Category Archives: Genealogy on TV

Nitpicker’s Guide to Finding Your Roots – Sanders/David

I’ve never nitpicked Finding Your Roots before, the TV show hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, but watching the episode about Bernie Sanders and Larry David, I have to make some comments. And they’re longer than Twitter can hold.

Because the show goes back and forth between the two, I’m going to not do that since it gets confusing without the full episode and the video.

Larry David

Beginning with Larry David, when looking for the origins of the family beyond Brooklyn, Gates said “We were completely stumped… We didn’t even know where to start looking… One of our researchers noticed a tiny little thing.”

Hey Skip, that tiny little thing is a big flag in Jewish genealogy. Every good Jewish genealogist knows to look for the place of origin for a US immigrant on the naturalization. Other good sources include the ship list and the SS-5.

Larry didn’t even know his mother was born in Europe? Interesting.

Also, Blume is not pronounced the way it was on the show, nor was Regina or Leib. Skip, do you want a Jewish genealogist to consult with you? I’m available. ;-)

They believed that Larry’s grandfather, of the ten siblings, was the only one who immigrated to the US. I assume they looked? They didn’t say why they believed that.

They found a lot of records at Yad Vashem for the surnames in his family. Did they try to track down the survivors and find living relatives? I remember asking that for a UK episode of WDYTYA many years ago. I love when they do distant cousins reunions on the show.

Gates really needs some help in pronouncing Jewish names. The synagogue name in Alabama was said completely wrong.

Only about 3000 Jewish men fought for the confederacy. That statement needed qualifying. How many fought for the union? How many lived in the US at the time? Without additional information, that number alone doesn’t say much.

Larry’s reaction to learning his ancestor was a slave owner was outrageous to watch. Well, he did fight for the confederacy, Larry.

Bernie Sanders

And now for Bernie Sanders. They spent some time finding things on his father’s side that are not easily available, so some of it was interesting in that it added to what I was able to find.

They stated that Elias Sanders arrived in the US at the age of 16. The ship list clearly showed he was 17. They covered that part of the page with his photo in the video. They did have the right ship list, but didn’t highlight him on the page showing that he arrived as Eliasz Gutman, or why that was his name.

Actually, there were two ship lists that listed Eliasz Gutman and I found both. One was the year before, showing him as 16, but that wasn’t Elias on the ship. It was his brother Henry. They showed the correct one for Elias. Did they not get that part and thought he travelled himself on both ships? Then why did they show the page for the second one? Was it because he was at the top of the page on that one so it looked better? I don’t know what to make of that now.

Henry was still talking about the Sanders side of the family, but showed a photo labeled Radzyn. That was his mother’s side. I wonder where they found the picture that Bernie had never seen before of his Sanders family, including his uncle.

After learning his uncle was killed by the Nazis, why would the book include a picture of the man who had him killed? I wouldn’t want that in my fancy family book.

I was impressed that they were able to trace all the way back to Hersz and Kayla Mlynarz, as well as the Apeloig family that they didn’t feature on the show but I saw it on the tree. No online trees went beyond Frejda Mindla Mlynarz, even though at least one had that name on it. And that was also why I wanted my blog post to go out before this aired; I didn’t want to seem like I got any of the research from the show. They did find some things I didn’t for the Sanders side, and they obviously researched the history whereas I just did the genealogy.


Then they looked at the percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA each man had. How did they calculate that? When I first tested, I was told I was 85% Jewish. Now, I’m 96%. My DNA didn’t change. The DNA isn’t labelled. Having Jewish DNA is self-reported. My DNA matches 96% that the specific company has deduced matches other Jews. It doesn’t mean I have 4% that is not Jewish. It just means that 4% hasn’t been determined to be Jewish yet. I was not impressed by this part of the show.

And exactly how much did Bernie and Larry match their DNA? Does Gates know that almost all Ashkenazi Jews appear to be distant cousins via their DNA? Since they don’t go into details, I can only guess it was the same kind of insignificant amounts that I match almost every other Jewish genealogist I know. But yes, I’d believe that two Ashkenazi Jewish men were distant cousins. I’d also believe that I may match both of them just as distantly.


Both men’s family trees extended back to 18th century Europe and “then disappear”. No, they don’t actually disappear. The Jewish records run out. Did they search the Catholic records to go back further? Did they even know that earlier Jewish Polish records can often be found in the Catholic records? Radzyn has Catholic records. I just didn’t have the time to go through them. I may have been able to go back a little bit farther if I had. I do less German research, so I couldn’t say more about that.

I loved all the bits of history that were told during the course of the episode. This is also the reason why I like Who Do You Think You Are? And I like that this history applied to my family in this episode. Somehow the Jewish episodes of WDYTYA, at least lately, don’t cover the European Jewish history even when they have someone Jewish on the show. As much as I like learning about the Civil War, the American Revolution, and the royal families of Europe, I prefer the history that applies to my own family.

I don’t know why I haven’t watched every episode of Finding Your Roots over the years. No wait, maybe I do. I think the DNA analysis often bothers me. I remember, I believe it was the first season, when they specifically compared a Jew and an Arab and then decided the bible was true somehow from that. OK, I need to put that aside and watch this show more often because I definitely enjoyed this episode.

And to finish up, I will again share the photo taken at the IAJGS Conference this summer in Orlando. Henry Gates was the keynote speaker at the banquet and his presentation was terrific. This picture was taken at a private reception just before the banquet.

Blurry me and Henry Gates
Blurry me and Henry Gates

And Skip, I was serious earlier. I’m available for consulting when you need a Jewish genealogist to help. :-)

WDYTYA – 6×04 – Sean Hayes – The Nitpicker’s Version

The intro for Sean Hayes’s episode of WDYTYA interestingly skipped over the TV show he starred in recently, “Sean Saves the World”, which I watched. Oh well. He didn’t know anything about his father, having left when Sean was five years old.

He knew that his father was an orphan, so did his father know his own family history? If Sean was so interested in his father’s history, why not try to reach out to him?

His brother mailed some information about what he knew, which wasn’t very much, and some photos that he got from his father. Did he get those more recently or back when he was a kid?


And suddenly they went to Ancestry, seemingly at random. Conveniently, the 1940 Census came up as the first result. The search engine is weighted to show those results first. Was someone off camera telling him to look at more? Look at the image, look at the columns on the right, these are the kinds of things that new genealogists don’t know to look at.


With the 1940 Census listing in Chicago, Sean went there. At the Chicago History Museum, he met historian Mark Largent. The first document, which I was hoping for, was the death certificate for his grandfather. With those indexed by Cook County, unless he died elsewhere, it should have been easy to find. Sean read the age and calculated when he died, but it said so right on the certificate.

“If I go back to my makeshift little timeline…” Sean was keeping notes. And they were awesome.

Check out the timeline drawing in Sean’s notes.


Sean asked about the address where is grandfather lived, and the hospital in which he died. And the historian knew all the answers. How do you find out what kind of neighborhood an address was in? I mark the address, sometimes check it on a map, but I’ve never tried to understand the neighborhood.

Sean was also very interested in the fact that his father left the family about the same time his grandfather left the family. Did he ask questions about why he left? Maybe they didn’t know that. I wonder if they had to guide him to some of the questions that they were prepared to answer. It seemed that way to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with coaching the celebrity to ask the right questions.

