family story.
We’ll help you find yours.
Everyone has a fascinating family story.
We’ll help you find yours.
Award-winning actress Cynthia Nixon has made a career of playing strong women. But she never imagined the sheer will of a female relative she’d find in her own family story.
Cynthia grew up with her mother but wanted to learn more about her father, Walter Nixon’s, lineage. She gets help building a Nixon family tree and uses the U.S. Federal Census to travel back four generations to Samuel Nixon. But his wife, Mary M., is a mystery.
Searching for Mary’s maiden name turns up her mother, Martha Curnutt, but no father’s name.
Marriage records on Ancestry.ca show a Martha Curnutt marrying Noah Casto on 15 August 1839 in Missouri. But no Martha and Noah Casto appear in the 1850 census. There’s only Martha, Mary (10), Noah (7), and Sarah (6)—all under the name Curnutt. A quick count shows Noah could have served in the Civil War. And a search of military records yields pay dirt: Noah’s mother Martha applied for a pension in 1881.
Cynthia has found a trail. So she heads off to the National Archives to see the full pension file, which reveals that Noah died in the war and Martha’s husband died in 1842. But again, there is no paternal name.
The clues lead Cynthia to Jefferson City to look for Martha and her husband. And that’s where she makes an appalling discovery in records and newspaper accounts: Martha Casto had been indicted for murdering her husband in 1843 by striking him with an ax while he slept.
More awful still is an unnamed informant’s account that the victim “had been in the habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and shocking to think of.” Cynthia is devastated to learn her 3x great-grandmother endured such horrible treatment.
But Martha fared little better in prison. Convicted of manslaughter, she was the only female inmate, was abused by people she was hired out to work for, was subjected to inhumane conditions, and in the fall of 1844 gave birth to a daughter (Sarah) fathered by someone associated with the prison. It was most likely the scandal that would accompany the story of her treatment in a state facility that led to her pardon in 1845.
Despite the tumult and turmoil, Cynthia was heartened to discover that Martha’s plight had a positive impact on history: her imprisonment forced the state of Missouri to deal with the needs of female prisoners.
Cynthia ends her journey with a visit to Martha’s gravesite where she has the chance to tell her, “I’m glad I found you” and realizes that people can defy the odds even when the odds seem insurmountable.
Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson is part of a quirky family on TV, but his own family was fairly stable and he sometimes longed for drama. He finds plenty in the life of his great-grandfather.
Jesse was named for his paternal grandmother, Jessie Uppercue Ferguson, and it’s her family he wants to learn more about. He feels that when his beloved grandmother died six years ago, “history shut down” because he had no one to learn family stories from.
Jesse’s search starts with a photograph of his great-grandfather, Jesse Wheat Uppercue (whom he calls “JW”), a lawyer. A Google search brings up a shock: an 1872 newspaper article that names JW as the suspect in the murder of his aunt in Baltimore.
JW blames the murder on a burglar, but between old issues of the Baltimore Sun and court records, Jesse learns that the case included two conflicting wills—one drawn up at JW’s insistence that left everything to him—and two trials. The first ended in a hung jury. In the second, he was found not guilty.
An 1880 census search finds JW on the move and turns up another surprise: a wife and three children in Illinois that Jesse had never known about. And here, a pattern begins.
In early 1884, JW is in Fargo, Dakota Territory, charged with embezzling $1,800. Once again, he is acquitted. By May, he has moved on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he sues his wife for divorce and is arrested for embezzlement in 1886. He manages to repay the money, and the charges are dropped. But Jesse is beginning to suspect his great-grandfather is something of a con man.
By 1893, JW has gone east again and married again, to Sadie Canta in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s the second family Jesse never knew about. Soon, JW’s wanderlust strikes again, and he becomes the promoter of an ambitious expedition to the Klondike gold fields, with 90 tons of machinery and more than 60 participants. When the venture turns out to be a bust, the participants decide that all who want to pull out can do so. JW, the expedition’s organizer, is among the 24 who leave. Jesse feels let down by his great-grandfather’s failings.
Despite his troubles, nothing seems to stick to JW, and he becomes a prominent Republican speaker. Then, after a second divorce, 64-year-old JW marries 27-year-old Elizabeth Quigg, Jesse’s great-grandmother.
And here, JW finally seems to “step up.” He adopts Elizabeth’s two daughters, and even though JW and Elizabeth divorce, the 1930 census shows JW living with five daughters, including Jessie.
Despite JW’s shortcomings, Jesse feels that he redeemed himself and became an honorable man, even wondering if he may have inherited JW’s drive, creativity, and acting skills.
As Jesse reflects on his journey he feels that knowing his great-grandfather has helped him know his grandmother a little better and wishes he could share what he’s found with her.
Actress Rachel McAdams and her sister Kayleen grew up knowing their father’s large family, but their mother, Sandra Gale’s, side is more of a mystery. They start their journey with Mom’s help and a hand-drawn family tree that goes back to their great-grandparents William Gale and Beatrice Maude Sedgemoor—both from Plymouth, England.
A trip to England quickly takes them back to William’s father, William Henry Creber Gale, an engineer/captain in the Royal Navy. And his 1850 birth certificate shows his parents as Elizabeth Creber and a third William, occupation “servant.”
William appears as a footman at Bovysand House in the 1851 census. (“Very Downton Abbey,” Rachel notes.) The house is still standing, so they’re off for a visit.
As a footman, William had a high station among the servants but the sisters discover the heartbreaking sacrifice he makes for his work: his wife and young son can’t live with him, but instead reside a great distance away. Deeper research into the 1841 census uncovers a romantic twist of fate—the job that forced William and Elizabeth apart likely brought them together when they were both servants in the household.
But the story has an unsettling ending: a death certificate proves William dies in 1860 at 40 of delirium tremens, an occupational hazard of the time.
Meanwhile, researchers have been tracing Sandra Gale’s maternal line. And one of the sisters’ biggest questions about their history—how their family got to Canada—is about to be revealed.
They discover an 1824 land grant application filed by 4x great-grandmother Charlotte Gray McDonald that lists her as the daughter of James Gray, a UE Loyalist during the American Revolution.
