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Who Do You Think You Are?

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Bryan Cranston

Where Did He Go? Finding Ancestors Who Don’t Want to Be Found

A frustrating occurrence in many genealogical research projects is when an ancestor disappears entirely from the records. You have a great line of sources proving your conclusions back to the 1800s, but there’s one person who is holding you back. Maybe he ran away from his family to start a new life or find adventure. Perhaps he died or left for war and never returned. A single missing person can leave a large gap in the family narrative, not only because you’re missing a potentially tantalizing bit of history but also because there could be a plethora of documents from his later life that you’re missing out on.

As Bryan Cranston traced the many dubious men in his ancestry, he discovered just such a fellow: Joseph H. Cranston, his 2nd great-grandfather, was a multifaceted mystery. Not only was his name recorded incorrectly on his son’s death record, but the only record in widely-available Canadian sources seemed to be the record of his son Daniel’s baptism. Otherwise, Joseph was a ghost, leaving his wife destitute and his son in an orphanage.

Dealing with these spectral ancestors can be a tricky proposition, especially when you have so little information to go on. For Bryan’s case, we first scoured all the Canadian records we could find online and in local archives, including the Drouin Collection of Quebec Vital and Church Records on Ancestry. Bryan was also able to see little Daniel Cranston’s baptismal record in the flesh (or in the manuscript) at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal. Luckily, the digital collection is complete enough to save you the airline miles.

Joseph and his wife, Sarah, didn’t appear to have had any other children, nor could we locate their marriage record in Montreal, but there were a handful of baptisms and marriages for other Cranston families, and a few of these were witnessed by Bryan’s ancestral Cranstons.

It was fairly evident that Joseph was related to some of these individuals, so we built as complete a picture of their lives as possible, expecting that it might provide additional information about the nefarious Joseph himself. Censuses, vital records, directories, and obituaries all came into play, painting a much clearer picture of the Canadian and Irish Cranston families, including more details about where they were from, their common occupations, and even the names of their parents.

That allowed us to utilize far broader searches, expanding to multiple countries in our search for Joseph, in the hope that he hadn’t slipped off the map entirely. This round-about investigation eventually brought us to the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Ohio, where we found a record that, when combined with the baptism alone, was not sufficient proof of any connection. Coupled with all of the evidence gathered about Joseph’s relatives, however, it became very clear that we had located Bryan’s wayward ancestor. Searches in newspapers and military records filled in much of the rest of the story, one that proved to be not much different than the skeletons Bryan had unearthed in an earlier generation.

Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists

This process doesn’t apply only to ancestors who abandoned their family; it’s useful across a series of genealogical dilemmas and in many countries.

  1. When you are lacking information about a particular ancestor, try to build a broader picture of potential families they might belong to, even if it requires you to make some leaps in logic. You’ll never know if you are right until you do the research, but be careful not to add it to your tree until you are certain.
  2. Explore the Ancestry catalog for underutilized sources; don’t stick with just those that appear at the top of your search results. There are thousands of record types that might be of use to you, and you’ll only see a fraction of those if you don’t broaden your searches.
  3. Pay attention to every detail in a record—occupation, witnesses, informants, and so on. Even something small might eventually crack your case.


Learn more about Bryan's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.

Research Manager on Project:

Michael Miller

Project Hours:


Michael has a master's degree in history from California State University Long Beach and a bachelor's degree in classics. He comes from a long line of genealogists, and he has done research for over two decades.


Before joining ProGen, he was a researcher and associate producer for Who Do You Think You Are?, helping to uncover amazing stories in the ancestry of celebrities. Today, his areas of expertise include U.S. research, modern and 19th century history, mysterious ancestors, and DNA and adoption cases.