“Wow, this is hard to read.” Finally, they admit that. But then asking if William’s father was still alive when there was an address given…

At the Circuit Court, historian Dr Margaret Garb recommended checking Ancestry to continue to an earlier census. To me, that was obvious. In fact, I would have done that first, but the show doesn’t go in order of how someone does the research.

The census verified that his great-grandfather was the immigrant of the family, though he had already said that. Was he assuming that or is something out of order or skipped over in the episode?

Sean kept reading and saw that naturalization said “no”. Margaret corrected him that Patrick was naturalized and conveniently the papers were right in the building. That’s actually a good point about teaching what the records mean. Someone who doesn’t know what they are supposed to say wouldn’t know.


Sean looked through the microfilm of the index cards, and boy did they look bad.

“So the date might not be quite right. The census is often not accurate.” Another good lesson on comparing immigration dates on the census to the actual immigration dates.

And then he found the papers in the original book. I have seen those on microfilm so many times. I hope he checked the other pages after reading the Declaration. What about the Petition? Were any of the kids listed on it? Was there a Certificate of Arrival verifying the ship information? Don’t pretend to teach a little about genealogy research and then skip the important stuff. Teach people to look at everything, turn the page, make sure you’re not missing some bit of genealogy gold on the back side.

The Declaration that Sean read was from 1918, so he had plenty of time to get married and start a family after his 1901 arrival.


Sent to Ireland to learn more about Patrick, he met historian Dr Shane Kilcommins at the National Archives of Ireland. The 1901 Census was waiting for him, with Patrick living in a prison. The census oddly listed only initials. I’ve seen US censuses with full names, but I guess that’s the way it is there. I haven’t done much Irish research.

The next book required gloves, and was placed on a pillow. (I loved the pillow. I think we’ve seen that before in another episode.) An earlier book showed another incarceration, with another Hayes. I like that Sean noticed that. I remember other episodes where they didn’t acknowledge anything else on the page, and sometimes there were records for the same surnames.

“I’m going to be standing in the exact spot that my great-grandfather stood when he got sentenced. It’s a very proud moment!” I love Sean’s enthusiasm.

Shane was there to guide him at the Tarbert court house as well.

“It’s a weird thing to get excited about.” No Sean, it’s not. It doesn’t matter what your ancestors did, you can be excited just to learn about it.

In more records, Sean learned that the two men were brothers who assaulted their own father.

A list of infractions for Patrick Sr was very long. A ten year gap of law-abiding suggested to me he may have spent some time in prison, but no one came up with that on the show. The next record showed that his wife died at the point the infractions began again. But what happened during those ten years? Was he really a good family man during that time as Sean said? That’s where they leave it off in the episode.

To the Ancestral Town

At the end of the records, Sean headed to Ballylongford to see where the family came from.

“To get any knowledge about your ancestry is a gift.”


I loved Sean’s enthusiasm about standing where his ancestors stood when they were in court for assault charges. He showed a great interest in his family. There were a few conclusions made without evidence shown in the episode. In one such case, Sean mentioned the brothers, then corrected himself saying they hadn’t proved they were brothers, which was a good catch.

Seeing Sean’s notes was fantastic, and that he wrote it out in a timeline. Showing him looking through the microfilm index to find the records was good, WDYTYA trying to sneak in a little genealogy teaching, but not showing the records that search led to left me a little empty. They never did look for his ship list or information about his family in the US. When did he marry Jennie and have the kids? The Irish research suggested that happened in the US, but it was never mentioned. Since the Declaration was so long after his arrival, it was likely.

I really would like to see the teaching side improve even more, though I’m glad they now include it. There’s still the matter of how many hours it takes to really find all of the information they present, leaving some watchers probably thinking it’s easier than it is. (But that’s Ancestry’s thing: type in your name and your whole tree magically appears. Right?) And I wonder if they’ll ever mention that you don’t have to travel all over the world to find the records of your ancestors. Although, the travelling part is fun.

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WDYTYA – 6×03 – Angie Harmon – The Nitpicker’s Version

I thought I’d finally get to watch an episode as it aired on TV, visiting a friend in Arizona, but her cable company was incapable of providing a live TV feed. So I didn’t watch most of the Angie Harmon episode until after I got home.

They started with photos sent by her father, which she shared with her daughters.

Starting Close to Home

She started by meeting with genealogist Joseph Shumway at the Charlotte Museum of History. I was right in my previous review about them trying to teach along the way, when Joseph told Angie that he used “vital records, census, immigration, land records…” to find more information. But just listing record types doesn’t seem like enough for me. They still go right to Ancestry with the finished tree, or rather, a single branch of the tree, because they don’t have it filled in, nor do they specify what records told them what.

And then they go right back to her 5xgreat-grandfather with no information in between. Also again, as with Josh Groban, she never guessed she’d be German.

He did have her to click on a source document, so that was a little better than randomly listing record types. Again, we saw an index of a ship list, or rather another book that listed a name.

“Spelling was quite fluid in the records because a lot of it was phonetic.” OK, this was a good genealogy lesson included in the episode.

He sent her to Philadelphia to see the original source material.

To Philadelphia

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, historian James Horn shared the book of servants and apprentices. They met in a very large room with no other people in sight. I haven’t noticed that in an episode in a while. They must either close the building or film in off hours.

She somehow knew the date that her ancestor arrived, even though that was not shown in the episode. The source on the computer showed a page number but no date. There was obviously more shared with her that we didn’t see.

Angie learned that her ancestor was an indentured servant, for five years and seven months.

Back to the computer, they went to Fold3, also owned by Ancestry, where they looked at his Revolutionary War records.

Her next visit was with R Scott Stephenson at the Free Library to find more about her ancestor’s time in the army, where she saw a pay stub for him, which placed him at Valley Forge. They visited the reconstructed barracks at Valley Forge together.

The State Archives

Her next stop was at the State Archive to meet West Point historian Major Sean Sculley. Her ability to read the old record was impressive, as she read an old handwritten letter with lots of bleed-through about the mutiny of her ancestor’s regiment.

A couple documents later, she saw a book that showed he served from 1777 to 1781, so he took the deal offered that they spoke about and left the army. But there were other entries on the page with no dates. What was that about?

I like how he sent her to Kentucky by saying, “You have taken me as far as my expertise can go.” That was a great way to point out that every researcher they meet doesn’t know everything.

To Kentucky

In the Harrodsburg Historical Society, historian Amalie Preston shared his will, where Angie learned that he had seven children, and then sent her to see the land that he owned. And he achieved all that without learning how to read and write.

The episode ended with her visit to the land, after he daughters joined her, where she met her fifth cousin once removed, still living on the land.


I think the ending of this episode was the best part. The surprise of finding a cousin still living on the same land that she just read about in the will was great. I didn’t see that coming, except for the split second before he introduced himself.

Once again, we skip over generations of family, and alternate branches, to find the one that we see in the episode. I’m glad they didn’t go to Germany again, only because we just did that in the last episode. And I always want to know about everyone else as well. Do the genealogists who work on the show stop when they find the interesting story or do they try to fill in the whole tree? Have they ever found additional interesting stories and had to choose which one to air?

WDYTYA – 6×02 – Josh Groban – The Nitpicker’s Version

The second episode of Who Do You think You Are? this season featured Josh Groban.

