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.com 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.”