Saturday, August 29, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are? Review: Bryan Cranston

This has been one of my most favorite episodes in a long time. Perhaps because the subject, actor Bryan Cranston, digs up some serious dirty on his paternal line; dirt I can identify with.

Like everyone I have ever tried to help with their family tree, Bryan begins by saying he doesn't know much about his father's family. In actuality though, he knew his father, who was also an actor, was born in Chicago in 1924 and that his paternal grandparents names were Edward and Alice. That's enough.

This leads him to a 1930 census record with curious details; details that uncover that Grandpa Edward had a previous marriage and a daughter from that union. Like Bryan's father, who bailed on Bryan, his siblings and his mother when Bryan was just 11 years-old, Bryan's grandpa abandoned his first wife and child as well.

Through divorce records Bryan learns that his father had a half-sister, Kathleen. In the divorce record it shows Edward Cranston's first wife, Irene, requesting to return to her maiden name, Kelly. In light of the fact she had a child, the court encouraged her to retain her married name. If one pays close attention, though, we see when the half-aunt's death certificate shows up that Kathleen is recorded as Kathleen Ann Kelly; a detail that is not discussed on the show but one that I think ought to have been.

Bryan commented on the request by Irene to revert to using her maiden name when they are looking at the divorce documentation. He states something to the effect of, of course, why would one want to bear having to hold on to the name of a man who abandoned his family.

Whether is was done legally or not when Kathleen Cranston dies at the mere age of 16 her death certificate lists her with her mother's maiden name, as Kathleen Kelly because...why would one want to hold on to the name of a father who abandoned you.

There was a time when it was much easier to change one's name; illegally if you will. Some people went by many aliases. Nowadays with Social Security and the significance of "identity," changing one's name or even spelling of one's name is an intense legal process. But back in the day, names and what one was called were two different things and spelling almost never counted. We see this in other places throughout this episode; example, the Cranstons show up as Kramston in the 1930 census. It's only now that people are so hung up on spelling. But I digress...

Bryan is visibly moved by the discovery of his half-aunt's early death. He seemed genuinely hopeful that she might still be with us at the age of 100 or at the possibility of finding a long lost line of cousins. However, he was only left to wonder if Edward ever knew his first child died so young or if he even cared about her.

Edward Cranston apparently abandoned his family and opted to serve in World War I. Bryan discovers through Edward's Soldier's Bonus Application that Edward was also an actor. Now had the genealogist more thoroughly explored Edward's WWI draft registration card with Bryan earlier on, he might have noted that Edward had been employed by the Vaudeville Theater in Chicago; that was clearly visible on the show.

The biggest surprise on that Soldier's Bonus Application is that Edward’s marital status is listed as single. This dodgy move on Edward's part ensured that Irene and Kathleen would not receive any part of his soldier's pay. Grandpa Edward Cranston, in my opinion, was a big jerk and although Bryan doesn't say that he does state that this bit of information "exposes a link between his actions and my father’s actions. My father’s indiscretions, my grandfather’s indiscretions."

The pattern goes back even further, though when Bryan finds the baptismal record for his great-grandfather, James Daniel Cranston, born in 1849 in Montreal. I love this part too because my great-great grandfather, Damase Desjardins, was born in Montreal at about the same time. And as Bryan runs his finger down the column of recorded church functions he reads off some of the surnames one of which is Damase's mother's maiden name, Clement. This makes it feel even closer to home.

The baptismal record for James Daniel Cranston list his father, Joseph, as "absent." A subsequent record shows 2 year-old James Daniel living in a home for the destitute because his mother must work as a servant and can not financially support her child since the father has "dissipated." It is later discovered that the father had left Montreal to go off and fight in the American Civil War.        

Joseph Henry Cranston is found living in Ohio in the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. He too is listed as single when he entered the home in 1883. Through a newspaper article, Bryan learns that this great-great grandfather was found dead in a boardinghouse from what we presume to be carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time of his death 1889 the Soldier's Home appraised Joseph Henry Cranston's personal effects at just $0.25. Sad.

Granted, everything we learned about these men are facts. Facts that develop in us an opinion that is derived from our personal perspectives. We do not know the whole story. We have not walked in their shoes but Bryan ends the episode by stating: "There was so much abandonment in the line of men...these are men born with suitcases in their hands...this is what happened in my family and it stops with me."

