Thanksgiving may be the time we catch up with family near and far flung, but this holiday season, seven Houstonians discovered lost familial relations and learned intimate historical revelations thanks to the PBS show, Genealogy Roadshow.
Like the Antique Roadshow but for bloodlines instead of stuff in your attic, the Genealogy Roadshow recently rolled into Houston to solve family ancestral mysteries and a focus on Texas history on a personal scale. The show spent two days filming in town, one day at the Clayton Library, a national renowned resource for genealogical research, and then at the recently renovated Julia Ideson Building at the Downtown Houston Public Library.
The full day at the Ideson Building was open to the public and gave family-history explorers an opportunity to talk to representatives and experts from local and national ancestry organizations and historical societies. Interested to see what Houston secrets would be revealed, I went down to the Ideson Building to watch the filming and talk to the show’s host, genealogist Joshua Taylor and David Johnson, executive in charge of production.
As the cast, crew and general public bustled around us, Johnson gave me the basics of what it takes to put Genealogy Roadshow together. People from around the country submit their known family history to the show in hopes their experts can find those lost family tree branches. In preparation for an individual episode, the show’s genealogists and researchers can take as much as six months to explore applicants’ ancestry before narrowing down to a hand full of stories they’ll tell on national television.
When I talked to host Joshua Taylor, on a short break between filming segments, he told me what they’re searching for as they prepare for each episode.
“Every city that we go to has unique stories, unique people. We always try to look for stories that really embody the history of that city or that state. With Texas, of course, there’s so much history here even hundreds of years ago,” he explained.
Taylor says that western and southern cities are sometimes harder to find records as opposed to an older northern cities such as Boston where the records are much more plentiful. That does make the search all the more sweeter when they find answers and surprises.
“It’s harder in many cases to research, but it also makes the stories somewhat better because there’s more in the genealogy and the process behind it,” Taylor said, but also revealed that in one way amateur and professional genealogist have a big advantage in our city.
“Houston is so lucky because you have the Clayton Library here. So you actually have one of the largest centers for research. We use resources from all around the nation, but it’s always nice to be able to call a resource like Clayton,” said Taylor, adding that they’ve used Clayton before when doing research for the show in other cities.
While Taylor couldn’t give many specifics about the Houston episode because it won’t air until the spring of 2016 on Houston Public Media TV 8, he would say there were definitely historical and emotional surprises that day. One story in particular stood out for him.
A Houston woman who had asked about Native American ancestors, received an answer that “wasn’t what she was expecting,” he recounted. However, it reinforced a lesson Taylor had seen time and again on the show: “that asking one question about your past can lead into a lot of different things that you never expected to find.”
And what of the Texas and Houston stories? Were there any commonalities in the family histories revealed during the episode?
“There’s a real pioneer, almost frontier spirit, everyone trying something new and being very adventurous. So a lot of our stories have a weird commonality of survival and a lot of strength,” said Taylor of the only spoilers he could give.
After watching some of the segments being filmed, I was able to talk to one of the participates. Helen Mooty comes from a long line of women interested in genealogy. Her aunts did pre-Internet research in the 1980s, and now as the family historian, she builds on their intense genealogical labor. However, what the Roadshow was able to find has gone far beyond previous family discoveries.
She was very excited to get answers to her her most important question: “Do I truly have Texas roots?”
“It’s one thing to come here after the Civil War,” she explained. “But you want to be here when it was a nation. You want to be here early. So they filled that in for me. And that was really fantastic.”
While Mooty didn’t get all the answers, that was just more reason to keep exploring.
“Somebody said it won’t answer all your questions. It will just create more questions. But those other questions are things I can deal with now because they made that hump that I couldn’t get through. They have a lot more resources and they’re professionals. Now I can take what I know and hopefully do a lot more,” she said.
In the end, the whole “joyful” experience helped to fill in some of that big picture of her family’s past for her.
We’ll have to wait until season 3 of the Genealogy Roadshow airs next spring on Houston Public Media TV 8 to discover what other Texas family pictures will be revealed. Previous episodes of the show can be viewed online.