EPISODE 8: Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons finds storied ancestors from New Orleans to Versailles — and learns that remarkable men run in his family.
“Are these the kind of qualities that are passed down through a family? It’s not a far reach to say they are.”
TV star Jim Parsons has always had acting in his blood. But are there other artists in his family tree?
To honor his late father, Jim decides to focus his search on his paternal line. He’s also heard about supposed French ancestry and wants to learn the truth of his heritage.
Jim’s mother gets him started with photographs and a death certificate for his great-grandmother Jeanne Hacker, who was born in New Orleans to Charles Hacker and Adele Drouet. Is this his French connection?
An 1850 census record for Charles Hacker reveals that his father, J. B. Hacker, was a physician in Iberville Parish. J. B. was the 55th graduate from the Medical College of Louisiana, only the second of its kind in the South. Hacker graduated in 1842, and by 1854 he was publishing an article on yellow fever in the New Orleans Medical Journal after treating patients during an epidemic of 1853. Jim is thrilled to find someone with such courage and commitment to humanity.
But then tragedy strikes: Jim discovers a newspaper account describing how Dr. Hacker was traveling with his daughter and a nephew on the steamboat Gipsy when the boat caught fire and sank in December 1854. He also finds a beautiful tribute to this “exemplary citizen” and leaves feeling closer to this learned man of science.
While the Hacker line gets Jim to Louisiana, it’s the Drouet line that takes him to France, via his immigrant ancestor Prosper Trouard. In France, Jim examines a baptismal certificate for Prosper’s father, Alexandre Trouard, born in Paris in March 1761. It lists both his father, Louis Francois Trouard, and godfather, who is also his grandfather and also named Louis.
Louis Sr. is a marble supplier to the king. Apparently, he had even higher aspirations for his son: Louis Francois would serve as an architect to King Louis XV.
This was a high artistic honor and one Louis Francois spent a lifetime earning. He was recommended to the Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Rome at age 25. At 40 he took his place among the 32 members of the elite royal Academy of Architecture. He was appointed architect to the king in 1787 at age 60.
The timing of Louis Francois’ appointment is significant: 1787 is only two years prior to the French Revolution. Four architects were executed during the Revolution, and another 25 were imprisoned. Yet Louis Francois escaped Republican retribution. Jim wants to know why.
At the Chapelle de la Providence, a structure designed by his ancestor, Jim discovers the startling truth: Louis Francois had good revolutionary credentials, including houseguests such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
Marveling at his ancestor’s accomplishments, Jim compares his own father to Louis’ father, who found a way for his son to be educated so he could succeed in his chosen profession. “I don’t know what I would have become without my father,” he explains. “And that’s what’s behind me for generations. And that’s amazing.”
You may find obituaries, marriages, births, court cases and plenty of local color in the pages of newspaper articles on Ancestry.com or Newspapers.com. And if there’s a scientist or artist in your family, professional records could hold clues to their skills and accomplishments.Search newspaper articles
EPISODE 7: Trisha Yearwood
Trisha Yearwood follows her immigrant ancestor’s journey from despair to redemption — and connects with a man who never gave up.
“I feel like we draw strength and we draw part of our own character from what comes before us.”
If not for a single word written in the margin of a document 250 years ago, country legend Trisha Yearwood might not be here at all.
Trisha learned a lot about her mother’s side of the family growing up, but her father’s side, including her Grandma Winslett, was a mystery. Now Trisha wants to find the first Winslett ancestor to set foot in America.
She starts with an online family tree and builds it back in time to find her answer: Samuel Winslett, her 5x great-grandfather. Samuel was born in Binsted, Hampshire, England, in 1744, the first Winslett in her line with a birthplace outside the United States.
Trisha wants to learn more about her immigrant ancestor so she heads to England and the Hampshire Records Office. Here she finds Samuel in an index of Hampshire births, as well as Samuel’s parents, John and Mary, and three brothers: John, William and James. She also learns from burial registers that the boys were orphaned when Samuel was about 14.