After the British defeat at Saratoga the Grays, like many Loyalist families, fled to Canada. But safety came with a price—a record from 1779 shows Mrs. Gray and two sons living in a refugee camp near St. John.
Kayleen and Rachel visit the area where one of the camps stood and learn about the devastating conditions. And a March 1783 Loyalist record underscores the point. It lists Mrs. Gray, one boy, and one girl, making it likely that one of the two boys listed in the earlier record died in the camp.
With the war over, there is no home to go to for Loyalists like James—at least not in the new United States. But the sisters finally find the missing piece to their Canadian story: James appears on a survey map where he’s claimed two 200-acre plots on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River. The Crown has not left James empty handed for his service.
The McAdams sisters are moved by the sacrifices William and James endured. Loyalty—to family and country—runs deep in their family’s roots, no matter what the cost.
As Rachel says about their journey, “it’s reinforced how important it is to remember people and the sacrifices they made and what they did to directly or indirectly make life better for the people who are coming after them.”
Actress and author Valerie Bertinelli has always identified with her father’s Italian heritage and remembers watching her “Nonni” (grandmother) cook at big family dinners. But that’s about as far back as her history goes. Now Valerie “doesn’t want to live in the dark anymore”—and her son, Wolfie, wants to know if they have a family crest.
Valerie begins by sitting down with her parents to learn what they know. Her father shares a picture of Valerie’s great-grandmother, Maria Mancia, standing behind a gelato cart. And Valerie’s mom says her sister once said they were English, and her mother’s name was Elizabeth Adams Chambers. Now Valerie has clues on both sides.
A search of U.S. census records shows Maria and her daughter Angelina—Valerie’s grandmother—living in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, so Valerie heads to the Lackawanna Historical Society to see what she can discover.
First, she examines a deed in which Maria grants the rights to her farm to her daughter and son-in-law within a week of her husband’s death. Then a newspaper article that leaves Valerie stunned: Maria’s husband, Gregorio, killed himself after firing two shots at his wife. Maria survived by playing dead.
Maria’s own obituary, 20 years later, reveals her maiden name: Possio. This clue lets Valerie use a passenger list (which lists Maria’s occupation as “cook”) to follow Maria and Angelina back to Lanzo, Italy. There, she finds a 1910 marriage document for Maria’s first marriage to Francesco Crosa. Unfortunately, Francesco died of a heart attack the next year.
But Maria has left one thing more behind, along with the photo and perhaps Valerie’s love for cooking: a third cousin who is still living in Lanzo and has a postcard that Maria sent to his father as she was getting ready to leave Italy for the United States. Her Italian journey has proven to be a rewarding experience.
Then it’s off to London to trace her mother’s English roots, which actually run deep in New Jersey before going back to England. Her New Jersey ancestors include a Mary Claypoole who turns out to be a “gateway ancestor,” a link to a family with a well-documented line.
Valerie’s Claypooles include a surprise: her 8x great-grandfather, James Claypoole, a leader among the Quakers both in England and later in the U.S. Valerie is surprised at this Quaker connection, especially when she learns James was a friend of William Penn and signed Penn’s Frame of Government, one of the first constitutions in the world.
Two generations further back she finds another James Claypoole. He changed the family’s fortunes by moving from the yeoman class to the gentry and was granted a coat of arms (Wolfie will be excited). This move to the upper classes allowed for social climbing among his descendants, and his son and heir, Adam, married into another “gateway” family, the Wingfields. Tracing this line back leads Valerie to her 16x great-grandfather: Edward I, King of England.
Valerie returns home with gifts for both her father and mother: a postcard written by her great-grandmother for Pops and a king in the family for Mom.
“It’s a history of people on both sides of my family who have wanted to make good for themselves and have wanted to improve their lives and improve the lives of their loved ones,” Valerie muses. “And that’s where I feel a connection because I’ve always wanted to improve the lives of the people that I love.”
Though her parents were together for 13 years, actress Minnie Driver’s father, Charles Ronald “Ronnie” Driver, led a double life: he was married to another woman with another family.
Ronnie never talked about them—or even his own parents. In fact, everything about his past is a mystery. So Minnie is determined to learn more about his life to fill in gaps for her son, Henry.
She begins in London, asking her mother questions about her father. She’s also tracked down her father’s birth certificate and a history of the Royal Air Force in World War II that mentions her father who received the second Distinguished Flying Medal awarded during the war.
When Minnie asks if her mother ever saw the medal, her mother says that Ronnie told her he’d thrown it in the Thames. When Minnie asks why, the answer her mum says her father said he didn’t deserve it.
Minnie is shocked: why would he do that? So she heads out to uncover more her father’s time in the RAF. She learns that Ronnie was a nose gunner in a Wellington bomber during the disastrous Battle of Heligoland Bight on 18 December 1939. She meets a soldier who served with her father and learns more about Ronnie’s brave efforts to save his crew after their plane was shot down and his best friend was killed.
Ronnie returned a hero, and Minnie sees a picture of her grandmother for the first time in a local newspaper that tells the story. But Ronnie didn’t come home unscathed. His service record shows him receiving his medal in March 1940, and the next entry records his discharge from an RAF hospital at Matlock, a psychiatric hospital.
More service records show Ronnie back in hospital again in December 1940—one year after the raid. But the record also shows something quite remarkable: he was commissioned as a pilot officer in 1943, and promoted to flying officer in June 1944.
“He healed by going back and carrying on,” Minnie muses. “He healed by continuing, by not being broken.”
Now that she’s seen a picture of her granny, Minnie still hopes to learn more about her grandfather. Her father’s 1921 birth certificate lists his parents as Charles Edmund Driver and Mary Jessica Kelley formerly McGregor. It also reveals a fact that seems to reoccur in her family: the couple isn’t married. But why?
Minnie finds a 1936 entry for Charles and Mary in a marriage index—they eventually do marry. And the marriage certificate she orders provides a clue: Charles was a widower and Mary a widow. It was a second marriage for both of them. But there’s a catch. Charles’s first wife, Ada, died in 1932—still married to Charles. Minnie’s father, apparently, was repeating a pattern started by his own dad.
