As immigrant families became Americans, many lost their identities. Within a few generations, descendants had forgotten what brought their ancestors to this country and what paths they took.
Genealogy is the process of uncovering those trails and discovering the origins of people from all walks of life and from all points of the globe who today are Americans.
In the new series "Faces of America," premiering on PBS this week, Henry Louis Gates Jr. asks "What made America? What makes us?" It promises to be a moving and eye-opening experience for genealogists.
The four-part series will air locally on WEDU, Channel 3, at 8 p.m. starting Wednesday and continuing weekly through March 3.
Gates, director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has built a solid reputation with the production of programs such as "African American Lives," "Oprah's Roots" and "Looking for Lincoln."
In this series, Gates steps beyond the black experience to explore the Asian, Hispanic, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Syrian, West Indian and Native American roots of an array of individuals, including chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, cellist Yo Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, former Jordan Queen Noor, actresses Eva Longoria and Meryl Streep, and skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
Gates promises to "reveal in rich detail" what he calls fascinating stories of his guests' ancestors before and after their arrival in the United States.
The first episode, "The Promise of America," focuses on the 20th century. It includes stories of Nichols' family, which escaped from Nazi Germany, and Yamaguchi's Japanese-American ancestors, who were imprisoned by the United States during World War II.
The second episode, "Becoming American," focuses on 1820 to 1924, defined as the "century of immigration." Viewers will meet Colbert's Irish second great-grandfather, who escaped poverty in Limerick; Batali's great-grandfather, who struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana; and Noor's great-grandfather, who settled in New York's Arab-American community after arriving from Syria.
In week three, viewers will see Streep's eighth great-grandfather fight in the Metacom (or King Phillip's) War and how Longoria's ancestors were forced to leave Spain in 1603.
The final installment will place the guest descendants into a "family of man" perspective, combining stories with DNA evidence. One guest will find she is a descendant of Charlemagne; two will learn they are cousins.
During the four-week run, experts will sequence the full human genome of Gates, his father and his brother. Fewer than 20 people in the world have had this expensive study done. Geneticists at the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School will sequence and interpret the 6 billion pairs of genomes. Each guest on the program also will undergo genotyping to trace paternal and maternal lines to learn their percentage of European, Asian, Native American and African ancestry.
All of us genealogists can use a periodic dose of inspiration, and "Faces of America" promises to fulfill that need. I hope the program will reveal the research techniques and documents used to find what sounds like some fascinating roots.
Lecture to cover internet research
Lakewood Ranch professional genealogist Donna Moughty will lecture on "Faster Than Light: Effective Genealogical Research on the Internet" at this month's South Bay Genealogical Society meeting.
The group will meet for lunch at noon Feb. 16 at SouthShore Regional Library, 18516 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin, and the lecture will begin at 1 p.m. Reservations must be made by Wednesday by sending a check for $13 to P.O. Box 5202, Sun City Center FL 33571 and then calling Sally Wepfer at (813) 634-7539 for meal selection.