Last’s night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Christina Applegate is a good example of how much you can learn even if you start with very little information. All she had to begin her search for her paternal grandmother was her father Robert’s birth certificate and his mother’s name.
Robert thought he remembered a few other details, such as when his mother died, but those vague memories turned out to be wrong. At one point he even said “I thought I was older.”
Yes, I teared up at the end of the show when Robert appeared devastated to learn of the violence in his parents’ marriage and his mother’s death caused by tuberculosis and alcoholism. And then when Christina comforted him by pointing out how he’s had a positive life despite having every reason not to. And again when he left flowers at his mother’s grave, knowing she had wanted him buried by her side.
Genealogy can be healing.
Documents consulted in the episode include:
- Birth, marriage and death certificates. Almost all states had mandated keeping these by the early-to-mid-20th century. (A few leave marriage records to counties.) They’re generally available from state vital records offices, but often access is limited to immediate family for privacy reasons. Download our free chart of statewide vital record-keeping dates from here.
- Court records for the grandparents’ divorce. You can usually find these through the court where the divorce was filed, though some older records are sent to state archives or other repositories. Here’s how I found the old divorce record for my third-great-grandparents.
- The 1940 census, which is free to access on Ancestry.com through 2013, and also free on FamilySearch.org. You can get a free guide to the 1940 census by going to FamilyTreeMagazine.com and signing up for our Genealogy Insider weekly newsletter.
- Newspapers (it looked like they searched newspapers on GenealogyBank, although no one named this competitor to show sponsor Ancestry.com). I listed some of my favorite websites for online historical newspapers in this blog post.
I liked how the archivists helped Applegate examine documents for clues beyond just names and ages. In the 1940 census, for example, they looked at the years of schooling for each household member as well as the months out of work. They put those details into the context of the lingering Great Depression and what that meant for the family.
If you missed the episode, keep an eye on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” website for a link to watch it online.
To find Family Tree Magazine guides and video classes for doing genealogy research in vital records, the census, newspapers and other records, visit Family Tree Shop. You can use the search box at the top of the site or browse the Genealogy Records category.