This may have something to do with where Samuel and his brothers turn up next. They have disappeared from parish records for Binsted, but they reappear in Sussex in 1765. Only this time they’re listed as suspects in a deer poaching incident on the Shillinglee Estate, with a 30-guinea reward for their apprehension. It’s downhill from there. A signed affidavit fingers the Winslett brothers, and during the next summer’s assize court sessions, Samuel and John are sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until they be dead.”
Obviously, Trisha knows, this can’t be the end of the story. And written in the left-hand margin of the assize document is the word that saved Samuel’s life (and made Trisha’s possible): “Reprieved.”
Trisha learns that Samuel’s sentence is commuted to transportation to the American colonies for 14 years. Transportation was a reprieve from hanging, but not necessarily from misery or death. In America, the convicts would be auctioned off to serve out their terms for owners who could be notoriously harsh. Samuel apparently took to America, but not indentured servitude.
Trisha is fascinated by Samuel’s tumultuous story and travels back to Georgia to learn more. There, within four years, she finds him on the receiving end of a 100-acre land grant from the same king who banished him. The acres are in recently ceded Creek Indian country in Georgia. Although there is no record of how Samuel got out from under his indenture, there’s a good chance he escaped and headed for a frontier where settlers were wanted and few questions asked.
Samuel stayed in Georgia, acquiring more land — this time only 30 miles from where Trisha was born — and, in an ironic twist, eventually filing his own “depredations claims” for stolen livestock.
Trisha believes we “draw strength and part of our own character from what comes before us.” She’d always known some of her “I’m going to make this happen” attitude came from her parents. Now, she thinks, maybe a little got passed down from a poacher turned “lord of his own manor” as well.
Some names, like Winslett, were spelled differently in different records. Trisha used alternate spellings to find her ancestors, a strategy that can help with your own search. And if you’re trying to find your immigrant ancestor in England, parish records are your best source for baptism, marriage, and burial details before civil registration began in 1837.Search parish records
EPISODE 6: Cindy Crawford
Cindy Crawford goes looking beyond her Midwestern roots — and discovers a family history that spans continents and centuries.
“Being American is great, but we all came from somewhere and I don’t have any of that. I don’t have any of those pieces of the puzzle.”
Supermodel Cindy Crawford considers herself “an American mutt” genealogically speaking: “I know all my grandparents were born here,” she says. “And I’m pretty sure all my great-grandparents were born here. So we’re … Midwestern, potato-eating people.”
“Here” for Cindy has always meant Minnesota and Illinois. She realizes her family came from somewhere before they put down roots in the Midwest, but she has no pieces of that earlier puzzle. Now that her daughter has a school family history project coming up, the time has come to find some of them.
Cindy has one family rumor to get her started: does her Hemingway branch link her to author Ernest Hemingway? U.S. census records, including the 1880 census, help Cindy follow her Hemingways from Minnesota back to New Hampshire, and Ernest turns out to be an 8th cousin twice removed through her 9th great-grandfather. Beyond that, the Hemingway line gets murky, but a new line, the Trowbridges, starts to look interesting.
Cindy discovers that Thomas Trowbridge, born about 1600, is her first ancestor in that family line to set foot in America. He arrived sometime after 1633, a cloth merchant from Taunton, England, with three children and another son born in the New World in 1636.
But from here, the Trowbridge story takes a dark turn. By 1641, Thomas’s name is showing up in New Haven court documents for failure to pay his debts. That same year, Thomas appears back in England, where parish records document his marriage to a Frances Shattuck. But he’s left his children behind. Cindy is shocked by this revelation: Thomas is starting to sound less and less like the noble, Puritan ancestor.
Determined to know the truth, Cindy heads to England to learn more. At the Somerset Heritage Center in Taunton, England, she finds a clue that could explain the situation. In 1641, England was on the brink of civil war and many men returned from the Colonies to fight.