And there’s another surprise. Charles and Ada had a son, Leslie, Ronnie Driver’s half-brother. Minnie doesn’t know if her father ever knew him, but she’s delighted to find out that Leslie Driver was an actor. And his daughter Jean, Minnie’s newly discovered first cousin, offers one last surprise: a photo of her paternal grandparents.
“I wanted to be able to tell Henry more than I knew myself. I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of question marks,” Minnie says, reflecting back on all she’s learned. But her journey has given her something, too. “This has begun a whole new story for me, but with a lot more of the pieces filled in. And that’s good.”
Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer grew up with his mother, sister, and mother’s parents: Grandpa Gordon and “Gam,” as he called his grandmother Evangeline. He feels his grandmother’s influence to this day, but he knows little about her—Gam never spoke about her mother, and Kelsey doesn’t even know his great-grandparents’ first names.
A search of census records reveals that Kelsey and Gam shared something in common: in 1910, Evangeline is living with her mother and grandparents, with no father in the home. And for the first time, he learns his great-grandmother’s name: Genevieve Geddes.
Kelsey turns to newspaper accounts to find more of the story. Genevieve married Ellis L. Dimmick in Oakland in 1905 and filed for divorce in 1913, charging neglect and desertion. Her death certificate shows that she remarried but died relatively young of cirrhosis of the liver—a clue to a possible hard life. But why did Ellis abandon his wife and child?
With a name, Kelsey can now search for Ellis, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1908 at age 29. His record includes the statement “authorized to enlist waiving marriage.” In other words, Ellis is claiming that he has no dependents. A year and half later, he’s discharged as “undesirable” for excessive drinking and being AOL. His character is assessed in a single word: “Bad.”
But Kelsey surmises that maybe he wasn’t all bad. On Ellis’s 1918 WWI draft registration card. By then he is living at the Hotel Shattuck, working as a night porter. On the line for next of kin he has listed his daughter, Evangeline, address unknown. Ellis at least acknowledged that his daughter existed.
Ellis’s death certificate leaves Kelsey another question to answer. Ellis’s parents, Joseph and Mary Dimmick, were born in Iowa and Ohio, respectively. So how did the family end up in California?
The 1850 census yields a clue: Joseph Dimmick as one of 12 children with his parents, Joseph Sr. and Comfort, in Rushville, Illinois. The family arrived in Oregon in 1852—which means they were among the thousands of pioneers who crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail looking for land and a new start. Kelsey travels to eastern Oregon to walk a section of the trail his ancestors traveled and read from a remarkable find: a journal Joseph Sr.’s nephew kept while he traveled with the Dimmick’s company. It tells the story of Joseph and Comfort’s oldest son, Thomas, dying of cholera and being “buried alone on the plains,” while his family continued on.
Only one question remains—did the Dimmicks get the land they came west for?
Land records show that Joseph and Comfort received their rights to 311 acres in 1858, just two years before Joseph died. Kelsey’s final stop is a visit to the land where he can stand where his family stood and see what they saw.
Reflecting on what he’s discovered about his past, Kelsey says, “Some succeeded and some didn’t. Genevieve and Ellis, my great-grandparents, just couldn’t do it. The others, boy, they stand tall.”
Talk show host Julie Chen’s Chinese roots start close to home: both her parents were born in China. But while her father’s parents lived with the family, her maternal side is more of a mystery, especially her maternal grandfather, Lou Gaw Tong, who died before she was born. She’s been told that he started out poor with no education and worked his way up to become head of a shipping company who “lived large” with many wives and children. It’s Lou Gaw Tong’s story Julie wants to follow.
A 1960 English language obituary leads her to Singapore, where her grandfather died. But there she finds another obituary from a Chinese-language newspaper that reveals new details: Lou Gaw Tong was from Fujian Province, Anxi County, Penglai Village. Julie has discovered her ancestral homeland. She also learns her grandfather went to Rangoon and finally moved to Singapore after World War II. But there’s one clue that haunts her: Lou Gaw Tong was said to have had an “improper childhood.” She’s determined to find out what that means.
Further research shows just how significant a role World War II played in Lou Gaw Tong’s life. After the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Chinese living abroad went into action. Lou Gaw Tang headed up relief efforts in Rangoon and also began distributing propaganda to unite people against the Japanese. Just before Burma fell into Japanese hands, Julie’s grandfather fled back to China. She remembers her mom saying her father could not stay in Burma, where, as the visible leader of the effort to mobilize relief and resistance, he had a price on his head.
Lou Gaw Tong carried on his resistance efforts in his homeland, but that wasn’t his most lasting legacy. Julie discovers her grandfather and his brother established Anshan Primary School in 1937 in their ancestral village of Penglai. Today the school has 856 students who know and honor the name of Lou Gaw Tong. She visits the school and wonders where his commitment to education came from.
A meeting with a first cousin reveals the answer: Lou Rulin, Lou Gaw Tong’s father—Julie’s great-grandfather—was the Scholar Official of the Fujian Province. Appointed by the emperor, this high-level education position was prestigious and lucrative for the family. Deeper research shows that Lou Rulin’s position was eliminated when Lou Gaw Tong was young and then Lou Rulin died, leading to a “decline of family.” Julie finally understands what the obituary meant by “improper childhood.”
This revelation gives her an even stronger appreciation for her grandfather’s strength and determination—and her family’s place in history. She ends her journey with a fulfilling visit to her great-grandfather’s grave and says, “I never could have dreamed of what I would find.”
Musician and arts activist Josh Groban was born in Los Angeles to parents who fostered a love of education and the arts. He knows about his father’s family but wants to learn more about his mother’s side.
Josh’s first step is to build a family tree. With help researching wills and deeds, he discovers his 7th great-grandfather, Jacob Christopher Zimmerman who was born before 1694 and died in Pennsylvania. Josh is thrilled to learn how deep his American roots go.