Starting With The Family

This episode started with a visit with his parents and brother. In his monologue interview, he mentioned that both his parents were only children, so the family tree “just doesn’t come up in conversation”. Sorry Josh, I don’t think that’s how that works. Either someone in the family wants to talk about the family, or someone wants to hear about it. Otherwise, no one talks about their genealogy. Even so, he said his father’s side had a documented tree.

As he was leaving the house, they showed the laptop open on the table, but not what they were doing with it. I guess they saved their first Ancestry commercial for a little later in the episode.

Josh did leave the house carrying a notebook. I always like when we see the celebrity taking their own notes rather than just going where the episode takes them. I spotted that same notebook in several other scenes as well.

Check the Finished Tree First

Josh met with genealogist Kyle Betit at the LA Public Library. Kyle mentioned to Josh that he “used records like wills and deeds and newspapers” to construct the tree. Is this an attempt at WDYTYA to teach how they do the research? I don’t think it was successful.

Looking up his mother’s side of the family, her mother was Dorothy Blumberg. As a Jewish genealogist, obviously this branch sounded more my style. But alas, Dorothy was completely ignored in the episode. A little further back, the tree switched to the female line again, to Zimmerman, which can be Jewish but isn’t always. In this case, it was definitely not Jewish.

And once we get a few generations, the tree goes straight back on the Zimmerman line, showing only the male ancestors on that line. But there are so many more people involved to get to Josh from his 7xgreat-grandfather.

When Was He Born?

Showing the date of “before 1694″ for his birth bothered me, especially with the source being a ship list. I haven’t worked in ship lists that far back. Did they not list ages? But then we saw that the source was a compiled book, not the ship list itself, and the children were not even listed individually. So, while they were only showing research up to a point, with the unknown birth date, they’d really already gone past that just to find a mention of his arrival where he’s not specifically mentioned.

They actually showed two different paragraphs from the book. Josh was reading from one, and they flashed to a completely different part in the middle of the scene.

Josh’s ability to pronounce the location names in German was also surprising.

Off To Germany

In Stuttgart at the Wurttemberg State Archive, Josh met archivist Prof. Dr. Peter Ruckert. Again, it’s kind of remarkable that Josh could read some of the old handwriting. I work with this stuff reasonably often and I have a hard time reading it. Were some of those names and dates pointed out to him or did he really find them on his own?

Back To School

At the University of Tubingen, he met head archivist Beate Martin. This was where Josh learned that his ancestor not only studied theology, but also taught music. No wonder the episode focused on this ancestor.

Soon, Josh learned his ancestor was writing books about astronomy.

To Church

Off to Bietigheim, Josh headed for the church where his ancestor was a deacon. Historian Dr. Jonathan Clark had a few more records. Josh was already anticipating that something had to happen to make him leave Germany, and the first document, a letter written by his ancestor, was the first clue.

With the book where he used a pen name, he seemed to believe that the church would fall. It seemed odd that he would want to keep his job with the church anyway. “He was crazy,” Josh determined.

Then The Church Archive

He met with historian Dr. Jan Stievermann at the Archive of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Josh’s first question was exactly what I was thinking — why would he want to stay with the church with what his beliefs had become?

Interestingly, the year he prophecized about the churches falling was the year he died. Maybe he was reading the stars wrong?


We saw some interesting documents in this episode. Normally, genealogy is done with censuses and vital records first, then we try to find more information in between those events. In this show, we saw a single marriage record, then many other types of documents including school records, letters, and books authored by the ancestor. I wish I had access to those kinds of records for my ancestors.

Except for the skipping of so many generations at the beginning, I liked that the story followed Josh’s ancestor who was a musician. I wonder how much time they spent on everyone else in the family in order to find that one musician in his ancestry.

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WDYTYA – 6×01 – Julie Chen – The Nitpicker’s Version

It’s time for another season of Who Do You Think You Are? and this time, the season didn’t begin during an IAJGS conference, which means, I have a chance to keep up.

The season began with Julie Chen.

They Always Start with Ancestry

Instead of visiting and talking with family on screen, her mother and sister put the family tree on Ancestry and Julie visited that. She focused on her grandfather, Lou Gaw Tong, and noticed that he had six wives, with one completely unknown. That part of his history was never revisited in the rest of the episode. It makes me wonder why they focused on it at the beginning.

Was this their way of saying that you don’t always find the specific family history answers you’re looking for without actually saying that, but just forgetting about it?

Off to Asia

With both of her parents US immigrants, Julie immediately headed to Singapore, where her grandfather died. Meeting the first historian, she walked in completely empty-handed. I was starting to like watching the celebrities carrying around their notebooks.

Upon finding the Chinese language obituary, Julie quickly admitted that she can’t read and write Chinese, but earlier said that Mandarin was her first language. So she learned to speak but not read or write? They didn’t say. She had a translator throughout the episode, but she did speak in Chinese sometimes. Maybe she was just out of practice?

Julie became fixated on the “improper childhood” mentioned in the obituary for her grandfather and asked everyone else about it in the episode. Maybe it was at this time that she forgot about the six wives that interested her before.

Her next documents presented a bit of history that World War II began in China in 1937 after the Japanese invaded. At this point, they did their only history lesson sidebar for the whole episode. I think this episode could have used more. I can’t be the only person who knows nothing about Chinese history or culture.

To The Ancestral Home, in China

Julie was able to visit the Anshan School, which her grandfather and his brother were the founders of in 1937. She then met her cousin, who lived in the same house that her grandfather had.

After the commercial break, the camera panned back to Julie’s cousin, who was subtitled as a “distant cousin”. I didn’t realize a first cousin once removed was considered distant. I don’t consider my second cousins to be very distant, but I am a genealogist.

Another Archive

At the Anxi County Records Office, Julie got to see the Anxi Gazetteer. At the school, she read from the Anxi County Gazetteer. Were those different books? They had different information.

Visiting the Gravesite

I think this episode had the most unusual gravesite visit, which required a hike to a solitary grave. Again, there were Chinese rituals involved that I didn’t feel like they explained. Also, they hiked with more of her relatives but they showed no interaction between them and her. Is that a Chinese cultural thing or did they just not show it?

I felt like they should have explained the location better, or at least sooner. Luckily Julie asked and we learned something about why it was there. Also, how is anyone supposed to know who’s buried somewhere if they put a different name on the stone? How often does a group of people hike up to the site and follow those rituals? Did they pick up all those little pieces of paper from the ground before leaving?

Final Thoughts

This episode was the most foreign to me of the series. I could have gone for more of those history lessons since it only had one. I’d also like more of the cultural stuff to be explained, but they skipped over that too.

It seemed to me like Julie had no interest in meeting her cousins, since she did meet a few. I hope that it just didn’t make it into the episode. How can someone not be excited to meet a cousin they never knew existed? I’ve met plenty and, as a matter of fact, I’m going to meet some new ones this week.

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Don’t Believe Everything You See On TV

I’m watching Genealogy Roadshow online since I missed it on TV. Every now and then, I try to look up the documents they have found, or the ones they skipped over.

The New Orleans episode followed the story of Charles Montaldo, who the family thought had gone to Alaska.

They showed him in the 1880 census in New Orleans, with wife Bridget and children, and I was able to find the listing easily.

The family believed he went to Alaska, but the researchers were certain he wasn’t in Alaska.

Instead, he went to Sacramento in 1880. Next they found him in Albuquerque in 1882. The next record was the 1910 census, with a different wife, Ida, allegedly married for 20 years, in Reno. They then found an article that he died in 1910.