She finds Thomas Trowbridge at the Siege of Taunton where, as Captain Trowbridge, he leads Parliamentary forces holding out in the castle. His name would appear later in Quarter Sessions records as a witness in behalf of men seeking pensions for their service under his command. Cindy ultimately realizes Thomas was a brave man, first taking a dangerous journey to the New World, then holding out courageously against terrible odds during a siege.
Success has whet Cindy’s appetite to discover more. She’s gone back 10 generations and found herself far from the American Midwest in the middle of the English Civil War. Does the Trowbridge line have more to offer? A trip to London reveals that it does — another 30 generations. It turns out that Thomas Trowbridge, who fought against a king, is descended from the most famous European king of all, Charlemagne. And Cindy Crawford, self-proclaimed American mutt, has a pretty hefty royal pedigree.
You don’t have to have royal blood to have a fascinating family story. Try beginning your search with U.S. census records to find your American ancestors. And don’t forget local histories, like History of the Trowbridge Family in America or The New Haven Colony. They often contain details you won’t find anywhere else.Search U.S. census records
EPISODE 5: Chris O’Donnell
Chris O’Donnell searches for his father’s lineage — and finds a history of courage, patriotism and devotion to family that’s generations strong.
“Who wouldn’t be so proud to hear this about your family? They’re amazing stories.”
Actor Chris O’Donnell sees Who Do You Think You Are? as a chance to both honor and learn about his beloved late father, William O’Donnell, “the quintessential family man,” and his side of the family. He turns to his niece Tory, an amateur genealogist, to get started.
Chris’ grandmother Sarah Regina McCabe’s baptism certificate provides them with a name they haven’t heard in family lore: Sarah’s mother, Mary McEnnis. A search on Ancestry.com gives them their next clue: Mary with her parents, Michael and Eliza of St. Louis, in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census. Tory also uncovers a reference on the Missouri History Museum website to a memoir Michael McEnnis wrote about a devastating cholera epidemic in St. Louis in 1849.
Chris follows this exciting lead to St. Louis, where he reads Michael’s heartbreaking account. Michael explains how he had volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American War, but his family’s own tragic circumstances during the epidemic caused him to request a discharge to go home and “take charge.” Chris is amazed to see a photograph of his great-great-grandfather included with the account.
Curious about Michael’s service in the war, Chris heads to Washington, D.C., where he finds his ancestor’s muster rolls and learns that Michael went “absent on furlough” a few months after his enrollment. Intrigued, Chris searches Fold3.com and sees Michael’s actual discharge letter.
But there’s even more incredible proof of Michael’s service: his actual army sabre, donated to the Smithsonian, and an article from 1911 describing the family’s “fighting stock,” including a man named George McNeir, Chris’ 4x great-grandfather. George is mentioned as a 9th generation American who fought in the War of 1812 as a lieutenant in the Sea Fencibles at the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
This clue takes Chris to the National Archives and then to Maryland to learn more about George McNeir. In military documents, the 1810 census on Ancestry.com, court documents and a city directory, Chris finds another ancestor striking a balance between the duty to country and family.
After seeing his tailoring business suffer after the war started, George joined the local naval militia, the Sea Fencibles. By the fall of 1814, George’s pressing family needs led to his own request for a discharge — but only after he stood by a cannon at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. There, on the morning of September 14, after enduring twenty-five hours of shelling, he would have seen the fort raise the huge flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the “Star Spangled Banner.”
In his father’s father, Chris recognizes a trait he saw in his dad and that has guided his own life through the glitz of Hollywood and fame: family first.
What can you discover about your own family legacy in records? City directories can tie your story to a location. And military collections on Ancestry.com and Fold3 can give you more insight on those who were called to duty.Search city and area directories
EPISODE 4: Zooey Deschanel
Zooey Deschanel connects with a woman who defied convention to stand up against slavery — and is inspired to encourage the next generation of strong women.
“It’s really exciting to think that this is my family.” —Zooey Deschanel
Self-proclaimed “gung-ho” feminist Zooey Deschanel had always heard that her spitfire grandmother Ann Orr came from a long line of Quakers and abolitionists. Now she wants to know the facts.