Further research in passenger lists reveals a surprising new fact: the Zimmerman family came to America from Germany in 1694. Josh had no idea he had German ancestry. He’s fascinated to find out his 8th great-grandmother Maria traveled from Rotterdam with four children, but she is listed as a widow. He wants to know what happened to her husband—and why the Zimmermans left in the first place.
He heads to Stuttgart, Germany, for answers—and finds them in parish and marriage records. Maria married Mister M. Johann Jacob Zimmerman in 1671. Josh has discovered his 8th great-grandfather. He also learns that Johann was a Lutheran deacon. The M. in Johann’s name stands for “Magister” or “Master” meaning he had a university degree.
Josh is encouraged to learn that education figured so prominently in his family story and wants to find out more about Johann’s life and education. So he travels to Tübingen, a university in Württemberg where he finds that in addition to being a religious scholar, his 8th great-grandfather was a musician. He was also a mathematician and published astronomer. Incredibly, Johann is mentioned by name in Newton’s Principia because he had seen a comet.
Letters and many of his books show that Johann saw astronomy as a way to be closer to God. But then Johann’s idyllic and meaningful life seems to have hit a snag. In several letters from 1678 written in Johann’s hand, Josh uncovers Johann’s growing disagreements with the church; in fact, Johann is meant to be transferred from his parish because of conflicts about his beliefs, called “silly thoughts” by his critics. He also discovers a book Johann wrote under a pseudonym, because its contents would have been considered blasphemous by the Lutherans.
Johann’s writings show that he believed the comet he saw was a foretelling of the fall of the church and a predictor of great unrest in the year 1693. As Josh looks at the stars from the steeple where his 8th great-grandfather once stood, he realizes his ancestor was torn between two worlds of religion and science. And in the final part of his journey, Josh learns just how prescient Johann’s prediction was.
Johann’s life declined; he had trouble supporting his wife and children and one child died. So he planned to take the family to Pennsylvania, presumably to worship free from the constraints of the church. But before he could reach this promised land, Johann died at the age of 50—in 1693.
As Josh leaves Germany he says, “I feel it’s a sad story that he didn’t make it there, but I feel that it’s a triumph for the idea that one should believe what they believe at any cost.”
Actress Angie Harmon ranks herself at an 11 or 12 on the curiosity scale when it comes to learning more about her father’s family. Her mother’s side is full-blooded Greek, but her father’s ancestors are more of a mystery, and she wants to be able to share the story of her family with her daughters.
She starts her search with an envelope of pictures from her dad. This lets genealogist Joseph Shumway put together a Harmon family tree that goes back to Michael Harman, Angie’s 5th great-grandfather. Not only is this name new to her, but so is the revelation that he was born in Germany and arrived in the American colonies by passenger ship in 1772 at age 18—and then was promptly auctioned off as an indentured servant to pay off his 23 pound and 5 shilling fare for the voyage from Rotterdam.
Michael ends up working for a tanner until he enlists in the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment in May 1777 to fight in the Revolutionary War. A visit to the Philadelphia Free Library yields a pay stub with pay due to Michael from Valley Forge. Michael was among the 12,000 troops who spent a harsh winter there, during which 2,500 men died.
Angie can hardly believe she had an ancestor at Valley Forge. So far she has been impressed with this plucky, self-made man. Then a letter to George Washington reveals something else: irregular pay, short supplies, and disagreements over length of enlistments led the sergeants, corporals, and privates of Michael’s regiment to mutiny. Angie is shocked about his mutinous actions but begins to understand Michael’s motivations. Still, she wonders—is the heritage she is going to be left to pass on to her three daughters the story of a traitor? Her journey to answer this question leads Angie to see her own burning sense of justice in her 5x great-grandfather and to an unexpected reunion with Michael’s modern-day namesake.
Sean Hayes’ father left when Sean was five and they haven’t spoken in years. His dad’s absence has left Sean wondering about his father’s family history and what kind of father his dad had.
Sean’s brother Dennis has put together some of the family’s story and Sean learns that his father was born around 1936 in Chicago to William and Barbara Hayes. Now Sean knows the names of his grandparents. But there was trouble in the family: in 1947 the couple’s four children were placed in an orphanage. And family lore says William died “in the gutter.” But a photo of his grandparents shows a couple in happier times.
Sean searches Ancestry and finds William Hayes in the 1940 census. Born in 1911, William seems to have a good life, working as a photo engineer and making $3400 a year. So what went wrong?
A death certificate reveals some of the answers. William died in 1951 in Cook County of “advanced tuberculosis” and a doctor’s report gives unsettling details about his condition, possibly brought on by alcohol abuse. Sean realizes William’s life had probably been going downhill for a while since his children were in an orphanage for four years before he died.
While the story is tragic, it does leave a new clue to Sean’s lineage. On a hospital admission record William names his father, Patrick, and gives an address. With a new name to search for, Sean finds Patrick Hayes in the 1930 census.
Patrick lives with wife Jennie and William and works as a motorman. He arrived in the U.S. in 1900 and was naturalized. This leads to more discoveries: naturalization records with Patrick’s birth in 1879 in Ballylongford, Ireland, and arrival in New York in 1901 on the Umbria. Sean is amazed to see his great-grandfather’s actual signature on the document.
Sean heads to Ireland with high hopes for what he’ll learn about Patrick and why he came to America. On his arrival, he feels “connected to this country” where his ancestors came from. But his excitement is short-lived. In a census of Ireland from 1901 he finds a man in trouble. Patrick was in prison, charged with three counts of assault and sentenced to hard labor. Released in April, he left for America that same month.
And that wasn’t Patrick’s first brush with the law. Sean learns that Patrick, along with his brother William, was charged with assault when he was 17—and that the complainant was their father, Patrick Sr. William had attempted to stab him with a knife; Patrick had thrown a stone at him.
But Patrick Sr., Sean’s great-great-grandfather, is also revealed to have a long criminal past, seemingly brought on by his wife Bridget’s death in 1888.
Sean visits the Hayes hometown of Ballylongford and reflects on the “endless chain of chaos” in his family. “There seems to be a theme of people leaving in my family but for different reasons,” he says. Through this discovery, he’s come to terms with his father’s absence—he can’t forget it, but now he can forgive it.