The thing is, the 1880 census said he was born in Tennessee and his parents were born in Louisiana. The 1910 said he was born in Kentucky, father born in Italy, mother born in Louisiana. Are they sure it’s the same person?*

But what happened to the 1900 census that they skipped over? Searching online, I found only three listings for Charles Montaldo. Two were in Louisiana, one was clearly his son, the other did not match his age.

The third? Nome, Alaska.



No other details are listed for him beyond his name, but it is the only possibility that presented itself and matches the family’s story. It’s an unusual census page that appears to have just copied a ship list, clearly stating in the address column “Passenger List” for the steamer Aberdeen of Seattle. The column immediately after his name is for “Date of Locating in Alaska”, which says June 1900. The date of enumeration was 12 June 1900.

* Trying to find this census on FamilySearch so I could link to the page (which they don’t seem to have), I came across the 1870 census that says he’s born in Kentucky. So there’s that, to go with the 1910 census find from the show. Did those borders move or was he from near the border?

WDYTYA – 3×07 – Rita Wilson – The Nitpicker’s Version

Rita Wilson’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was full of surprises. She knew that both parents were born in Greece and that her father had gone to Bulgaria at some point. Commercials and previews suggested plenty of surprises in store for her on her journey.

This was another episode that focused mainly on a single person in someone’s ancestry. Unlike the first WDYTYA episode that did this, the others have been met with more enthusiasm and received more praise from genealogists, including this one.

Not Much To Discuss With The Family

While Rita was shown visiting with her family, they only showed one quick part where she was discussing her father with them. Instead they focused on what she already knew and the beginning of the research.

In typical fashion, she knew more about her mother’s side of the family than her father’s. There always seems to be one parent who doesn’t discuss the family history, which makes it that much more of a mystery that needs to be solved. From birth until age 20 when he arrived in the US, her father’s life history was sketchy and incomplete.

Rita explained that when she thought of family history, she though of grandparents and further back in time, but in this case, she had more recent past to uncover. She knew his original name of Assan Halil Ibrahimoff and searched Ancestry on her iPad. She ended up in the Ibrahimoff Family Tree and found his marriage certificate from 1951. Pausing the video, I noticed that they had blurred her mother’s maiden name in every shot.

As an extra note, when I search the site now, that tree doesn’t show up, but Assan does show up in the Hanks family tree. After all, Ancestry doesn’t have scans of 1951 New York marriage records, so it had to be put there for her to find. Since it’s no longer there, I have a feeling it was created just for the episode.

Reading from the record, Rita noted that it was the first marriage for both and that her father was born in Oreon, Xanthe, Greece.

Oraio, Greece

Onward to places that I’d likely mispronounce, Rita went to her father’s birth place to learn more. Rita recalled a driving trip with her brother and parents in 1972 where they may have driven by the village, but she didn’t remember it.

As she walked down the street to meet her guide and translator, Deniz Hacihalil, Rita’s voiceover mentioned that she was meeting someone who had “done a little research for me”. Yeah, for precision in voiceovers. Arriving at the house where her father was born, she was already getting emotional. It was an interesting tour, as the house was used for storage and apparently to dry tobacco leaves.

The next stop was to meet her father’s cousins. They shared a picture of her grandfather and had trouble confirming the next part of the story, of who went to Bulgaria and when.

North to Smolyan, Bulgaria

At the Smolyan Municipality, Rita met with historian Dr. Vania Stoyanova to learn more. Vania had a family register for 1927-1934.

The Cyrillic was tricky to read but listed Halil Halilov Ibrahimov born 1876, Halil 1929, Faik 1930, Isen 1906, Fatna Isenov 1908, Ferhad 1919, Hasan 1921, Habiye 1927. There was at least one more name on the page but I couldn’t see it. Vania skipped over what looked to me like Fatna, who it appears was Isen’s wife. Rita recapped what she knew, still stating that he was born in 1920 instead of 1921 as it showed on this record and on Ancestry. They cut to the chart and used some strange spellings for some of them. What standards are they using to transliterate the Cyrillic? Also, I think the showing the name as Rabiye was wrong, as it looked like an X which has been transliterated to an H in this episode, and it sounded like Vania pronounced that letter also.

The next record she had was a military record in 1941. The history lesson was shocking, that he was drafted by the Bulgarian army to occupy Xanthi, his homeland. Rita asked how long he was in the army, and Vania was ready with the next document, a letter stating that Hassan was sentenced to 3 years and 8 months in prison. The document of his parole revealed that he was made an example for a minor crime, and was pardoned after 2 years, 1 month, and 10 days in Plovdiv prison.

The next volume of the family register in Smolyan, he was listed and crossed off after returning to Plovdiv in 1945.

Driving to her next destination, in a voiceover, Rita asked Vania if she could find any of her father’s living relatives still alive in Smolyan. In this case, I will excuse the assumption that nothing was done ahead of time. I’m sure they went ahead and did that long before Rita arrived, but it’s entirely likely that she really did ask.

Confused by the time spent in prison and knowing that her father said he’d spent time in a labor camp, she wondered whether his story was really true.

Farther North To Plovdiv

At the Plovdiv Municipality, ethnographer Meglena Zlatkova was “asked to do some research”. This episode started out with a more honest voiceover, but they’ve gone downhill since. Maybe I should stop nitpicking all of these comments, since they are always the same. I’ll just point out the rare, completely true ones.

Meglena had the census for her father, which listed Alis, born in 1929, his wife. This revelation was a shock for Rita. If she could read Cyrillic and understood the records, she might have noticed where something (likely, the word married) was crossed off and said vdovetz, which means widower, and the third listing of a son, Emil, born in 1945.

“Do we know when he married her? …Are you going to tell me the whole story?” Rita started to ask more questions, but realized Meglena was reaching for more books.

The marriage certificate came with a translation for her to read, where they Americanized the spelling of her name to Alice. They were married 26 October 1945, which was Rita’s birthday.

“I can only imagine what’s coming next.” I wonder what she was imagining. Had she noticed the third listing on the census page?

The next document also came with a translation, a birth certificate for Emil, born 26 December 1945. From this document, we got more details that were not read aloud when they showed the entire page. Alice was born Armenian, religion Gregorian, and 16 years old. It stated that Hassan was a stoker, of nationality Bulgarian (not Greek?), religion Muslim (which Rita had stated earlier), and 24 years old.

Rita asked if she was still alive. After the break, the next document was the death record for Alice on 29 December 1945. One last document showed the death of Emil on 1 April 1946.

Five years later, Hassan was in the US and married again. Rita was still on a quest for those missing five years to find out if there ever really was a work camp. Meglena suggested she go to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

The Secret Files Commission

I love how Rita introduced the building like she was saying the name within quotes. She met Dr. Daniela Koleva there to learn more.

“If we turn to his secret file…”, Daniela began. I wonder if that’s where I have to find information on some of my people.

At this point, Rita learned that her father was in a labor camp, and that wasn’t just a euphemism for his earlier prison term. By the document Rita read aloud, Hassan lived a wild life, which was not to be tolerated by the communist government. Another document stated that Hassan became friends with the Secretary of the Turkish Consulate in Plovdiv, who arranged for him to escape to Turkey. He got as far as the border before being caught, detained, and then sent to the labor camp for trying to leave the country. He ended up in two different labor camps before escaping. They had also found the report from the guard when her father escaped. Was it also in his secret file? Probably. I loved Rita’s excitement to read how her father escaped.