Bryan also states that he wonders if there is really something in the genes. Is there? Or is this a learned behavior amongst certain clans that come to see this shunning, self-absorption, and distancing as acceptable? Who knows.

Bryan goes on to say that it seems you either move in the same patterns as your ancestors before you or you turn 180 degrees from it, in the opposite direction. This made me reflect on my own family's history of abandonment, well, more like estrangement in my case. And I thought really hard about it. It hasn't ended with me and I don't think it will. I do not, however, believe I am continuing in the same direction exactly. I have great hope what I do here, acknowledging of the truth of my family's history, will eventually bring about resolve for subsequent generations. I hope.    

Friday, August 14, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: Alfre Woodard

This past week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on the ancestry of actress, Alfre Woodard. Specifically it focused on her paternal grandfather, Alexander Woodard, and his enslaved father, Alex or Alec Woodard.

Alfre's grandpa died when her father was a child and at many points throughout the episode Alfre stated that she was doing this research not only for herself but for her father. I have encountered this with many of the friends and patrons I have helped with their family trees. Even though their mother or father is long deceased, the person feels they are answering the questions their parents had about their family history. For example, I had one client burst into tears when I discovered her father's long lost brother in the Social Security Death Index. Through her tears she announced that that her father had wanted to find his brother so badly and "now he's dead too." Um, had the uncle been alive he's have been 96. Hmm. But I digress...

Woodard's journey really was an homage to her father and her African-American ancestors.

Although it is true that  African-American genealogy research can often hit a dead end due to a lack records identifying slaves by name, a great deal of information does still exist in post Civil War documentation including census, deeds, wills etc. The unfortunate truth is that enslaved African-Americans were considered property, however, they were indeed a valuable property and often documented in records of their owners. It was an obviously emotional experience for Alfre to see her great-grandpa at age 10 listed among the property of the estate of John Woodard, the slave owner.

That too can be a startling fact to most novice African-American genealogy researchers; that the African-American's family name is often derived from that of the white slave owner. I recently had to explain to a researcher that just because two African-American families in the same community have the same last name doesn't mean they were biologically related; it is probably more likely an indication that they were owned by the same white man or by white families that were related.

I think what was most moving to Alfre was the fact that this man who had been a slave with no possessions of his own had prospered after Abolition.Through tax records and land deeds we learned that Alex had become a land owner in Louisiana and paid the poll tax of $1 to become a registered voter.

The journey back in time through African-American ancestry can be emotional but it can be done. If the notion that you won't find any records because of slavery, or the Holocaust, or some war, or what-have-you, keeps you from researching you family history, don't be silly. Records do exist and you can uncover the stories of you ancestors who accomplished overwhelming feats.

Tune in again this Sunday for a special episode of WDYTYA called "Into the Archives." Can't wait to see what that's all about...

Tune in again this

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Social Security Death Index vs. Social Security Application and Claims Index

I have a beautiful little niece who is just about 3. When she was first born I called her Squooshy because she has the most delicious fat thighs; Gardner thighs, a trait both my sisters and I have gleened from my mother's DNA apparently. My father's family, with the exception of Uncle Tom's and his Popeye-like calves, seem capable of tottering around on toothpick-like legs. Squooshy their thighs are not.

As a christening gift to my niece I made her a family tree going back to her 3rd great grandparents; well, most of them. On my side, her mother's side, that was a breeze but this of course meant that I had to research my brother-in-law's family history. His family is not very close knit but they humored me and helped me in my research. There was one line on which I couldn't get back to her 3rd great-grandparents, though. My brother-in-law's paternal grandmother, Margaret, is a bit elusive. I was able to find her living with her father and step-mother in the 1930 census but could not determine her biological mother and at the time the Social Security Death index just provided a date of birth, death, and last known residence.

Margaret's parents would have probably been married in 1920 based on Margaret being born in September 1921. Therefore, Margaret would not appear in the 1920 census with her parents. And in the 1930 census her father is noted as having been married just 2 years prior. Thus the woman listed as his wife in that census, Delia, is not the biological mother of Margaret or her sister Alice who was born in 1923.

Every now and then I poke around on Margaret hoping will had some new record to lead me to Margaret's birth mother.

Well, lo and behold, my poking around last night paid off. now provides not only the Social Security Death Index now but also the Social Security Application and Claims Index.

What's the difference?

Glad you asked! The S.S.Application and Claims Index indicated the person's parent's names as they listed them on their application.

