Genealogy Roadshow – Detroit

From my very brief perusal of the genealogy blogs, my take is that last week’s episode of Genealogy Roadshow got a decidedly mixed reaction.  While it is always nice to see a genealogy-themed show and Kenyatta Berry and Joshua Taylor make for very appealing hosts, there is also a feeling that the information is just coming too easily.  The participants are simply told their histories, and there is little to no documentation backing up the claims.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the genealogists and historians who work behind the scene are wrong or making things up; I’m sure they are correct.  But in a profession that worships documentation and citation it is a little jarring to see so little of either.  Who Do You Think You Are has a similar problem but with the focus on only one person as opposed to eight or so, there is more time to show records (especially when contractually obligated to do so).

My complaint about Genealogy Roadshow is different.  When I watch a genealogy show I wonder how it could help me with my own research.  And my answer for Genealogy Roadshow is, so far as I can tell, not very much.  The research seems to be somewhat limited, and I have yet to see any kind of documentation that I cannot already find on Ancestry or some other genealogy website.  This week four of the participants had stories originating outside the US (and three from outside the Anglosphere), and even that I am not sure required all that much research beyond what is already on the Internet.

This week’s setting was Indian Village, one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods (and probably the nicest Detroit has ever looked on television).  Michelle Stoutenberg brought in a blue, glass plate that her grandmother said was a butter dish on Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration table.  Apparently the story is that Lincoln was a relative of some kind.  Michelle’s Lincoln ancestry was already traced with pages of family tree data, but Abraham Lincoln was not on it.  Taylor found the connection–Samuel Lincoln, the first of his line to come to the United States was the common ancestor, which makes Honest Abe Michelle’s fifth cousin four times removed.  As for the plate, it was not part of the Lincoln state china set that Mary Lincoln bought, which means that Michelle’s next stop should be Antiques Roadshow.

(As an aside, does it seem like the histories we are getting are just filler?  Maybe it’s me, but I am getting very little out of it other than a necessary bathroom break.)

Charissa Joy Los was adopted when she was 2 days old.  Because her parents did an open adoption, her birth mother was a part of her life.  She met her birth father when she 14.  Charissa is biracial; her mother is white, and her father is black.  Like many of this week’s participants, Charissa is very interested in her genealogy and has done research.  However, she knew very little about her birth father’s line, and it was important to her because she wanted to know about her African-American heritage.  Berry showed Charissa her birth father’s ancestry–her ancestor Andrew Ingram came from Hancock County, Georgia where he was probably a slave of one Thomas Dudley.  During the Great Migration of the early to mid 20th century, her family went north to Detroit to get a labor job, in places like the Ford factory (in any show about Detroit, Ford will naturally loom large).

Steven (last name unknown) wanted to find out about his father’s family because his father Samuel never spoke about them.  Samuel’s father Lesley fought in World War I, and either during or after the war he lost his leg.  When Samuel was 2, his mother died.  He never knew his grandparents either.  The story made Steven cry.

Cynthia Bedolla-Redman wanted to know if she had any English or Irish ancestry.  She also wanted to know if there were any deep family secrets.  Thomas Hatchard–an ancestor whose relationship I did not catch–was born in 1730 and baptized in Dorset, England.  His son John started a bookstore called Hatchards, which had three royal warrants.  So apparently Hatchards was the royal bookstore and is to this day.  Cynthia is thrilled by this information.  For my part, I don’t understand the appeal of monarchy.  Thomas’s great-grandson, also Thomas, arrived in the United States in 1849.  He joined the Union Army as a surgeon and was in a regiment that was part of Sherman’s March to the Sea.  After the war he started a medical practice in Wisconsin.  When he was older he married a much younger woman named Nancy.  The marriage didn’t work.  Nancy was arrested for shoplifting, and she hung around some characters of ill repute.  Thomas filed for divorce.  In response, Nancy claimed his medical practice was not reputable and both Nancy and Thomas were arrested for murder–apparently a woman went to Thomas for an abortion, and she died the next day.  Although the community loved Thomas and hated Nancy, they were both convicted and served 4 years in prison.

Rose Thompson wanted to know what happened to an uncle who one day just disappeared.  Taylor brought in evidence of two possible marriages (and the suggestion of bigamy), although he said it was merely “highly probable.”  Then came World War II and the uncle reappears in the record with a draft card.  That was the end.