Hassan became an enemy of the state and was still listed as such in a book from 1973.

Back to Smolyan, Rita met her father’s half brother, 96 years old, who was still living there. Just to add another surprise, Ferhad found himself in the same labor camp as Hassan, and explained that he couldn’t leave with her father because he had a family. He also had a letter that had been kept for years, written by Hassan in 1950, the year after he arrived in the US. In the letter, he mentioned that he was a stoker on the ship, which was also listed as his profession on Emil’s birth certificate.

An earlier document showed that Ferhad was born two years before Hassan, but there was almost no mention of the previous generation, explaining that their father was married twice or why.

The Family Reunion Grows

To end the episode with sharing the journey with family, her brother, Chris, flew to Bulgaria to meet Ferhad and learn about her journey.


I thought it was funny how Rita kept trying ask questions just as each person she met with was handing her the documents with the answers. I guess it showed that she was asking the right questions as she went, because that was what was researched.

I know that Ancestry is the sponsor of the show, and they get quite a few commercials, but do they really have to fake information just to inject themselves into every episode? That kind of perpetuates the false idea that everything is online. According to the show, you start at Ancestry and find something, then travel the world to learn the rest. I have no problem with them searching on Ancestry to find the census records and all the other documents they have, because they do have a lot, but I don’t like when a family tree is placed online just for the celebrity to find something, like a 1951 New York marriage certificate. That is not on Ancestry; it’s not even indexed by ItalianGen.

Genealogy research is about the details. I just want this show to be more honest in the details too.

This is the seventh article in the Who Do You Think You Are?Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei
  3. Blair Underwood
  4. Reba McEntire
  5. Jerome Bettis
  6. Helen Hunt

The URL for this article is×07-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×06 – Helen Hunt – The Nitpicker’s Version

I fell farther behind than I thought in these blog posts about Who Do You Think You Are? but I am determined to catch up. Helen Hunt began the show scrapbooking for her daughter, to preserve their history. She wanted to know more about her father’s side of the family, where she heard they had European Jewish roots.

Online, some people were discussing how we were back to an episode where she wasn’t doing the research herself and she wasn’t showing much enthusiasm. Just before watching this episode, I saw a TED Talk about introversion, so I immediately connected the two. It’s probably unusual for a celebrity to be an introvert, but that was the impression I got because of the proximity of the two videos. As for not appearing to do the research herself, if everyone wanted to or could do the research, then the show wouldn’t exist because there wouldn’t be professionals to do the work for them. As much as I like seeing the celebrities doing some of the research themselves, we know that it was done before they got there anyway. Not all will have the desire or the ability to do their own research, and I’m OK with that.

Looking for Family Clues

Helen started by visiting her father, Gordon Hunt, where they looked at photos. They knew the family surname that had been changed but didn’t know when or why it happened. They also wanted to know where the family got its money, knowing that they lived in a hotel in Pasadena. Helen started her search in Pasadena where her great-grandmother had lived.

Marc Dollinger met her at the former Green Hotel. They began with the 1900 census on Ancestry, searching for Florence Rothenberg, her great-grandmother, finding that she had four children and four servants. Knowing the name was changed to Roberts later, it was curious that they didn’t note in the episode that the family listed after them had the name Roberts. Maybe that neighbor influenced their choice of surname later?

Marc also had the death certificate for Gustav, Florence’s husband as listed in the census, from December 1900. She wondered when Florence moved to Pasadena, and did a search in 1910 in Pasadena, again finding Florence and the four children. There was no mention of the missing list of servants.

Moving forward to 1920, they did not find her in Pasadena. Helen suspected that the name had been changed in that decade, searched for it, and found the family again with the name Roberts. I like that they went one census after another logically like they should, but why didn’t they continue to 1930? Maybe it didn’t make the episode cut.

Another document shown was the death certificate of Florence in 1949, which had her father’s name, William Scholle. There was no mention of the fact that her mother was listed as unknown.

With more research, they found an 1845 passenger ship list for him, listed as Wolf Scholy. In 1853, a New York business directory listed William and Abraham Scholle with a clothing business on Bowery Street, but it showed William in San Francisco. Marc pointed out that Abraham was William’s older brother. There was evidence of half of this right on the page, showing the listing for Abraham, then William, then Scholle & Brother clothing at the same address as the first two. We have to assume they did more research to determine that Abraham was the older brother.

Northward to San Francisco

Finding William in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Helen went north to learn more about how he was involved.

At the San Francisco Public Library, she met historian Stephen Aron. Stephen had the 1852 census for California listing William. A newspaper excerpt from 1855 listed Scholle Brothers receiving a significant amount of cargo. Another page listed brothers Jacob and William. They did not specify whether Jacob was older, but he was listed first.

In the 1870 census, William Scholle was listed as a grain merchant, which they didn’t mention. So he went from clothing to grain? He was listed with his wife Rose, five children, and three domestic servants. He also had a series of photographs of the family, but never explained where they came from.

One last newspaper page from 1874, bound in a large book, had a list of millionaires living in San Francisco, which listed both William and Jacob Scholle.

Helen next met with author Frances Dinkelspiel at the old San Francisco Mint. Frances had researched her own family, finding that her ancestor was business partners with William, and that together they invested in the failing Nevada Bank, which eventually merged with and became Wells Fargo.

No Ocean Crossing

Helen had an unusually early Jewish history in America. The majority of Jewish immigration came through Ellis Island and those years, whereas her ancestor arrived more than 50 years before the largest wave of Jewish immigration. It was interesting to see that kind of “alternative” history to what’s usual, but they didn’t go any further into it. Most Jewish American research quickly jumps the pond and looks for the origins in Europe. I think I was hoping for or expecting that. Instead, Helen switched to the other side of the Hunt family. Or possibly, they found nothing more TV-worthy, or found nothing more on that family in Europe.

Changing Directions

Knowing her great-great-grandfather George Hunt was from Portland, Maine, Helen went there to investigate. She met with historian Herb Adams at a pub. George was a sugar importer and lumber exporter. Herb found an article with a biography of George and information about his business, then he shared an obituary with a lot of family information. He then moved the research direction to George’s wife, Augusta, who was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, among other things.

At the Neal Dow House, the headquarters for the Maine branch of the WCTU, Helen met historian Carol Mattingly. More information about the organization and the history was revealed and more photos of the family were produced. Helen also pointed out, mentioned early in the episode, that her grandmother was killed by a drunk driver; the wife of Augusta’s grandson.

At the Maine Historical Society, historian Dr. Shannon M. Risk began by sharing a biography about Augusta. Helen read that under Augusta’s leadership the WCTU offered day care, free kindergarten, brought female guards to coed prisons, got women elected to school boards, and gave women equal guardianship of their children with the father, all before women were even allowed to vote. While women’s suffrage did not pass in Maine in 1917, the 19th amendment did pass in 1920. After all her struggle she lived to see real change.

“Did she live to vote?” Helen asked, to which Shannon brought out the voter registration book from 1920. Helen began to look and didn’t find Augusta, asking if she was looking in the right place. This was the only time in the episode that she searched in the records herself. After a commercial break and finally finding the right district, the listing for Augusta M. Hunt was found. Two other Hunts were listed, Ella and Sarah E., but they were not mentioned.

One last newspaper article about Augusta celebrating her 90th birthday also mentioned that she was the first woman in the area to vote.

