There is something about the show Who Do You Think You Are? that hits an emotional chord and makes the viewer really connect with the discoveries made by the featured celebrities searching for their ancestors. I guess it’s that history is so much more interesting and affecting when you hear the stories of individual lives. Most of our ancestors have had an impact on history and participated in events we may or may not have read about while in school, but we never knew their names or their stories. That’s why I love genealogy—I might get a chance to uncover some of these untold stories.
This long-form advertisement for ancestry.com had this geneaology geek front and center. I enjoyed the first season, which featured producer Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, whose quest led to the discovery of a family participant in the Salem Witch trials.
I went on my own journey to discover my family’s roots last summer, after I found out that one of my ancestors, Sarah Averill Wildes, was one of the first people tried and hanged as a witch in Salem on July 19, 1692. I came across this unknown bit of family history while searching on ancestry.com. Some interesting stuff can be found on the website if you’re willing to go on a hunt. To access most vital records, ancestry.com is not free, but hiring a professional researcher or genealogist isn’t either.
My grandmother hired a genealogist to help her trace her roots in the ’60s. To become a member of the Colonial Dames she needed to perform extensive family research to prove and document our connection to a Revolution-era ancestor. But she didn’t need to go as far back as the 1690s, so she never found out about this more infamous slice of our history. Parker’s Salem ancestor had like mine been accused of witchcraft, but had a better ending. The court of oyer and terminer was dismissed before she could go to trial, so Parker’s relative escaped execution.
The new and second season of Who Do You Think You Are? started off with Ugly Betty star Vanessa Williams, who wanted to go farther back on her father’s side of the family. What she was able to find was pretty amazing. Luckily for Vanessa, her family lived in the same area of New York for over 100 years, so she was able to start her search in a cemetery which included headstones of many generations. Her great-great-grandfather from Oyster Bay, NY was married to a white woman, which in itself was interesting and unusual for the time, mid-1800s. He had been born a free man, or, as he had written on one of the documents she found, “Never a slave.” He enlisted in the Union Army in 1864 and received a bounty of 300 dollars for serving in the colored regiment, which he immediately invested 200 of to buy land for his family. What is even more lucky is that her search to find out what he did in the Civil War unearthed a tintype photograph. A find like that must have been unbelievably thrilling for her and her family, and also proved that good looks ran in the family.
As if that weren’t enough, she followed another line on her family tree and found that her other great-great-grandfather was a schoolteacher, justice of the peace, and also one of the first black legislators in Tennessee, serving from 1888-89. Another American history lesson for me—from 1888-1965 no more blacks served elected office in Tennessee. As a Civil War/reconstruction backlash, the KKK and Jim Crow laws squeezed out blacks from public life in the early nineteenth century. Williams discovered her forebear’s pioneering and proud history, but also how his strides were almost negated by the not-so-proud history of segregation in the South. Stories like her family’s definitely led to the civil rights movement and Williams’s own triumph as the first black Miss America in 1983.
The show may gloss over all the hard work involved in tracking down one’s ancestors. But it does mange to capture the obsession that grips folks once a connection to the past is made. Vanessa Williams’s episode did show the enormous amount of travel and all the different individuals—archivists, librarians, local government employees—that a person might need to consult to really find out details about their own family tree. All of these people can help a person researching their family and what’s more, would like to, if you’re interested enough to ask. I’ve had an ongoing correspondence with an archivist in Connecticut to help me dig a little deeper into one of our lines; who is always on the lookout for something that might help take me a step further in my search.
So many more of these records are now available via the internet, where before a researcher might have had to travel and book time at a library or archive to wade through roll after roll of microfilm. Ancestry.com is a good place to start on an internet genealogy search. Whether a viewer decides to start digging into their own family’s past or not it’s hard to resist getting hooked on the fascinating stories that are uncovered on Who Do You Think You Are? I’m looking forward to seeing the next show in the series and going on a vicarious journey with Tim McGraw as he searches for answers to questions he has about the past. Who knows what he might turn up and what little bits of history might be learned along the way.