According to the S.S.Application and Claims Index Margaret's mother was Nora Kane.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Maiden Name

I am always startled when someone can't remember their mother's maiden name. Maybe it's because I am a genealogist and maybe being a woman has something to do with it. I have never quite understood "taking your husband's name."

I'm single. Probably terminally single and so I will probably never have to have this conversation with a potential husband but, I'm not changing my name. I'm in my 40s. This is my name. Have you been to the DMV? Or dealt with a health insurance company? Or Social Security? Yeah, unless he is willing to go through every process with me - - not gonna happen. Sorry Charlie - - or Bill - - or Tom, whoever you are. I'd be Mrs. but he'd be stuck with April Earle.

My step-grandmother is currently searching for her mother's maiden name in order to order a copy of her own birth certificate. I am sure she knew the name at some point. She needed it to get married and apply for social security, I am sure.

In any case it made me think about the maiden names of the women in my family tree and I can name not only mother's maiden name but both my grandmothers', my great-grandmothers' (Losee, Prince, Sauer, and Sharp), my great-great grandmothers' (Ethier, Gray, Hinch, Joyce, Krantzel, McLean, Samms, and Smith), and my 3rd great grandmothers' (Kelley, Carillion, Clement, Combs, Garvey, Goetz, Goodyear, Hughes, Kavanaugh, Moore, O'Neil, Organ, Page, Preuss, Schmitt, Walker), and more. Many many many more. Without looking them up.  But there are plenty of female ancestors that I do not know the maiden names of, so - - I'm gonna work on that.

Look out 4th great-grannies. I'm coming for you. Well, I'm coming for your poppas' names...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: J.K. Rowling

I love it when a family story gets debunked and that is just what happened to J.K. Rowling in last night's episode of WDYTYA? Now that is not to say that I like to see any one's dreams dashed, but history should not be a fantasy.

For those of you who are not familiar with Rowling, who is called Jo amongst her friends and family, she is the famed author of the Harry Potter series of books.

In this episode she explored her mother's French ancestry, focusing initially on her great-grandfather, Louis Volant, who apparently is not to be confused with Louis Volant.

Rowling's family lore had her believing that her great-grandfather, like herself, had been the recipient of the esteemed Legion d'Honneur; France's National Order of the Legion of Honor award first establish by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. She comes to find out, though, that the Louis Volant who received the honor was not her Louis Volant. 

Who would have thunk that there could be two men with the same name? (This is the point at which hundreds of Harry Potter's drop me a comment to declare their shock and dismay at their inability to cast spells.)

Rowling did learn, however, that her Louis was decorated for his brave service in WWI. And she appeared to be more moved by that knowledge than by the disappointment that he had not received the Legion d'Honneur; as it should be.

She also learned that several generations of her foremother's were single parents, just as she had once been. One of those single mother's was Louis Volant's mother, Salome Schuch and as evidenced by the record of her great-grandfather's birth at the Paris Hospital Archives, Louis was illegitimate. As an illegitimate child he was given his mother's maiden name at birth. Later documents reveal Salome, the single Parisienne servant, eventually becomes a dress maker and marries Pierre Volant, who took on Louis as his own son.  However, it is still unclear if he was or was not the biological father of Louis. Now there was a time when genealogists would have shrugged and left the paternity a mystery but now with the ubiquity of DNA testing, we might be able to resolve that question for Rowling.

As I often say, life is a struggle! There is no shame in survival. Legitimate or not, recipient of a one award or another, the struggles of Rowling's ancestors is still something she should be quite proud of; as should you be of your forebearers.

Next week's episode of WDYTYA? on Sunday, August 9 at 9 p.m. on TLC focuses on the ancestry of actress Alfre Woodard.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?: Ginnifer Goodwin

It has been a while since I blogged. I've been busy with genealogy, though, and ushering relatives into the world of Ancestry DNA but I haven't really had the time to write.

The new season of Who Do You Think You Are? aired last night, though, and I like to write my reviews of these genealogy research vignettes while they are still fresh in my mind. And so, I am back on the blog...

...and maybe in time I will catch up on writing about my own summer family research. In time.

The first episode of this season of WDYTYA focused on the family history of actress Ginnifer Goodwin who played Margene Heffman in the HBO series Big Love. Ginnifer starts the episode by stating that she knew a great deal about 3 of her grandparents' heritage but nearly nothing about her paternal grandfather, John B. Goodwin. As the episode progresses we see there is a good reason for that; Grandpa John's relationship with his parents was undoubtedly painful.