Out at the cemetery, Helen did a rubbing of the gravestone for George and Augusta, his death in 1896 and hers in 1932.


I didn’t comment on each voiceover in this episode as I sometimes do, but again they adjusted the truth with Helen saying that she asked several of the experts to do research for her. I guess in a way she had, as she agreed to do the episode, thus asking for them to research. Many voiceovers included a comment that the previous person suggested the next expert that she should speak to, which I believe.

As usual, a lot of genealogy documents were not shown in the episode. With Augusta living until 1932, she should have been searched for in the census right up to 1930, but the census was never consulted for that family. Back to the first half and the Scholle family, they specified which was the older brother of William and Abraham, but never mentioned where Jacob fit in. Had they found these men in the census together at any time? Did they find them each individually and compare ages to determine who was oldest? Did they find any information that took them back another generation to their parents and do more research on them? Especially because that family was Jewish, and earlier immigrants, that would have been of more interest to me.

They found a lot of pictures of Helen’s ancestors in this episode without ever giving a hint where they were found. Where does anyone find pictures if other family members don’t have them? Besides in newspaper articles, I have never found my own family photos outside of the possession of other family members. Can they give us a clue how to do some of this?

I read recently online that the first season of WDYTYA? in Britain was only 50 minutes long followed by 10 minutes explaining the research. I haven’t checked the NBC site in a while. They don’t have that, do they? I know they have deleted scenes, which I enjoy. And we have had some incite a few times with an online discussion or a blog post from one of the researchers. But I wonder, if enough of us blog about this, can get them to do a bonus video about the research process? Sometimes it seems like they’re listening to those of us online and improving with each season. Can we all rally for a behind the scenes of the research process?

This is the sixth article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei
  3. Blair Underwood
  4. Reba McEntire
  5. Jerome Bettis

The URL for this article is×06-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×05 – Jerome Bettis – The Nitpicker’s Version

I missed this episode live on TV, but when the next week had a rerun, it gave me a chance to watch a catch up.

Jerome Bettis, like the previous two episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, already knew about his father’s side of the family but didn’t know his mother’s side. He also knew that with the research, he’d probably run into a family history of slavery. So what was on his father’s side?

Meet The Whole Family

The episode started with Jerome hanging out with his kids and his wife, but then he went to Detroit to meet up with his mother Gladys, and uncle Abram “Butch” Bougard. They started out by quickly presenting a mystery person who disappeared from the family. Switching to the family chart, it suddenly had photos in it. I don’t recall seeing that before, and it looked nice.

Right To Ancestry, As Usual

My first instinct for records search for a US family is to try the census. So why did he go right for death records and why in Kentucky? Sure he lived there, but if he disappeared, why would they assume he died in the same state? Paducah is close to the borders of a couple other states. And it’s not as if Ancestry has that many death certificates, certainly not for the locations I usually search. They might have an index, but not the records. However, Jerome found a Kentucky death certificate for his great-grandfather, Burnett Bougard, or as it was spelled, Burnell Beaugard. And they were also surprised to find he was still in Paducah… but they were searching specifically in Kentucky.

They were not sure it was for the right person because of the spelling, so that was good, but there was no later comment about if they could verify it. They also made no comment about the fact that he was listed as married. Were they assuming he just ran off? I’ll come back to this later in the episode.

If the record was for the correct person, they showed that his father as Abe and mother as Amanda Gee. It looked like all three were born in Mississippi, but I couldn’t tell for sure for the mother. Back to the family chart, they showed Burnett’s father but ignored his mother from the certificate.

Jerome said, “Since the trail went cold with Burnett’s death…” I really don’t know what to say about this. The trail went cold? What kind of trail do you follow after someone dies? The only thing left is burial or cremation. Did he mean they couldn’t find anything before his death? Well, not everything is online and definitely not everything is on Ancestry. Was that what they meant?

Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky

Jerome started by meeting Dr. Gerald Smith at the McCracken County Courthouse. Jerome’s voiceover included “where he’s already started doing some research for me”, instead of implying that the person was just waiting for him to show up to begin. That is always my preference. It takes the same amount of time to introduce the expert and state that they’ve been working on the research as it does to imply otherwise.

Gerald had a divorce record for Burnett and Ruby from 26 August 1921. It was interesting that not only did the family surname keep changing spelling, but that Burnett and Ruby were each spelled differently on the same document, as Beaurgard and Beargard. Gerald explained that they focused more on the sound of the name, but if he just abandoned her, then why were the two names spelled differently since they were both probably spoken by her? Then he explained that census takers would deliberately misspell names. I hadn’t heard that before, but how does it even relate to this? We haven’t seen a census record, and we’re not looking at one. In this case, I think maybe one was a typo, since they should have been the same in this case, even if spelled differently than a later generation.

When Jerome read from the divorce petition, it sounded like the marriage was in 1919, but it was just worded awkwardly to me as I soon discovered. A quick flash of the petition and I could see where it said 1906. When they next showed the second page, it was clear that they were married in Illinois in 1906 (though it said “about 10 years ago”; someone’s math was off) and separated in spring of 1919 in Paducah.

Married Or Not?

Another part they missed was that he was listed as married on his death certificate. Was that a mistake or did he remarry? It takes until the very end of the episode to learn that his death was in 1925. It wasn’t much time, but certainly enough for him to remarry. Maybe that was why he abandoned her? They don’t pursue this part of his story. They didn’t look for the marriage record either.

An alternative might have been that she wasn’t granted the divorce, thus he was still married. They never did reveal that. We were looking at a petition, which doesn’t mean the divorce was finalized.

Jerome asked about if there was more to find about the family story of Burnett being a rebel rouser. Gerald had already looked in court records and not found anything, suggesting that Jerome check the newspapers.

As he was leaving, Jerome grabbed his notebook as if he was going to write something. I didn’t mention it before, but he had that in the scene with his mother too. Again, it’s always good to see the celebrity taking enough interest to take their own notes.

Strange Newspaper Source

The next stop was at the McCracken County Public Library where historian Berry Craig was waiting. Accessing the Kentucky newspapers from the Library of Congress, Jerome tried various spellings to find an article in 1897. Though he was only shown trying two spellings, it may take more. This a lesson some people resist: spelling doesn’t matter, especially the older the records. This particular episode showed multiple spellings of the same surname across different sources, which is not so uncommon.

With the search result, the article appeared right on the screen with part of it highlighted, so why did he have to get the microfilm to read it? It’s like they’re deliberately avoiding showing that other web sites have information that Ancestry doesn’t. They don’t want people to know that there are other good sources online? I think that might be going a bit overboard. I really don’t think they’ll lose the business they would otherwise get by helping people know that other sources exist also. This time at least they admitted what web site they searched. The Library of Congress isn’t in competition with them, I suppose. The previous episode search of GenealogyBank was obscured and never named. Also, after reading from the microfilm, they showed a much cleared image of the article. Did that come from the Library of Congress scan?

The article mentioned that Burnett swore a warrant against his boss, a gutsy thing for a black man to do in 1897, but checking a few days forward, they found that the case was dismissed.

Hop, Skip, And A Jump

Jerome immediately wanted to find more about Burnett’s father, Abe. It seemed like an odd jump, but there was probably a lot cut from the episode that actually happened during the scene. Maybe Berry had to suggest that avenue of research. Finding a 1902 article, they jumped ahead to find where Abe sued the railroad. Again, they showed the article on screen different than what the microfilm looked like. They also didn’t show how many searches it took to find him with the spelling Bogard.

