I’ve been reading the blogs and Facebook postings about Who Do You Think You Are? and there’s an odd theme that keeps rearing it’s head that IMHO is off the mark. I’m surprised that this particular criticism of the show continues to surface because I think NBC, Ancestry and the producers have been pretty straight forward about what the goal of the show is. They probably didn’t think they had to say what the goal is not.
The goal of the show is entertain and captivate the audience by taking someone that most folks know and can identify with (a celeb) and have them share their personal journey of discovering a line of their family history; sharing the excitement of uncovering clues, facts and insights, and their new found connection with American History. (If NBC succeeds, they make money and the show gets a second season. For Ancestry, their goal is that viewers will head to Ancestry.com and try a search. If they succeed, they make money, and they stay in business.)
The goal is not to provide a how to class on conducting genealogy research.
In fact, I say “thank goodness!” that teaching the research process is not their goal. If is were, you’d see the show replaced by re-runs of The Jay Leno Show faster than you can say “peacock.”
And I have to ask the genealogists out there who are bemoaning the lack of detail about how and where documents were found in the making of the show: Would you really want that? Would NBC really be the most qualified entity to provide such instruction? In fact, dare I say it, would Ancestry really be? (They have GREAT online documents, but instruction on the research process doesn’t appear to be one of their goals either!)
My answer is, No, of course not.
Let’s drift back to the hey day of genealogy entering America’s consciousness – the debut of Roots. Hands down, Roots did more for genealogy than anything else in recent memory. I don’t recall seeing a single document, courthouse, or National Archives employee in that series. And if we had seen that it would have diluted from the incredible impact it had on all of us.
Alex Haley and the TV network buy medicine online with paypal showed us what was possible – showed us our connection to history – showed us the stories just begging to be uncovered in our own family tree! We did not walk, we RAN to books, classes, Family History Centers and other resources to learn more about how to do what Alex did. His aim was true and he nailed it: He INSPIRED us to want to know more.
Inspiration is what it is all about. I think that perhaps the genealogist out there, many of whom teach classes on the subject, have perhaps just forgotten for a moment that inspiring your students is goal #1. If you can’t do that, all of the technical information in the world will go in one ear and out the other.
So I count my lucky stars that Who Do You Think You Are? doesn’t try to be a classroom for research. I am very confident that all of the talented and experienced genealogists out there are primed to step in and take on that role for the thousands of newbies who catch the bug after watching the show.
By the way, Kudos to Lisa Kudrow and NBC for including as much history, documents and archive visits as they do in the series. If you listen carefully to Lisa’s interview, (onGenealogy Gems Podcast Episode 81 , Genealogy Gems Premium Episode 41, and in the video interview below) you will hear her comment on how they had to fight to include what they did. Don’t underestimate her words. She says it in passing, but I’m sure that bringing as much history as they did to network TV was a HUGE uphill battle. There are lots of TV types out there who think Americans can only handle 15 second sound bites. TV is big business and all about the money.
So I’m giving NBC and Lisa Kudrow high marks for believing in the American viewing audience. And we as genealogists will take it from there!
If you’d like to learn more about how to research your family history, I invite you to listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast. It’s free and will walk you through the research process step-by-step.
Podcast Listener Joan wrote me recently: “I get to spend a day at the National Archives. What should I do to prepare to take full advantage of the visit? I checked their website, but it was not as helpful as I hoped. Any suggestions?”
While this first resource is from the National Archives in the UK, it’s applicable to archives in other countries as well. Check out their video series called Quick Animated Guide.
Another good approach is to search for presentations on archive visits using Google. By conducting a ‘file type search’ in Google you can uncover presentations posted on the Web that are geared to doing research at the National Archives.
I conducted the following search in Google: .ppt national archives research and came up with a Powerpoint presentation called Beginning Your Genealogical Researchat the National Archives which comes from the US National Archives website. When you click the link above you’ll be prompted to RUN the presentation, and I found that it detected Powerpoint on my computer and opened the presentation in my Powerpoint program.
This little genealogy search gem can come in quite handy. Sometimes you know exactly what kind of file or document you are looking for online. By searching for the keywords of the subject and then adding .ppt (the file extension for Powerpoint presentations) Google will pull up only Powerpoint presentations that include those keywords.
You may not be able to get out to genealogy conferences very often, but some creative searching may bring up presentations that cover topics that interest you right from your home computer. That’s a little gem you need to add to your search toolbox for sure! For more search gems check out my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
And finally, when it comes to preparing for and making a trip to an archive or library Margery Bell of the Family History Centers offered some great ideas for preparing for a research trip, regardless of whether it is to the National Archives or the Family History Library. The interviews are episode 17, 18 & 19 in the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast.
Great question Joan and have a wonderful time! Happy hunting everyone!
We all have cookbooks in our kitchen, many of which were handed down to us by our mothers and grandmothers. In addition to be overflowing with delectable recipes, they are often brimming with family history. Today I’d like to share with you a recipe mystery that followed me for years, and the bit of genealogical serendipity that solved it.
In it, I gave an example of some items I had found on Ebay from my husband’s Larson family. If you listen to the Genealogy Gems Podcast then you have heard me mention the Larson family. They hailed from Winthrop Minnesota and owned a hardware store and lumber business there for many years.
