“Who Do You Think You Are:” Bryan Cranston Discovers Military Service & Family Secrets

By Allison Dolan

Our “Who Do You Think You Are?” blogger Shannon Combs Bennett shares highlights and tips from last night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” with actor Bryan Cranston.

Award winning actor Bryan Cranston’s journey covered two countries and uncovered some family secrets.  Cranston wanted to know more about the ancestry of his father, who left the family when Cranston was 11.  He discovered a pattern of paternal abandonment and military service, calling these ancestors “men born with suitcases in their hands.”

The first revelation—that his grandfather, Edward Cranston, was married once before—came through a 1930 census detail that’s easy to overlook: The couples’ ages didn’t match up with each of their ages in the “age at first marriage” column. Edward’s age was for his first marriage not his second. This made me think I should re-evaluate some census records!

The divorce records, found among court records, detailed why the split happened. Find records of divorces in your family tree with Family Tree Magazine’s guide to discovering ancestors’ divorce records.

Edward and Cranston’s great-great-grandfather Joseph both volunteered for US military service, in World War I and the Civil War, respectively.  Military records are some of my favorite sources. Look for these if you have anyone in your tree who could’ve served, or registered for a draft (this chart will help you determine whether an ancestor may have served, based on his year of birth).

Our  webinar Online Military Records: Document Your Family’s Service can show you what types of military records to look for. In addition to records from federal-level sources such as the National Archives, state archives may have state-level military records. The Illinois State Archives, for example, had Edward Cranston’s application for WWI veterans’ bonus payments.

Archivist Christopher Capozzla said that 80 percent of these records were destroyed in a 1930s fire, making Cranston lucky that his grandfather’s application survived, though singed on the edges.

Joseph Henry Cranston was the great-great-grandfather who served in the Civil War. He was born in Ireland, immigrated to Canada and enlisted three times, serving to the end of the war. He spent the end of his life in The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldier in Dayton, Ohio. 

Cranston visited the home, read from a newspaper article (this is shown in the photo above) about his suicide, and visited his grave. What we didn’t see in this episode is that he also went to the National Archives, to see Joseph’s pension file. It provided details about Joseph’s military career, the units he served with, and even that he was at one point taken prisoner.

Next Sunday at 9/8c on TLC is the final episode of this season. Tune in to watch TV host and comedian Tom Bergeron’s journey into his French-Canadian roots.