Actor and director Tony Goldwyn’s family has a long history in the entertainment business, including Academy Award-winner Sidney Coe Howard, his maternal grandfather. Tony wants to know more about this side of his family.
He starts at home in Los Angeles and meets with genealogist Jenn Utley who helps him search Ancestry and the Early Oregonian Index to discover Mary Taylor White and Nathaniel Coe in Nunda, New York. These are Tony’s 3rd great-grandparents. Further research shows an interesting fact: Nathaniel, born in 1788 in New Jersey, somehow ended up farming in Oregon. Is there a possible Oregon Trail connection? What influenced the move to Oregon? Tony searches Newspapers.com and finds some clues. Nathaniel is listed as a member of the New York State Legislature—he is a Whig from Allegany County. So Tony heads to Albany to learn more. He meets with a political historian who gives Tony the scoop on 1848 NY politics and the progressive Whigs—the reform-minded party that was pro-education and anti-slavery. Together they read the daily record for the New York Assembly that shows that Nathaniel filed a motion to pass a controversial piece of legislation protecting women’s rights. Tony is intrigued by the revelation and heads to Nathaniel’s hometown, Nunda, where he discovers his 3rd great-grandparents’ radical nature: they were partners in the fight for women’s causes. Mary Coe, in particular, was passionate and it was said the “fire flew” when she came in contact with conservative people. Tony has found the source of his love of strong women. But the question remains: How did these New Yorkers end up in Oregon? On Newspapers.com, Tony discovers that Nathaniel was appointed around 1852 to be a U.S. mail agent in Oregon, a liaison between citizens in the territory and the federal government. He would have been nominated by President Millard Fillmore, a Whig from Buffalo. Tony’s next stop is Oregon to learn more about the Coe’s time there. He finds a series of letters that reveal a difficult journey west for the Coe’s and some struggles with the Yakima tribe once they arrived. Tony’s disheartened to learn his progressive ancestor wasn’t as progressive in his attitude towards Native Americans and wonders why this older couple (in their 50s and 60s by now) would have chosen to settle in this wild place. A search of historic Oregon newspapers uncovers an article that reveals all. The Coes settled in “the fairest spot on earth,” to farm in a place of tremendous opportunity. The Coe were pioneers in the area, building what they saw as the next stage of the American story. As he ends his journey in Oregon, Tony says of the experience, “My two other grandfathers, Sidney Howard and Samuel Goldwyn were absolute pioneers. They achieved great things. And now that I've gotten a chance to get to know Nathaniel and Mary Coe, I start to see it in the genes.”
Actress and humanitarian America Ferrera is a first generation American, daughter of Carlos Gregorio Ferrera and America Griselda Ferrera, both of whom were born and raised in Honduras. Her parents split up when she was eight and she doesn’t know much about Carlos’ life—although she visited his gravesite in Honduras in 2012, two years after his death.
America has heard stories that there was a military general on her father’s side and she wants to learn more. She heads to Honduras to her father’s hometown to talk with his best friend, Romaldo.
Romaldo gives America some much-needed insight about Carlos’ love for her and confirms the story of her military ancestor: her great-grandfather was General Gregorio Ferrera.
She travels to the National Archives, and although the political instability in Honduras over time has left few records intact, America sees an 1895 census that includes her great-grandfather. He is 14 years old, the presumed son of a farmer and one of 15 siblings. America wonders how someone of such humble means became a general.
She finds answers with a historian who shows her records for Gregorio—he was enrolled in a school for boys, showing that education was probably important to the family. Next, America sees a national newspaper dated 13 years later. Twenty-seven-year-old Gregorio is said to be leaving an important government job to join a military campaign for the Liberal Party.
America learns of the political turmoil of the time—Liberals and Nationalists took up arms in a civil war, fighting for power. Tied to this was banana production, and the term “banana republic” was inspired by the shady politics and corruption gripping Honduras during the early 20th century. Gregorio seems to be embroiled in the fighting, siding with the Liberal president.
By 1919, the struggle for power became a full-blown revolution. America is thrilled to discover that her great-grandfather was fighting for the people, on the side of democracy and free elections. Or was he? A 1924 TIME Magazine article shows General Ferrera continually shifting allegiances, and a 1925 article found on Ancestry says he is “notorious for his political obstinacy” and was again “in the field with an insurgent force.”
Other documents show that Ferrera’s loyalties continued to shift. After a time exiled from the country, he returns for the “public good,” and not to “agitate for partisan politics.” But a confidential 1930 letter to the American State Department shows he is still fueling unrest and has a cadre of arms to support it. America feels that her great-grandfather seems to be torn between his political feelings and his business interests.
But it's all for naught. A newspaper article shows he died the following year in a skirmish—calling him the “principal enemy of Honduran peace.” Yet the end of the story is more hopeful. A book written in 1965 includes an interview with a soldier who fought for Ferrera who called the general a hero and a man of the people, fighting for freedom and democracy.
America feels vindicated and finds a connection to a man who fought for something he believed—something she has done in her own life.
Actor Bill Paxton deeply admired his late father and wants to learn more about his side of the family. He knows of Elijah Paxton, a Confederate general during the Civil War, but has questions about the rest of the family tree. So he’s thrilled when researchers find a rich paternal line going back to the 1600s.
Bill is particularly interested in his family’s role in the American Revolution, and with the help of the Daughters of the American Revolution, he finds a 4th great-grandfather, Benjamin Sharp, who served as a private and “spy.”
Intrigued, he sets out to learn more about Benjamin. At the DAR Library he finds a pension application that includes something amazing: a deposition written by Benjamin documenting his military service, which began in 1776 at age 14 with the local militia.
It also reveals that Sharp fought bravely in the battle of King’s Mountain near Blacksburg, South Carolina, an engagement considered the turning point in the Revolutionary War in the South, as Patriots fought and defeated Loyalists.
Bill goes to the battlefield and learns more about his ancestor’s bravery through a first-hand account Benjamin wrote in 1843 at the age of 81 for the American Pioneer periodical. He’s stunned to read of the brutal battle in his ancestor’s own words.