In speaking with her father about his recollections of the Goodwin family, he expressed to Ginnifer that he wished he had asked his father more questions when he was alive.

This comment made me recall an informal family history interview I had with my maternal grandfather. My Grandpa Gardner's love for his children and grandchildren was palpable but he was not terribly forthcoming with information about his past or his family's past. Although many might argue with me on this, I believe that regardless of it being YOUR family history, someone's past is not necessarily any of your business and perhaps it was best for the Goodwins to wait until Grandpa John had passed to go rifling around in his childhood and upbringing.

By all means ask your loved ones while they are alive about their knowledge of family history but don't press them to stir up painful memories; that is simply unkind.

In any case, Ginnifer learned her great grandmother's real maiden name by obtaining a copy of her Grandpa John's SS-5; the application for a Social Security number. This program began in 1935 and although I have never used this type of resource in my research, it can obviously prove very useful to a researcher. It was evident to me, though, that Ginnifer's grandfather concealed his mother's maiden name on purpose. I suspect he did not want to revisit his relationship with his mother who could blame him.

The discovery of John Goodwin's mother's maiden name leads Ginnifer on journey through court records, divorce decrees, prison records, and hospital documents. Her grandpa John may have been better off on his own at age 11 then with his mother who suffered a series divorces from men who had more than mere run-ins with the law. John's biological father, Al Goodwin, was sent to federal prison for bootlegging. His mother and his step-father, Hugh Wyllie, were dealing narcotics at one point. And both John's mother, Nellie Haynes-Williams-Goodwin-Wyllie,  and his half sister, Pearl Williams, wound up hospitalized for addiction to morphine, a commonly prescribed painkiller at the time.

It was not a pleasant history to unravel but many are not. And whether any of us would like to explore them or not, a wealth of family histories are buried in court records. Don't be surprised, or disappointed, or ashamed to discover you have an ancestor or two who's suffering is documented in court records. Life is hard, people.

Next week's episode which airs on TLC on Sunday, August 2 at 9 pm, focuses on author J.K. Rowling's family history.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer Family Reunion of Sorts.

Every summer I go away for my birthday on a road trip. I insist that if one is not home for his/her birthday than it doesn't count. I will be 28 again...for the 13th time. I'm getting really good at being 28. Anyway...

This summer I was invited to stay with cousins in Minnesota. Cousins I met through genealogy research.

Many years ago I found a message board post regarding my great grandfather's sister; Florence V. Desjardins which lead me to Cousin Robert who in turn connected me to his brother, my Cousin Chris. We did not meet in person. All of our communication had been online. Then two years ago Cousin Chris's wife, Cousin Barb, came to New York for a business trip and she and I met. Now they have invited me to come visit.

I am excited!

Cousin Chris isn't much into genealogy but I plan to bring with me all the documents I have accumulated regarding our common ancestors; Great-Great Grandpa Damas Desjardins (a.k.a. Thomas Gardner) and Great-Great Grandma Malvina Ethier-Desjardins. I have neat things about them: Malvina's naturalization papers with a photo of her, Damas's obituary, etc.

I also have some documents regarding Cousin Chris's great grandparents: Their marriage record showing Florence needed her mother's consent to marry at age 16.

But my most favorite things: Newspaper articles!! Yeah apparently Chris's great grandpa and another of the Desjardins siblings got themselves into a lot of trouble in their youth. Breaking and entering, drunk driving, etc. Yeah - - that sounds like family.

The most important thing I want to share with Cousin Chris is that although our own immediate families are not what one would consider tight, there was a time when they were. After my Great Grandfather Albert died his wife went to live with Chris's great grandma Florence. And after Florence passed, my great grandma, Mamie, continued to live with her husband's brother-in-law who was Chris's great grandfather, Elbert. By the way, Elbert was my Grandpa Clarence's favorite uncle.

I have letters written by Great Grandma Mamie that tell a great deal about Chris's great grandparents. So although there has been quite a bit of distance and estrangement down the diverging lines for all sorts of reasons, there was a time when our family was close - - and there can be again. Although I have yet to even stand near, no less hug, my Cousin Chris, I feel like this is a bit of a family reunion. And I am deeply looking forward to it.