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Family History TV Show Turns Up Surprise For St. Louis Woman

Evelynn Johnson, second from left, and her family meet with genealogist Kenyatta Berry, second from right, at Union Station in St. Louis during filming for PBS' 'Genealogy Roadshow.' Johnson's story will be shared in the show's Feb. 10, 2015, episode.
Courtesy of Jason Winkeler

When PBS’ “Genealogy Roadshow” asked for queries from St. Louis residents last year, Evelynn Johnson gave them her great-grandfather's name.

“I was asking my mom if were kin to another family that shared our last name,” Johnson told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “She said ‘Well, this is your great-grandfather’s name. See if they know him.’”

The “Genealogy Roadshow” researchers were able to take just a name and find information about Johnson’s grandfather, which will be broadcast in the show’s Feb. 10 episode.

“It was very interesting what they recovered — what they revealed,” Johnson said, careful not to give away anything including her maiden name and her grandfather’s name. “The information that I thought I would receive, it was greater than that.”

That’s one of the goals of the show, said Joshua Taylor, a professional genealogist, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies and “Genealogy Roadshow” researcher. “We always try to give them what they’re looking for and then something else,” he said.

Vague questions aren’t unusual for the show’s researcher, either, Taylor said. The second season of “Genealogy Roadshow” premieres at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 on KETC (Channel 9). The Jan. 20 and Feb. 10 episodes were filmed in St. Louis.

“It’s anything from ‘I want to know if I’m related to a famous person’ to ‘I don’t know who my grandmother was’ or ‘I think we’re related to Billy the Kid’ — it’s those types of questions that normally come out,” Taylor said. “We spend about six months researching, but sometimes we’re tapping into families that have been researching for 20 or 30 years.”

But genealogy research doesn’t require a team, said Dennis Northcott, associate archivist at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center.

“There’s lots of resources available that you need to analyze and compare to one another. There’s census records and city directories and burial records and birth, marriages and death records, probate records — all kinds of different resources,” Northcott said. “You just have to analyze these and compare them. Of course, the more common your name is, the more challenging the research is.”

Those resources often are available at local and state libraries. Internet searches also can turn up information. For example, the Missouri History Museum Library has a genealogy index of school yearbooks, company newsletters and newspaper clipping scrapbooks online. Third-party sites, like ancestry.com and fold3.com, have been built around digitized archives, and many of those databases are free to use at local libraries, Northcott said.

“The Internet has made research much, much easier,” Northcott said. “But there’s still vast stores of records that are only available in courthouses and libraries around the country that aren’t yet digitized, and are not likely to be digitized anytime soon just because of the vast scope of all of these records.”

Whether online or in person, genealogy research does take time.

“Modern day birth, marriage and death records, if you go back before 1900 in many states, they simply don’t exist,” Taylor said. “So the very common records that you would have today to identify yourself, your great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents never created. You have to be creative when it comes to finding the records to actually identify what you’re looking for.”

Verifying information also can be difficult, even for professional genealogists.

“It can be very much a painstaking process,” he said. “We try and make sure that we’re verifying facts as many times as we can, though in some cases there’s only one document for us to try to compare against. This is where it’s the advantage of working with a full research team to come up with a solution. And sometimes we have to say ‘it’s possible,’ and then we have to be honest other times and say ‘we just don’t know for sure.’”

There’s no cost to start searching for family records at libraries, courthouses or cemeteries, although some facilities may charge for copies of records, Northcott said. Professional genealogists also can be hired to assist or take on research. But getting started can be as simple as talking to family members, he said.

“The best way to start is to talk to all the relatives and gather the materials they may have — things like scrapbooks or marriage certificates or military discharges,” Northcott said. “You want to find that material that’s within your family first.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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