But Bill wonders what happened in the years after the war. He travels to Virginia and finds Benjamin as a budding politician appointed by then-Governor James Monroe to oversee the presidential election of 1800. He also learns he was a delegate for Lee County in 1804.
Then Bill discovers a fact that gives him pause. In tax and property records, he learns that Benjamin owned slaves. He finds it hard to reconcile the war hero with the slave owner, but it reminds him of something his father believed: all idols have feet of clay.
Bill follows the story to Missouri. Here he sees Benjamin Sharp’s will which includes provisions to ensure his slaves were not to be separated and remained under the protection of his heirs, proving him to be a fair man. A search of the 1850 census on Ancestry gives Bill a satisfying end to the story: Benjamin’s former slaves Bill and Judy were freed after his death.
Musician Melissa Etheridge was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, to Elizabeth Williamson and John Dewey Etheridge. She was very close to her father before he died and wants to learn more about his history. She knows he grew up in a very small town outside St. Louis, Missouri, and his family worked as migrant workers. They came from nothing and created something. But the family never talked about what they did to get where they were.
Melissa’s mother did some research and found John had roots in Quebec. Melissa’s first big concert was in Quebec so she’s always felt a fond connection to the people there; that’s where she begins her search.
At the Quebec National Archives, Melissa searches for her 6th great-grandfather Francois Janis in a 1716 census record and finds that he was an innkeeper with a large family.
Deeper research into the family reveals original records for a civil and ecclesiastical trial involving Francois’ daughter Charlotte and a man named Jean Dubreuil, who is accused of having seduced and impregnated the young woman.
Melissa learns the sordid story: Francois wanted Jean to marry Charlotte or pay support. Jean refuses, saying he would not marry a “streetwalker,” further sullying Charlotte’s name and chances for marrying. Francois Janis calls for the death penalty. But was Jean Dubreuil put to death?
A marriage record adds some closure to the story. A contract from 1726 shows Jean and Charlotte were married, with Jean entering the marriage with only the clothes on his back—his family probably disowned him. But church records add another facet to the story, revealing the baby Charlotte carried died just a few days after birth in 1725. But the marriage was dated 1726, giving Melissa hope that the couple ultimately had married for love. Sadly, Charlotte died a few years later in 1733, probably from smallpox.
With this chapter closed, Melissa moves on to learn more about her 5th great-grandfather Nicholas, who she finds in 1759 in Randolph County, Illinois, once part of Kaskaskia in New France. She wonders about his journey here from Quebec.
With help from historians, she traces Nicholas back to 1747. He is a voyageur—a trader involved in the fur trade with Native Americans. His inventory suggests this is a very successful enterprise.
But times are complex. The Seven Years War means the territory where Nicholas lives is shifting from French to British control. Melissa finds him in 1778 working in collaboration with the Americans, then in a 1787 document among inhabitants who had crossed the Mississippi as part of western expansion.
Nicholas and his family have settled in the Spanish colony of Louisiana in Ste. Genevieve. But Melissa is shocked to discover part of that family includes 15 slaves.
At the Ste. Genevieve courthouse Melissa discovers the final record in this chapter of her story, a 1796 deed whereby Nicholas Janis Sr. turns over his property to his son Francois Janis. Nicholas is setting himself up for his old age.
There is one more surprise. The Janis house is still there, the oldest house in Ste. Genevieve and thought to be the oldest in Missouri. As Melissa walks the grounds she feels a deep connection to her past, realizing that wealth and success comes and goes, but “the story that you tell about yourself is so important.”
Actress Ginnifer Goodwin knows about three branches of her family line. But her father’s father, John Barton Goodwin, is a mystery. He left home at 11, so Ginnifer sets out to learn why.
Ginnifer’s father has done some digging and found a 1910 census from Batesville, Arkansas, listing John with his parents, Al and Nellie, and an 8-year-old sister named Pearl. Al and Nellie had been married only 6 years, which hints at a deeper story. But the census trail stops there.
With help from a local historian, Ginnifer finds John using his SS-5, the application he submitted to Social Security. He was 36 at the time and living in Memphis. It also shows that his mother’s maiden name was Nellie Haynes, not Barton as the family had believed.
With this information the search turns to birth, marriage, and death records on Ancestry and another surprise: a marriage record for Nellie Haynes and J.D. (Duff) Williams in October 1900. That night Ginnifer is haunted by a dream of Nellie who tells her, “Do not go any further.”
Ginnifer checks in with a legal historian who has found a divorce complaint filed by Nellie accusing Duff of abandoning her and their infant daughter shortly after their marriage. The divorce was filed in 1903, and it’s likely that Nellie has met Al by this time and this was the impetus for filing the divorce action.
Now Ginnifer wants to know about Nellie’s new husband, her great-grandfather Al. Was he Nellie’s knight in shining armor?
Sadly, the answer is probably not. With help from the Arkansas History Commission Ginnifer learns there were multiple indictments, warrants, and subpoenas against Al Goodwin for selling liquor without a license. Al was a bootlegger.
Even more shocking is Al’s federal prison record, including a mug shot, fingerprints, and a list of diseases that reveals he had syphilis in 1906 when he was married to Nellie. Also included is a 1911 letter from Nellie to the warden asking if there had been a “small woman comes in there to see Al Goodwin,” as well as a request to deliver divorce records to Al Goodwin from Nellie Goodwin.
After some master sleuthing through city directories and death records with a genealogist, Ginnifer catches up with Nellie in Shreveport, Louisiana, married to a Hugh Wylie. But this new husband has his own demons.
An October 1925 Shreveport Times article reveals Hugh was indicted with 11 others for violating the Harrison Anti-Narcotics Act, which made drugs like morphine, cocaine, and heroin illegal (they were previously legally prescribed by doctors). So drug dealers like Hugh Wylie stepped in to supply the addicts left in the wake.
Other newspaper stories show Nellie was involved, too. At age 54, she was caught with a large amount of morphine and arrested on federal narcotics charges. Another document from 1934 shows her purchasing 150 grains of heroin. She was sentenced to prison for a term of two years in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia.