A visit with her parents provides Zooey with her first clue: the name of her great-great-grandmother, Martha Pownall, and confirmation that the Pownalls had ties to the antislavery movement.
Zooey heads to the Pownalls’ home state of Pennsylvania, a hotbed of abolitionism in the mid-1800s, to meet with a Quaker historian who has found her 5x great-grandparents, Elinor and Thomas Henderson, in Lancaster County. Elinor was a Quaker, but Thomas was not. However, Zooey learns that Quakers were encouraged to marry for love and follow their own convictions.
To learn more about the pair — and their daughter Sarah, a name Zooey’s grandmother had mentioned — Zooey searches Ancestry.com. And what she discovers in the 1800 Pennsylvania State Septennial Census is shocking: Thomas owned a slave.
Disappointed, Zooey now has more questions than answers. If Thomas owned a slave, how did his descendants end up involved in abolition?
Her next stop is Swarthmore College to search the world’s largest collection of Quaker documents. There she discovers that Sarah adopted her mother’s Quaker faith and finds her listed in minutes from a Monthly Meeting in 1848 a member of an antislavery committee. Another document shows the committee calling for the boycotting of goods produced by slave labor.
Here is Zooey’s first documented family link to the abolitionist movement. But just how deeply was Sarah involved?
All the way, according to records at the Lancaster Historical Society. Levi and Sarah Henderson Pownall’s farm housed a stop on the Underground Railroad, and on September 11, 1851, it turned into a battleground when Edward Gorsuch came from Maryland to retrieve three fugitive slaves. The fugitives resisted, and Gorsuch was killed. With Gorsuch’s wounded son in their home, Sarah and her family hid two of the fugitives in the same house, then smuggled them out and on their way to Canada.
The fugitives’ victory in the Christiana Resistance (or Riot) and reactions to it inflamed passions on both sides, including those of Gorsuch’s friend John Wilkes Booth.
In the end, the Pownalls prove even more heroic than Zooey could have imagined. One final document brings Sarah into sharper focus: a picture of her dressed in plain Quaker garb. From four generations away, Zooey can look into the kind face of her new hero.
Search state census records
EPISODE 3: Chelsea Handler
Chelsea Handler makes peace with her grandfather’s Nazi past and finds a closer connection to her heritage.
Born to a Jewish father and German mother, comedienne Chelsea Handler has always embraced her Jewish side. But she also has fond memories of her maternal grandfather, Karl Stöker, “a strong and loving man.”
Although he never talked about his experiences, she knows Karl served in the German army in WWII — Chelsea and her siblings even joked that he had been a Nazi. But she’s afraid it might actually be true.
Now is her chance to find out: What kind of allegiance did her grandfather have to the Nazi party?
Her brother’s prior family research has yielded three fascinating documents to get her started: Karl’s birth certificate, a 1966 memoir written by their grandmother and a small green booklet with “Leistungsbuch” and a swastika on the cover that belonged to Karl.
Chelsea heads to Karl’s birthplace, Bochum, Germany, and discovers the translated memoir offers a remarkable window into her grandparents’ lives. She learns that Karl had a good job as a draftsman at Flottmann Werke in 1936, but there’s a catch: the factory was owned by a known Nazi enthusiast. Did Karl share his boss’s fervor for Hitler’s party?
The booklet reveals more details about Karl: he participated in a voluntary sports program run by the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. But she still doesn’t know the truth about his feelings regarding Hitler’s party.
Karl’s service records from the German Military Records Office in Berlin offer heartening insights: he did not enlist but was drafted three weeks after the war began. Plus, his assignments to lower-tier units and lack of promotion aren’t signs of an enthusiastic solider or ambitious party member. Records also reveal a “tremendous stroke of luck” that brings Karl from the brutal Eastern Front, where his unit would be destroyed, to the south of France. And, in a remarkable twist of fate, leaves Chelsea face to face with one of her grandfather’s possible captors.
