Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Family History on Television

Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the few television programs specifically focused on family history, but other programs sometimes have family history moments and touch on research techniques and resources genealogists use.  I've seen some interesting stories lately that I wanted to share.  I love finding family history and good research resources in unexpected places.

I watch a lot of History Detectives on PBS.  The premise is that people contact the program because they have some kind of artifact they want to know the history of, and the professional researchers do the legwork and come back with the answers.  (Kind of like Who Do You Think You Are?, but with no pretense of who is doing the research.)  The primary emphasis of the program is on history, but a few stories focus on individuals.  As with WDYTYA?, the research is done beforehand so they can determine if they have a viable story.

A segment in one episode investigated a letter purportedly written by Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross.  The letter was dated July 1866 and reported the death of Israel Brown; it was sent to J. Blair Welch in Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania.  The owner of the letter wanted to know how Brown died, who Welch was, and if it was really Barton's signature.  The researcher, Eduardo Pagán, created a short sketch of Brown and his family and how Welch was connected to him.  Among other resources, Pagán used Barton's Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, the "Roll of Missing Men" lists she had published in newspapers, an online database of prisoners in Andersonville Prison, and a visit to Florence (South Carolina) Stockade.  The epilog discussed the use of dog tags for identification of soldiers and why they became necessary.

Another segment of the same episode focused on a typed notebook and domestic spying during World War I.  The person who sent the inquiry had a notebook of his great-grandfather's which appeared to record surveillance information.  His great-grandfather had been in military intelligence; he wanted to know if the notebook really was "spy stuff."  Researcher Gwendolyn Wright looked at an employee file (available at the National Archives because he was a government employee) of the great-grandfather and letters he had written to piece together a picture of him and his work.  The investigation followed the well known anarchist Emma Goldman, among other people, and the Socialist newspaper the New York Call (which I used in my Triangle Fire research) played an important part.

A piece of fabric with the words "Dixon" and "Grand Island, 1911" on it was the item in a segment from another episode.  The contributor found it among her grandfather's possessions.  She thought the name Dixon might refer to a famous early aviator but wondered why her grandfather would have possessed it.  Elyse Luray's research concentrated on Dixon and his short career, but the important point in this one for me was that newspaper research was used to pinpoint her grandfather's location at a critical time and explain why he had the fabric.

One contributor bought what he thought was a former slave's freedom paper at a flea market.  Tukufu Zuberi researched emancipation records to determine when John Jubilee Jackson was freed (and found a physical description of him) and ship's crew lists to follow Jackson's career as a sailor.  He discovered not only that the paper actually was a seaman's protection certificate, created to ensure that free blacks would not be taken into custody as escaped slaves, but also found a side trip Jackson had taken to Haiti soon after the Slave Revolt.  The epilog for the segment talked about resources helpful in researching black American genealogy.

Not specific to family history research, but a children's program had a surprising real research moment.  The PBS Kids program Fetch! is part game show, part reality TV, and part spoof.  The show has real kids who do challenges, use science, and (kind of) compete against each other.  On a recent episode they had the kids go to the library and do research using microfilm!  Sorry I can't give a link to the episode; the Fetch! site is not geared to finding a specific episode.

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