William Blackman wanted to know two things: (1) was he related to Daniel Boone and Patrick Henry on his mother’s side; and (2) was his father’s family name changed to Blackman at Ellis Island?  Taylor gives him some very good advice–never trust unsourced family trees online.  With that, Taylor tells him that no, he is not related to either Boone or Henry.  His ancestor James Grubbs, however, was in Robert E. Lee’s army and wrote to Jefferson Davis to see if he could get out and take a desk job instead.  It failed.  Instead Grubbs was injured in 1865 and admitted to a hospital in Richmond a week before the city surrendered to the Union Army and his opponents became his caretakers.

As for the Blackman family, they came from Courland, which is in today’s Latvia, but at the time his ancestor Abraham left, it was a part of the Russian Empire.  (The Courland Jewish community was unique in the Russian Empire because of an affinity with Germany, the German language, and German culture).  Taylor found a passenger list for Abraham–then named Abram Bleckmann–from Hamburg.  That meant that Abram traveled probably via foot to Hamburg where he sailed to Grimsby, England.  In Grimsby he took a train to Liverpool and got on another ship to New York.  But did they change their name at Ellis Island?  Taylor hedged on that, and I think it is important to note that the answer is no.  One of the enduring family myths is that the people at Ellis Island changed your name.  They didn’t.  Really.  It’s a fable.  I criticize Taylor for allowing this pernicious myth to perpetuate.  What happened is that immigrants changed their own names subsequent to landing either through a formal name change or a massaging of the spelling, which, especially for Eastern European immigrants, was never firmly fixed anyway.  In Abraham’s naturalization papers, he was Bleckman, and in the 1910 Census he was Blackman.  (Keeping in mind that the not exactly the gold standard of accurate spelling.)

Eugenia Gorecki is a retired Ford Motor Company engineer.  She was a pioneer–the first female engineer at Ford.  Eugenia was born in a little Polish village.  Her father was also an engineer, but he died in 1942, when she was two and she knew almost nothing about him.  He was taken away, and when died 10 days after he came home.  She wants to know what happened to him.  According to Berry, Eugenia’s father was in a sporting club called the Falcons which was also a Nazi resistance group.  Members of such group, usually from the intelligentsia and the elite, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps or work camps.  The Nazis dragged members of the Falcons into the woods and beat them.  One of those Falcons was Eugenia’s father who died from injuries (nephritis or kidney failure).  Shortly after the War, Eugenia and her mother immigrated to the US.  (Eugenia’s mother was born in Detroit and her father moved the family back to Poland during the Great Depression).

Finally Monica Donley wanted to know if she was related to Ponce de Leon as her amateur genealogist husband Kevin said she was.  Wisely, he did not trust the family trees online and wanted to see the evidence.  (A brief aside–is the name pronounced Pons or Pon-say?  I’ve never been able to figure that out, and it seemed like it was pronounced both ways in this episode.)  We got the history of Ponce de Leon, although I take issue with the claim that he was a founder of the United States and the Caribbean.  Taylor talks about how Spanish genealogy is great because unlike Northern Europeans, the Spanish took the surnames of both their parents.  Because of that, he was able to trace Monica’s ancestry through Ponce de Leon’s daughter.  Monica was his 15th great-granddaughter, and very excited by the discovery.  I admit, I’m jealous that anyone could go back that far.

And that’s it for Detroit and half this season.


4 responses to “Genealogy Roadshow – Detroit

  1. I’m surprised not to have heard more outrage about how Josh Taylor handled the Ellis Island question. I was shocked with how far off base he was, when it was a such a good opportunity to really dispel the myth.

  2. I yelled at the TV when Josh Taylor said that an Ellis Island official (who may not have spoken German or Swedish or Russian or whatever language the immigrant spoke) would ask questions and just spell the name the way it sounded. It was such an appalling statement. What about the immigrant’s papers and the ship’s manifest? What about the translators who spoke dozens of languages at both ends of the journey? Just, arrrrrrgggggh!

  3. Pingback: The Ellis Island Myth | tracingthetree

  4. Thanks for the recap! I can answer your Pons vs. Pon-say question. Pons is how you pronounce the name in English. Pon-say in Spanish.

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