Chelsea’s quest to understand her grandfather ends in Algona, Iowa, where Karl was taken as a POW. Here she finds a man transformed: playing violin and looking healthy in photos from the camp. In the end, Chelsea concludes of her grandfather’s experiences in the war, “Whatever he saw ended up ultimately making him a good man,” one who loved his brood of Jewish-American-German grandchildren and a country he adopted as his own.
Search World War II documents
EPISODE 2: Christina Applegate
Christina Applegate takes an emotional journey through her past to find the truth about her grandmother’s life and death.
Stage and screen star Christina Applegate’s father, Robert, has lived with a troubling mystery his entire life — just who was his mother?
Raised by his paternal grandparents, Robert has only fleeting memories of his mother. Christina sets out to find her story.
She starts with one valuable piece of information: Robert’s birth certificate. She learns that his mother’s name was Lavina Shaw and she lived in Trenton, New Jersey.
A visit to the Trenton Public library yields a remarkable discovery: a picture of Lavina and her sister, Delilah, in the society pages when Lavina was about 13. But a search of the 1940 census on Ancestry.com shows the family’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse just a few years later.
As Christina digs further she finds a 1941 marriage record for Lavina Shaw and her grandfather, Paul Applegate. But the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Court documents reveal the couple agreed to a separation in 1942, as each party made serious accusations against the other.
Ultimately, Lavina retained custody of Robert in a 1945 divorce. So how did Robert end up with his paternal grandmother?
The answer may lie in a death record. Court documents identified Lavina’s mother as another caretaker for Robert. But she died in 1946, shortly after her daughter’s divorce.
Then Christina finds a surprising clue — Lavina’s own 1955 death certificate, which states that she died from tuberculosis and cirrhosis due to chronic alcoholism. Is that the answer? After her mother died, did Lavina’s alcoholism leave her unable to care for Robert on her own?
It’s a painful past for Christina to offer her father, but a visit to Lavina’s grave provides an unexpected chance for a mother and son to exchange promises — and a gift.Search the 1940 census
EPISODE 1: Kelly Clarkson
Kelly Clarkson follows the fascinating life of a Civil War ancestor — and learns the legacy he left her.
“It’s just cool to know your story — not your own, but your family’s.” - Kelly Clarkson
Do strong opinions and commitments to causes run in the family? That’s what pop superstar Kelly Clarkson wonders as her mother begins researching their shared family story.
Kelly’s mother has already built a family tree on Ancestry.com and has researched back to her great-great-great-grandfather, Isaiah Rose. In 1870, they find Isaiah in the U.S. Census — a 28-year-old coal digger in Ohio. That would make him 18 when the Civil War began. Did he fight? And on which side?
Kelly searches Civil War records on Ancestry.com and strikes gold — Isaiah not only served but enlisted with the Union twice: once just days into the war and the second with the Ohio 63rd Volunteer Infantry.
As Kelly explores Isaiah’s military service records she uncovers a devastating fact — he was taken prisoner and held at Andersonville Prison, one of most brutal places in the Civil War. Kelly travels to Georgia, where she learns about the horrific conditions in the camp. His situation seems dire but Kelly keeps digging in his Civil War pension application. And that’s when she learns how strong her 3rd-great-grandfather truly was. Isaiah Rose escaped his captors while en route to Savannah during a prison transfer.
She follows his trail to Marietta, Ohio, where Isaiah was the sheriff in the 1880s and was later elected to the state senate. Her journey ends with a visit to the cemetery where Isaiah Rose and several generations of the family are buried.
Along the way, Kelly realizes that something more than blood connects her to this Union soldier. They share one of the highpoints of her life, the chance she had to sing at President Obama’s inauguration, “a moment that would not have been possible without the service of my great-great-great-grandfather and others.”
Kelly discovered the strength that was passed through generations of her story by starting with Civil War military records on Ancestry.com. Will you find similar strength in your own family story?Search Civil War records
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