Matthew Broderick had a similar problem to me. His father’s side of the family was the big mystery; my paternal grandfather’s family is the biggest mystery to me, with the earliest record being my grandfather’s passenger ship list to America.
Start with the Family
Matthew started by visiting his sister Janet. Together, they carried a huge trunk of old photos and possibly other items. The part I missed from this scene was the big “Oh wow, this stuff is amazing!” No such trunk exists in my family, certainly not for my paternal grandfather’s family. Any genealogist would love to find such an item.
I like when Janet told the story about the card joke, how their grandfather called a bad poker hand a foot, and how their mother thought it was a dumb joke but used the same expression her whole life. Even little bits like that are interesting to learn about our ancestors.
Matthew hoped that he found nothing embarrassing, hoped it was a good story, but said he was “ready for anything”. That is a good attitude. Studying your ancestors’ lives, you never know what you might find.
National Archives in NYC
Matthew read from the military record of his grandfather, James Joseph Broderick, seeing that he was in the medical department, transferred to Le Havre, and therefore headed to France to find out what happened. Again, someone watching might think that the only way to find out about your ancestors is to fly across the world, when that is rarely ever the case. It is certainly interesting to go to the places where our ancestors lived, but how many people ever get to do that?
On the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield, Peter Barton, a World War I historian, explained to Matthew what the battle was like, further explaining what the medical personnel’s job was like, and how important his grandfather was to every man on the field.
Producing a copy of a document, Matthew learned that his grandfather was awarded a purple heart. He was wounded in 1918 and received the medal in 1933. What they didn’t explain was the large gap in time. Do all medals take that long to be awarded? I would like to know.
Going to the cemetery, they visited the graves of men from his grandfather’s division. Producing another document from the file, Peter handed Matthew a letter that recommended James Broderick for the Distinguished Service Cross. Another missing point: did he get the medal? The letter was a recommendation, but they failed to state if it was awarded. The previous document stated that the medal was awarded.
Switching Families — to Connecticut
Changing his focus to his grandmother Mary, Matthew went to the Connecticut State Archives, where he met with Richard Roberts, the archivist. Ancestry.com got their usual plug when they searched the census.
They found that Mary was living in an orphanage which Matthew was shocked to learn. It almost seemed like he realized that that could have been the end of the line for that family’s research. But Richard told him that there were more clues. They looked through the coroner’s records to find what happened to Mary’s parents.
“These cold, little facts get more and more human. As you put them together, you get a story of a life of a human being and it’s just fascinating.”
We all learn about history in school, but when you find that it’s your own ancestors who lived through the events, it makes it more personal. This is part of the beauty of genealogy and family history research. I wonder if I would have been more interested in learning about history in school if I had also researched how my family played their part in events.
“It’s funny to know things about your parents’ parents that maybe your parents didn’t know.”
I can relate to this as well. When I began my own research, my father could not even tell me the names of his grandparents. He had his parents’ ketuba (the Jewish marriage contract) which listed both his grandfathers’ names, and he was named for one of his grandfathers, but he didn’t know.
Who Has Seen the Census on Paper?
Mel Smith, an archivist at the Connecticut State Archives, brought out books of the 1870 census. Has anyone ever seen census pages on paper? I didn’t even know they had such things. Did they do this because they already plugged Ancestry.com in the previous section? They were searching for William Martindale, Matthew’s great-grandfather.
Mentioning that the 1870 census does not define the relationships in the household or specify whether someone is single, married, or (in this case) widowed would have been a nice addition to the voiceover. Someone who doesn’t normally work in these records would not know that. I had to look it up myself, as the research I usually do rarely goes back that far in American history. But these kind of details are usually skipped over in the show, and this one is insignificant compared to many other things I mention that are overlooked in the final cut of the episodes.
Back to the 1850 census, they found the same family again, including William’s father, Robert. Why did they skip the 1860 census? The voiceover soon explained that the family was missing from that census. I’m glad they explained it, and so quickly. It’s good to point out that not everyone can be found in every census, just as not everyone can be found in records even where you expect them.
By the age on the census, Matthew determineed that his great-grandfather, William Martindale, probably fought in the Civil War, so they followed up on that.
More Paper Records
Breaking out more boxes of old paper records, I wondered why I didn’t notice so many genealogists on Twitter freaking out because neither Matthew nor Mel were wearing white gloves.
Matthew read from the enlistment papers of Robert, stopping to revel in seeing his signature and then looking at his physical description.
They continued by looking through muster rolls. The pages were folded and looked delicate. Did Matthew open each page to see where the regiment had been? They found a page that showed the regiment fought at Gettysburg. In a voiceover, Matthew said that the muster rolls showed the regiment went from Tennessee to Savannah, Georgia, but how did they know that Robert’s trail ended in Atlanta? Another fact skipped over in the episode. Obviously the research was completed, but as usual, not explained.
Gordon Jones, curator of the Atlanta History Center and Civil War Exhibit, brought Matthew out to the location of the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Another document was produced for Matthew to read, stating that Robert died in that battle.
Brad Quinlan, a Civil War historian knew more about what happened to Robert after he was killed. They visited the original burial location then went to the Marietta National Cemetery where the bodies were later moved. Robert was buried as an unknown soldier. Brad created a list of all the men in the regiment who were buried there and found only one that was unknown, thus finding Robert.
The preview from the show stated that Matthew’s search helped to solve a 160 year old mystery. It sounded like it could have been solved if someone had really tried before, since Robert was the only one who was missing from the list, but it was very touching to see an unknown soldier mystery solved, especially noticing in the scene how many small stones there were, clearly more unknown soldiers.
“We’re all related to the generations that happened before us. What they went through shaped our time.”
They’re really good at getting the right sound bites from the celebrities in these episodes. Matthew had quite a few good ones.
This was another great episode of Who Do You Think You Are? filled with important events in American history. I find these episodes fascinating because I learned about these events in history classes in school, though I may not have paid much attention back then. Even so, they are not so much a part of my history because all four of my grandparents were born in Europe. Nevertheless, I think I’ve learned more about history from movies and documentaries than I ever did in school. This episode just brings those same stories to life even more. By learning about what happened to a single person, and going through the emotional ride with that person’s descendent, it just makes it seem more real and more personal, like it was something that happened to real people and not just something that was written in history books.
This article is the third in a series. Previous articles:
Additional: By email, Roger Lustig informed me that the Purple Heart was reinvented for George Washington’s bicentennial in 1932, which was when World War I vets could apply. Thanks Roger.