LJ Larson Hardware store
While I was taking questions toward the end of the presentation a woman in the front raised her hand. Her name was Harriet, and she said she was sure that she had a cookbook from Winthrop, Minnesota in her collection of books at home. She offered to send it to me and I gladly gave her my email address so we could connect.
Considering that Winthrop is such a small town, it make her statement surprising indeed! To provide perspective: Winthrop is about 1 square mile and the population hovers somewhere around 1300. So, I was surprised indeed to have someone in Pleasanton, California telling me that she had a cookbook that dated back to the early 20th century from this little town.
As promised, Harriett followed up with me by email. She asked for my address and told me that the book “looks a little worn but all of the pages are there. I hope it can be of some use to you. My sister taught either first grade or kindergarten there during World War 2 and that’s how it came in to her possession.”
The Cookbook Filled with Family History
Harriett was a woman of her word because about a week later the 340 Home Tested Recipes cookbook compiled by members of The Ladies Aid of the First Lutheran Church of Winthrop, Minnesota was in my mailbox.
The Winthrop Cookbook
It continues to amaze and delight me how powerful just putting your family history “out there” is. By regularly mentioning real people and places in your own research, it so often leads to information and items that just seem to be waiting to be found. It’s what we call “genealogical serendipity” in genealogy circles.
But the genealogical serendipity didn’t end there. Not only did my husband’s ancestors contribute recipes to this little community cookbook, which of course I was thrilled to find – but there was a recipe in there that I had been in search of for over 25 years.
The Great Cookie Mystery
You see, when Bill and I got married, he shared his fond memories of a sour cream cookie his grandmother used to make. I’m an avid baker, so I checked with his mom to see if she had the recipe. Sadly, she didn’t.
Over the years I have tried to find a recipe for sour cream cookies in an attempt to recreate them. Every time I found one, I whipped up a batch. Bill would take a bite and shake his head saying they’ were good, but they weren’t like grandma’s cookies.
Bill enjoying baked treats with his Grandma Helen (Larson) Mansfield.
So as you can imagine, the first thing I looked for when I received this cookbook from the town where Bill’s grandma was born, was a recipe for sour cream cookies. There were many yummy-sounding treats to comb through like Pecan Sticks, Victoria Cookies, Father and Son Favorite Cookies, and Sorghum Cookies.
I got excited as I came across names I recognized from the family tree including Mrs. Sheldon S. Larson, the mother of a cousin we had the good fortune to finally meet two years ago when I presented a genealogy seminar in Minnesota at the Swedish Genealogical Society.
But the real thrill came when I made my way to page 42. There I found a recipe for Sour Cream Drop Cookies:
The infamous sour cream cookie recipe!
Surprisingly, the recipe wasn’t contributed by Bill’s grandma Helen (Larson) Mansfield or anyone named Larson. Instead it was submitted for inclusion in the cookbook by Mrs. Hulda Anderson. That fact didn’t deter me from trying it out. In a small town like Winthrop, recipes likely were regularly swapped and handed down through various families.
I immediately baked a batch and served them up to Bill. I’ll never forget his eyes as they lit up in excitement! He took a bite, and was ecstatic to once again be tasting Grandma’s sour cream cookies!
It may sound like a small victory in the scheme of thing, but for me it was a thrilling one, none the less!
I emailed Harriet and told her the good news and thanked her profusely.
I got a reply from her husband George. He wrote:
“I thought I would add a little amusement to the coincidence of the Sour Cream cookies. My father, George Anderson, Sr., was a salesman for American Steel and Wire, subsidiary of U. S. Steel, from the 1920s to the 1960s, traveling to every hardware store and lumber yard in southern Minnesota to sell fence, posts, nails etc. I don’t have any record of it, but I’m sure he would have called on your family’s hardware store in Winthrop. He knew all of his customers by first name, no doubt your in-laws included.”
Genealogy Serendipity never tasted so good!
A Genealogical Look at the Cookbook
I looked through the book carefully for a publishing date but none was to be found. However, there were several clues including the name of the church and the pastors name:
First Lutheran Church Lambert Engwall, Pastor
To put these clues to use, I headed to Google and searched the name of the church, the location and the name of the pastor: first lutheran church winthrop minnesota lambert engwall, pastor
Googling the church, location and pastor
The first result was just what I needed. The link to me to a Wikipedia page about the church:
The church in Wikipedia
It was a fairly comprehensive page, and I was specifically looking for a list of pastors who had served at the church. To save time, I used Control + F (PC) to trigger a find on page search bar. I searched for “pastor” and was immediately take much further down the page to exactly what I wanted to know.
A helpful list of previous pastors
I quickly learned that Lambert Engwall served at this church in Winthrop, Minnesota from 1944 to 1972. Given that Harriett through it hailed from the World War II era when her sister lived there, and from the condition and style of the book, I feel confident it was published closer to 1944.
The next steps to learn more about the relationship between the Andersons and Larson include could include:
Reviewing the 1940 census for Winthrop, Sibley County, Minnesota, and mapping their homes in Google Earth.
conducting additional research into church and their available records include church meeting minutes.
A comprehensive search of the Winthrop News newspaper, with a particular eye on the social pages.
Share Your Genealogical Serendipity and Cookbook Stories
Have you experienced glorious instances of genealogical serendipity in your own family history quest? Do you have a cookbook that has been handed down to you that you treasure? Please leave a comment below and share your story!
Learn more powerful Google search techniques and ways to use Google Earth for genealogy in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louse Cooke (2020) available at the Genealogy Gems Store.
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