At the State Archives in Frankfurt, librarian Jennifer Frazier had some more information. Jerome was shocked to find his great-great-grandfather couldn’t sign his own name. But really, 100 years ago, literacy wasn’t that common among non-slaves either. They discussed some details of the case and read bits of the documents.

I knew a commercial was coming before Jerome read the verdict. Do they really need to do commercial cliffhangers to keep people watching? If you’re already watching the episode, aren’t you interested in the rest of the story anyhow? Maybe I’m just opposed to cliffhangers at all. If I like a show, I’ll watch without it.

After reading that Abe won the case, albeit at a smaller amount than he was asking, Jennifer then sent Jerome back to Paducah to learn even more about it.

Back to Paducah

At the Paducah Railroad Museum, he met historian John E.L. Robertson who knew people who remembered the case and passed on the story. We didn’t really hear much more about it in the episode, but I like to assume that if he went all the way back across the state, there were more details that didn’t make the episode’s final cut.

After seeing a steam engine, the kind of train Abe was hit by, Jerome was still concerned with his signature and wanting to find if Abe was born a slave. Again, he searched on Ancestry for Abe’s death certificate. Wasn’t he just at the State Archive where they would have had that?

After finding the 1925 death certificate, Jerome assumed that the unknown birth date meant he was a slave, but does it really? While it was likely true he was born into slavery, no birth date just meant that the informant didn’t know the date, not that Abe didn’t know because he was born a slave and they didn’t keep records. But it did have the given names of his parents, Jerry and Liza.

But Jerome still wanted to confirm that they were slaves. Didn’t the other episodes with black families check the census to lead them to that place? Why did they consistently ignore such an obvious document? They are certainly in a time period to check the 1900-1930 censuses, and then skip back to the 1800s.

Searching For Slaves

In Murray, Kentucky, he met with Dr. John Hardin for more proof. At this point, Jerome stated that no last names suggested Abe’s parents were born without surnames, but that’s not true either. There are far too many death certificates that don’t list the parents’ surnames and sometimes their given names. It’s not about whether the person knew when he was born or what his parents’ names were, it was whether someone who outlived him knew. Jerome was making the wrong assumptions, regardless of the reasons and the fact that he turned out to be correct that they were born slaves.

John stated that slaves typically took the names of their owners, so he went to look for the will of Joseph Bogard. John actually called him Beauregard, which apparently Jerome’s ancestors used for a time, but it was not the correct name.

The will book was something we hadn’t seen before, with every page either laminated or within sheet protectors. Old records should be protected that way. Or scanned. Jerome read the will wrong, where he read “my negro boy” when it actually said “my three negro boys”, but it listed Joseph leaving Jerry and Eliza to his wife, Mary. Also, they made the jump from his mother being Liza to assuming it was this Eliza. It’s a reasonable jump and there’s probably not a lot or maybe not any documentation to prove or disprove it, but it’s still an assumption. They just kind of skipped over mentioning it. The will was from 1841, before Abe was born, thus, he wasn’t listed.

Jerome stated that the people being treated as property was despicable. But he already knew his Bettis side. Did that family not go back in American history far enough to be slaves? Yes, it was despicable, but he seems almost surprised to find it.

In the slave dower list, which listed all of the slaves owned by Mary, it listed Jerry, Eliza, and Abram. John said they were listed until 1860 in the dower list but not after, and Mary had died by then. Another court record revealed they were all sold, Jerry and Eliza together, and Abram to someone else at about ten years old. If they were sold, why weren’t they listed as someone else’s slaves? It sounded like a Bogard relative bought Jerry and Eliza. They had the names of who bought them and couldn’t find a record of it in the dower list? Again, no explanation. Seems they should have been able to find them in the same records, just with different owners.

Jerome had trouble imagining being split from his parents at ten years old. He must have stumbled the sentence of imagining being split from his children because half of that sentence was clearly added as a voiceover later.

They Have To Go See Some Land

They drove out to the land where the family had lived before being sold in 1860. Emancipation was five years later, so Jerome wondered if Abram was reunited with his parents, which was a great question. The preview for the next section kind of gave away the answer. Then the voiceover, “it’s a question Dr. Hardin came prepared to answer”. I’m so glad they’re stating things that way now.

Then they finally looked at a census at the end of the episode. I thought one of Ancestry’s biggest draws was supposed to be their census collection? But in this episode, they avoided it for as long as possible.

In 1870, they found Jerry 53, Mary 24, Abram 22, Frances 7, and Elizabeth 1. Where was Eliza? Did he question what happened to her? Did they skip it because they didn’t find it? Also of interest was that Jerry was black and the others listed as mulatto, another detail they skipped over. Relationships were not listed. Was Mary his wife by that time? Frances seemed a little old to be her daughter in modern times, but probably more likely back then. Was Abram listed as mulatto because the others all were even though he was black? Or if they could find more, would they discover that Eliza was mulatto? Again, questions they didn’t answer. They seemed to uncover a lot of new questions at the end here that they didn’t pursue in the episode.

Back To Detroit

While recounting the story to his mother and uncle, we finally learned that Burnett died in 1925. So he and his father both died in the same year? Or did Jerome get those confused. Jerome also stated that there was no disappearance, but instead it was a divorce. But we didn’t learn that. He abandoned Ruby and she divorced him. Was he there to participate in the divorce? Did he abandon her and she knew where he was? Did she just not want him back? I think discounting a disappearance, unless there was a lot more research done that we didn’t see in the episode, was wrong.


I was almost expecting a repeat, since all of the episodes about blacks ends up going back to slavery and often has DNA testing to place their ancestral home in Africa. This time, they skipped the DNA. It worked out for some of the others we’ve seen, did Jerome just not match anyone or did they entirely skip it this time?

They certainly raised a lot more questions than they seemed to answer. Genealogy tends to do that, but they left so much unanswered that I can only wonder about. And write about on this blog.

This is the fifth article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei
  3. Blair Underwood
  4. Reba McEntire

The URL for this article is×05-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×04 – Reba McEntire – The Nitpicker’s Version

This season of Who Do You Think You Are? has improved over the previous. It seems they’re going for a little more realism in the episodes, admitting that it is a lot of work and sometimes even showing a record search with no results. Just as the previous episode did, Reba McEntire’s episode did not disappoint in this way.

Typical But Still Lucky

During the introduction, Reba spoke about writing her autobiography, saying that she learned more about her father’s side of the family at the time, but not her mother’s. “I guess I just didn’t ask enough questions.” Most genealogists have this problem, with not remembering everything they were told when younger and not knowing the right questions to ask before the people with the answers are gone from our lives. Reba was lucky because her mother was still alive, so she got a start on her search by visiting the McEntire Ranch in Stringtown, Oklahoma.

She said that she’d like to go back as far back as possible and wanted to know her first ancestor in America. I love how she had to honk at the cows on the way and they kept that in the final cut of the episode.

Her mother, Jackie, had a picture of Reba Brassfield, her own grandmother and Reba’s namesake. Jackie added that all of her kids were named for grandparents. Another picture that Reba hadn’t seen before showed Reba Brassfield with her parents, B.W. and Susie.