But Ginnifer wants to know—was she an addict?
She finds her answer in a Shreveport clinic for recovering addicts. Nellie is here—along with her daughter Pearl. Both certify that they were addicted to morphine for 11 and 3 years, respectively. Nellie’s intake records show she suffered from syphilis (like her ex-husband Al); she may have taken morphine to ease the symptoms of the disease.
Ginnifer is devastated by the revelation but says, “I can forgive her for the decisions she made,” and wishes Nellie had reconciled with her family before she died.
Before J. K. Rowling won international fame for creating the boy wizard Harry Potter, she was a poor single mother, struggling to make ends meet. Rowling (who goes by “Jo”) lost her own mother, Ann Volant, while writing the first Harry Potter novel. Ann was a quarter French, and Jo wants to explore her French roots.
Family legend says that Jo’s great-grandfather Louis Volant was awarded the Légion d'honneur during World War I. Jo seems to share this in common with him, having received the honor herself for her literary work.
Her first stop is to visit her mother’s sister, Marian Volant Fox, to learn what she can about Louis. Originally from Paris, Louis worked as a waiter in England and married an Englishwoman named Lizzie. He eventually returned to France for military service, while Lizzie stayed in England with their children. Although they never divorced, Louis did not return, leaving Lizzie to raise the children on her own.
They did, however, remain in touch, and Marian shows Jo over 50 years’ worth of postcards and letters Louis sent to Lizzie. Marian also has a photograph she thinks is of Louis’s mother, although she knows little about her. Her name is Salomé Schuch, and she grew up in the French countryside.
Jo follows the trail of Louis’s military records and discovers that there was, in fact, a Louis Volant who received the Légion d'honneur. But it was not her great-grandfather. Captain Ivan Cadeau, a French military historian, helps Jo uncover the true tale of her Louis’s wartime bravery, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
From there, Jo searches the Paris Hospital Archives to find Louis’s mother, Salomé. With the help of Ancestry genealogist Carène Tardy she learns that Salomé was unmarried at the time of Louis’s birth and working as a maid in Paris. Having been a struggling single mother herself, Jo feels a connection with Salomé and her situation, made even more difficult in the late 1800s by a lack of government assistance to fall back on.
Schuch was a German name, and tracing Salomé’s history back to her hometown of Brumath revealed why. Brumath is in Alsace, territory that has changed hands between Germany and France several times. Like many other residents of the region, the Schuch family was French but with a German name.
With help from the Brumath mayor’s office, Jo discovers that after Salomé’s father died, her mother, Christine, raised their seven children on her own. “What I’m very struck by is how many single mothers I’m descended from in this line of the family. We had Lizzie, firstly, and then we have Salomé, and now we’ve got Christine, who’s widowed in her thirties and has got seven children,” Jo observes.
She finds that, although she began her search looking for a hero in her great-grandfather, the strength and courage of the women in her family is every bit as compelling.
Family is life to actress Alfre Woodard. And her father Marion was always her source of strength. But Marion never knew much about his father.
Alfre starts her journey with census records on Ancestry and discovers her grandfather, Alexander Woodard, as well as his parents Alexander and Lizzie. After learning that the elder Alexander was born in 1841 in Georgia, Alfre realizes he had probably been enslaved.
With help from historians, Alfre searches 1850 slave schedules and annual tax returns for an area in Georgia that had several Woodard slave owners. Some digging and deductions based on Alexander’s birth year lead Alfre to the estate of a deceased slave owner, John Woodard, and a 10-year-old slave named Alec. This is Alfre’s great-grandfather. He is “appraised” at $400 and is one of 11 other slaves.
Woodard’s estate is distributed when Alec is a teenager and William Woodard becomes Alec’s new owner. Alfre is sad to think he was separated from his family or his kinship network and wonders where Alec ended up next.
Slave schedules from 1860 give her an answer. William Woodard is listed in Jackson Parish, Louisiana with a slave that is most likely Alec. But since slaves were freed in 1865, Alfre wants to know more about his path to freedom.
She heads to the state archive (fittingly on Juneteenth) where a history professor shows Alfre an 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau record that includes one of Woodard’s heirs and his assertion that he would give up children claimed by Alec. This leads Alfre to believe Alec was trying to unite his family torn apart by slavery.
Other records show that Alec was building a life—and quite a substantial one. Alfre finds a tax assessment roll in 1868 that shows Alec paid a $1 poll tax for the right to vote, an 1881 assessment that indicates Alec was taxed on 80 acres of land, and an 1891 record listing 240 acres in Alec’s estate.
Things changed in 1892 when Alec owned just 80 acres again, probably as a result of an agricultural depression in the late 1890s. But then what?
Researchers help Alfre pick up his trail again in Wharton, Texas where he and Lizzie are taking out a loan to purchase land. There is also evidence that his Louisiana land was sold to Lizzie’s brother, Aaron Stell. Alfre now knows her great-grandmother’s maiden name.
Alfre is thrilled to learn Alec had the wherewithal and wits to be a businessperson in a system where he was on the bottom rung. And he didn’t let it stop him.
As she ends her journey on the land her great-grandfather owned, Alfre realizes that Alec lived on in her grandfather and father, the influence that molded generations of strong men. She chased a spirit—and found a mighty man.
From heroism and courage to scandal and tragedy, the stories uncovered in six seasons of Who Do You Think You Are? have been as varied as they are astounding. Celebrities have found connections to famous royal families from the past, tales of determined pioneers and patriots, and brave individuals who risked everything to stand up for their beliefs. And they’ve also uncovered the darker side of family history—gruesome murders, shady criminals, and paupers trapped in poverty.
This special episode jumps back into some of the show’s most memorable family history journeys. Kelsey Grammer tracks ancestors across the nation on the Oregon Trail and Jesse Tyler Ferguson follows his grandfather to Alaska during the Gold Rush. Rob Lowe discovers an ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War, but not in the way he expected. And Brooke Shields and Valerie Bertinelli travel to Europe to discover which royal thrones they can lay claim to.
