‘Genealogy Roadshow’ returns: My hunt for the pioneer parents

PBS premieres a second season of ‘Genealogy Roadshow’ January 13 and one mom learns from the experts how to search for more information about the great parents of her family before her.

Rick Van Valkenburg
This photo from a 1923 family reunion is an example of some of the kinds of historical information one can find through researching genealogy.

Parenting today seems to be in many ways a decision similar to purchasing a car more than a matter-of-fact piece of a family’s story. If a sampling of opinion pieces online is any indicator, prior to kids there is research, budgeting, and maybe even a test drive babysitting a friend’s kids before taking the wheel, so to say.

For my own grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and the even greater women before them, childbearing and rearing was an expected and natural course for all families.

I realize that I’ve spent a good amount of my first couple years as a parent complaining about various “hardships” that undoubtedly pale in comparison to what my foremothers dealt with on a daily basis. 

I know that I am approaching parenting from an entirely different perspective than they did by the mere fact that I have indoor plumbing and electricity, not to mention wireless Internet and a Starbucks down the street.

My ancestors' grievances wouldn’t be nearly as mamby pamby as those that parents in developed countries enjoy today – including running out of squeezable food packets, paying full price for a plane ticket for a little person who fills only half of the seat, or the inability to stream PBS kids on our iPads

I say “enjoy” because it seems that parent kvetching has also become sport online, right along with over-sharing and trying to balance said kvetching with “pay it forward” positivity posts on social networks that begin around Canadian Thanksgiving and suspiciously end shortly after New Year’s resolutions.

I am currently researching the life of my great grandmother for a novel, and what I am unearthing, through family stories and online searches, is heroic compared to today’s standards. 

A suffragette in the early 1900s, she raised a litter of children through the depression and managed a family farm alongside my great-grandfather, and even laid a good portion of the stonework for the family farmhouse with her bare hands when she was in her 60s.

And so it was with great interest that I learned that “Genealogy Roadshow” returns for a second season on PBS, airing every Tuesday at 8p.m. EST for six weeks, from January 13 until February 24.

I will be watching to learn a little more about looking up family history, in hopes that I might be inspired to put things into perspective before I whine about something as paltry as running out of pretzel rods for snack time.

The primetime offering from the public broadcasting network takes its lead from the popular, longstanding series “Antiques Roadshow” as genealogists visit different cities to partner with those in the public wondering about their family history.

According to a news release about the second season, genealogists will visit New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis over the course of six episodes to explore extensive family histories. The show will “features participants with unique claims and storylines, including a woman seeking to find out if she is descended from the infamous pirate Blackbeard; a pair of sisters exploring connections to a survivor of the legendary Donner party; a man hoping to recover essential family history that washed away in Hurricane Katrina; and a man learns that the event that drove his family to the City of Brotherly Love changed the course of history.”

For those of inspired to look up their family history, genealogist Mary Tedesco from 'Genealogy Roadshow' offered a few tips over email. According to Ms. Tedesco, there are plenty of online resources to start a family history search, including the sites  ancestry.com (a sponsor of the second season of “Genealogy Roadshow”), FamilySearch.org, findmypast.com

Tedesco writes, “There are, of course, many other online resources beyond these three sites. Michael Hait's ebook “Online Resources for Genealogyand Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com) are my favorites for locating online genealogy websites for researching in specific geographical areas.”

When asked about the limits to online search, Tedesco explains how online research is only the beginning. 

“That is when we need go onsite to an archive, a courthouse, a library or other repository.  Since most genealogical resources are not available online, we should plan on following our family genealogy, our family history, onsite wherever it takes us!”

She explains that some of the best in-person tools to expand the search can include microfilm files, which can be ordered on sites like the Family History Library (operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), and in some cases delivered to a local center for review.

Once those sources are exhausted, Tedesco encourages history hunters head to a repository - be it a vital records office, a country courthouse, or a library.

She cautions, “prepare for your onsite research trip before you leave home. Make a research plan that defines your goals. Call ahead to confirm which records are available. Keep detailed notes of the information you find, as well as what you don't find. And remember to keep an accurate record of all your research results in order to aid future research.” 

There are more tips for offline search available through the show’s web site and PBS also offers tips for students to get in on the search for family history. 

When asked about records for the largest family tree ever traced, Tedesco can’t say for sure who that distinction belongs to, but she points to A. J. Jacobs project Global Family Reunion taking place June 2015 in New York as the possible location for answering that question. Mr. Jacobs is organizing and event to which the entire population of the world is invited to see who is related, and the entire event - of which the proceeds will benefit Alzheimer’s research – will be part of a documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (of “Supersize Me” fame). 

 “‘How far back can we get?’ is a frequent topic, even amongst genealogists. It really depends on the specific location, that family's background (for instance, were they royalty?), and the availably and accessibility of records in that area. “ writes Tedesco. 

“In some parts of the world we can trace back into the 1600's (and sometimes much earlier). In other areas, records could have been destroyed in a war or natural disaster, making genealogical research difficult.” 

Tedesco stresses the importance of having research goals and dedication from the outset in order to find the most detailed information. That might include a professional genealogist, translator, or a local guide in some cases. 

My favorite piece of the PBS roadshow formula is the surprise reactions from those making the expert inquiries, whether their search turns out to be a dud or reveal interesting twists. I'll be watching with more intent than most as I dig in to my search for more about my great-grandmother. Hopefully along with historical data I'll find some inspiration to keep things in perspective before I complain about those squeeze packets.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.