You’ll also see how Bill Paxton and Reba McEntire struggle to come to terms with the part their ancestors played in our nation’s tragic history of slavery, while Spike Lee and Emmit Smith explore the toll it took on their families. And hear the inspiring story of Zooey Deschanel’s Quaker forebears, who risked their lives to help the Underground Railroad.
These and many other intensely personal highlights will remind you of the family discoveries you’ve already made—and inspire you to make more.
Award-winning actor Bryan Cranston had an idyllic upbringing in Hollywood. Then when he was 11, Bryan’s father, Joseph, an unemployed actor, left the family and everything “broke loose.” Now he wants to see if there are traces of this behavior in his family history.
Bryan goes to Chicago where his father was born in 1924. So he searches the 1930 census where he finds Joseph with his parents, Edward and Alice. Bryan never knew anything about his grandparents, so this is a revelation. With help from a genealogist, Bryan uncovers another surprise in a 1917 WWI draft registration: his grandfather Edward had a previous marriage and a daughter.
Next, Bryan heads to a “hall of dusty books” to search circuit court records. He finds Edward’s first wife, Irene Cranston, with a daughter, Kathleen, suing Edward for divorce and claiming he deserted the family. Another document says, “He didn’t like to have the responsibility of a family.” This is a hard detail for Bryan to learn—and further research reveals the equally difficult news that Kathleen died of tuberculosis at age 16 in 1930. Bryan wonders if Edward ever knew of or cared about his daughter’s death.
Since Edward was a World War I veteran, Bryan continues his search with military records and finds an application for a soldier’s bonus that shows he enlisted in 1917 within a few months of the U.S. entry in the war. Ironically, Edward was also an actor. But the biggest surprise is that Edward’s marital status is listed as single, ensuring part of his pay wouldn’t be sent to his dependents.
Bryan has a hard time reconciling this discovery, saying it “certainly exposes a link between his actions and my father’s actions. My father’s indiscretions, my grandfather’s indiscretions.”
But does that pattern go back even further? Bryan eventually finds Edward’s parents, Daniel and Margaret, in 1910. They had been married 41 years and had had 11 children. At least one Cranston man stayed. Bryan also finds a death certificate for a James Daniel Cranston, his great-grandfather, born in 1849 in Montreal.
Bryan heads to Canada and finds James’s baptismal records—and yet another piece of his family’s pattern. James Daniel Cranston’s father, Joseph, is listed as “absent.”
Savvy digging with a genealogist leads Bryan to Joseph’s trail. A record in reference to Joseph’s wife, Sarah, says she was “obliged to go to service as her husband is a dissipated man.” Dissipated was a catchall term meaning he was drinking and immoral. When the Canadian records run dry, they check Ancestry to see if they can learn more.
They find Joseph H. Cranston in the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938. He enlisted in the American Civil War in 1861 and served until the war’s end. His “social condition” is listed as single when he entered the home in 1883. In the remarks section it says that at his death in 1889, his appraised personal effects were valued at $0.25.
Bryan heads to the home and learns more about Joseph’s sad last days from a newspaper article. His 2nd great-grandfather was found dead of carbon dioxide poisoning in a boardinghouse. Was he drunk? Was it suicide? Bryan will never know but ends his journey with one clear understanding: “There was so much abandonment in the line of men in the Cranston family...these are men born with suitcases in their hands...this is what happened in my family and it stops with me.”
TV personality Tom Bergeron knows a bit about his French and Canadian family history but wants to find the “connective tissue” and get a sense of the people in his story.
With help from a genealogist, he builds a family tree on Ancestry and jumps back to his 9th great-grandmother, Marguerite Ardion. She was born around 1636 in La Rochelle, France, but married Tom’s 9th great-grandfather, Jean Rabouin, in Quebec City, Canada in 1663. Ardion is an unusual surname and offers a good path to pursue.
Tom heads to La Rochelle to find out what brought Marguerite to the New World more than 100 years before the French Revolution.
In France, Tom discovers more about Marguerite’s early life there. A 1623 marriage record for her parents, Pierre and Suzanne—Tom’s 10th great-grandparents—is from a Protestant church, a surprising revelation. A local historian says the city was largely Protestant, but the French Catholic king was not happy. And Tom learns that his family would be caught in the conflict.
More than 25,000 members of the royal army besieged the town in 1627, trapping the 22,000 citizens behind the stone walls. Tom learns Pierre was a master stonemason, making him an important member of the community.
By 1628 only 5,000 people were left alive to surrender in La Rochelle, including the Ardion family. Tom is grateful to learn they survived, but wonders what else they endured?
Tom is intrigued by a series of Protestant church records. First is a 1636 baptism record for Marguerite. Next is Pierre’s 1641 death record. And finally, Suzanne’s 1650 death record. The story is clear: Marguerite is an orphan by the age of 14.
As an orphaned Protestant in La Rochelle, she had limited opportunities. So what did Marguerite do next?
The answer is found in a 1659 abjuration record—Marguerite has converted to Catholicism, even after the hardships her family endured during the siege. The next record Tom sees may solve the mystery of why she did it. It’s a marriage contract between Marguerite and Laurent Baudet. But who is he? And where is Tom’s 9th great-grandfather?
Tom continues his search, now in Catholic church records, and discovers a 1662 baptism record for Laurent Baudet, Jr. She has a son. But the trail ends there.
The next stop is Quebec where Tom meets with an archivist who’s picked up the trail in a remarkable way with a marriage contract from October, 1663 between Jean Rabouin and Marguerite, who is listed as a widow. The contract also mentions Laurent, Jr., age 16 months, who will be provided for by Jean.
This information is important and suggests that Marguerite was a filles du roi or King’s Daughter, one of some 800 women who traveled to New France between 1663 and 1673 to help grow the colony.
Tom is thrilled to learn that the women selected their husbands, meaning Marguerite had power and could negotiate her marriage contract. He’s proud of the strong woman she was and as he walks the paths Marguerite probably walked hundreds of years before he says, “Here we’re going to where her life was lived, to where her hopes were realized, and that’s a great way to end the story, I think.”