To The Web Site

Someone else mentioned this somewhere, but I wonder how much instruction the celebrities are getting before they film. For the ones who seem to do their own research, or at least part of it without obvious guidance, they must be told to go to Ancestry, the sponsor, and there are always useful results. So either they do this more often and the negative result searches aren’t shown on camera, or there is some guidance for them to not waste time with those searches.

Searching for her namesake, Reba Brassfield, she found the 1910 census showing Reba at age six with her widowed mother Susie, older sister, and younger brother. I couldn’t make out the names because of the handwriting. She then went back to the 1900 census to find B.W. Brassfield, Susie’s husband. She found a lot of Brassfields in Mississippi, but not him. Jackie was the one who told Reba to go down to Monroe County and find them.

To Aberdeen, Mississippi

At the Evans Memorial Library, in the voiceover, Reba said she wanted to start the search on her own before the genealogist arrived. She searched through a book of obituaries, but still didn’t find B.W. She found some other Brassfields though. I wish she would have stopped to read about the others. They could have been other relatives, and likely were (especially after already seeing the end of the episode). If she found a sibling, B.W. might have been mentioned, as I’ve seen siblings listed often in obituaries.

Again, without finding the record she wanted, she gave up a little bit too quickly for me. First, the census could have been a mess and she just had to search Ancestry differently to find the family. He could have been misspelled in the census or in the transcription. How much did she try to find him spelled only with one S, or IE reversed, or a number of other options? Then, not everyone had an obituary. She thought she had a dead end already and didn’t know what else to do.

Genealogist D. Joshua Taylor arrived to help her out, carrying a scroll in his hand.

“It took a little bit of work. That’s a lie, it took a lot of work.” I think someone’s been reading our comments. :-) I love the stories and I love the discoveries, but sometimes they have to remind the viewers that it’s not as easy as it looks, that it does take a fair amount of work, and that the expert genealogist or historian is not always waiting for you with all the information you need already researched. This is especially true for the next part, which we’ve seen in other episodes, where we suddenly jump back several generations. It takes some time to add that many people.

Unrolling the scroll, Reba was presented with a Brasfield Family Tree. Josh explained that B.W. went by this single S spelling, and that records were usually written by someone else who might spell it differently too. He also mentioned that the family were farmers and probably couldn’t afford an obituary.

Again, they went straight back on the male line of the Brasfield family only. We can hope that they did much more than that behind the scenes and either didn’t find a story worthy of prime time or just focused on that one. The person at the top of the chart, George Brasfield, was born in Wake County, North Carolina about 1765.

It’s interesting that Reba said she wasn’t expecting to go so far back. She was expecting to go one generation back to B.W.’s parents and then she was presented with three back. Did she not watch this show before? It’s very common for them to do this. Especially mentioning that B.W. was a farmer, how much interesting at TV-worthy information could they find for him? But she also mentioned at the beginning that she wanted to find the first person who was in America, so they needed to go back further for that.

Josh pointed out that George was born before the American Revolution and would have grown up during the war. He also said that interesting things were happening in Wake County, suggesting that Reba go there to learn more.

To Raleigh, North Carolina

The chart stated that George was born in Wake County, but it didn’t mention the city. Raleigh is in Wake County, where Reba went to the State Archives, meeting with historian Philip Otterness. Phil mentioned that Raleigh was not there at the time and they decided to carve it out of farmland. A map from 1817 with the plan for the city was examined. Each block of land was labeled for who owned it (I assume it was ownership), and she found George Brasfield. She asked what was on the land and Phil had the land records ready, even though the book was dated 1846-1849. The book was dated after George had died, but talked about the land he had.

She found where it mentioned Brasfield’s Old Tavern and was thrilled to find that her ancestor owned a bar. She had mentioned earlier how she feels comfortable in Ireland and Scotland but not in England. Finding an ancestor with a bar she figured was why she was always comfortable singing in Honky Tonks.

Reba had some great questions in this episode. She wanted to know about her ancestor’s life. Figuring that owning a business meant he had some money, she asked if he owned other properties. Phil then produced the tax records for 1781-1860. The pages in the folders were falling apart; I hope they’ve been scanned. He wasn’t found on the first list she checked; the second she was shown looking at showed that he owned 1615 3/4 acres. They did not explain why he was listed as “Esq”. Reba then asked what the next columns were. “W Poll” showed white adult male individuals, then she had to ask what “B Poll” stood for, which was black men and women between 12 and 52. She seemed a little shocked that he had ten slaves. They didn’t mentioned that the next two columns listed Stud Horses and Taverns, of which George was showing one tavern.

Another thing they skipped over was the next column over, a large space, which said very clearly “Taken by Geo Brasfield Esq”, so he was the person who recorded the information on that part of the document, and he had very nice handwriting. What did esquire mean back then and was it related to the fact that he recorded the tax information? They didn’t go there.

Upon finding he was a slave owner, her first thought was to find out if he was a good slave owner, if he treated them well. Throughout the episode, Reba was very concerned with the individuals and became emotional about their lives, hundreds of years later.

At the end of the scene, we can also see that David Brasfield Jr is listed two names down from George. I couldn’t tell if he owned 100 acres or 1000. This is another case where WDYTYA goes straight back in the research instead of sideways, never checking for siblings. While they might find good information, sometimes there are missing documents and siblings must be researched to fill in the gaps. Another reason to research sideways is to find relatives. You can’t find your cousins if you don’t know who else was related to the family.

Sometimes Slaves, Sometimes Owners

Forty miles north, she visited the Granville County Court House for more information, meeting with historian Harry Watson. It was interesting that during her voiceover about George being a slave owner, they showed her driving past cotton plants.

Harry said that the first place to start was in newspapers. Using GenealogyBank, but mostly cropping the site name out of the picture, she searched for George. They found one article about a runaway slave that George had encountered. From different courthouses, Harry had a folder of papers, showing bills of sale for slaves. She was shocked to find that he sold a three year old on one page. The record of deeds, in a big book, showed a 14 month old slave, but Reba didn’t read enough on air for us to know if she was being bought or sold by George.

Reba was shocked to find her ancestor trading in children. She stepped outside and took some notes in a notebook during a voiceover. I hadn’t seen the notebook before in this episode, or hadn’t noticed it. As I’ve said on previous reviews, I like when we see the celebrity take notes. It shows that they have enough interest to really remember everything, instead of just collecting the copies or the fancy chart drawn for them at the end.

Harry suggested she visit an historian colleague of his, Warren R. Hofstra at the Essex County Courthouse in Tappahannock, Virginia. She was still searching for the first ancestor who arrived in America. Warren pointed out that Brasfield was a rare name, and two generations back was another George. Between the two Georges, on the family chart, was David. So that David Jr. found on the tax record was very possibly the brother of her 1765-born George.

A 1721 land deed showed that George bought 300 acres of land for 1500 pounds of tobacco. Again with good questions, Reba asked where he got his money and if he owned any more land.

In a book of court orders for 1695-1699 in Essex County, they found George listed at nine years old as an indentured servant. She still wanted to know more, asking where his parents were. Back on the computer, they found a list of immigrants in a Google book. They had more interesting spelling in the book, find George Brasfeild, but also that he had  “eleaven yeares” to serve. She commented that they changed the spelling several times, but who’s to say if that’s true? It could have been a typo, messy handwriting not transcribed correctly, or he could have been illiterate and someone else had to spell it for him and got it wrong. She noted the discrepancy in age, but Warren suggested they added an extra year to his labors, saying he was younger on the other document.

Again Reba was getting very personal about it, wondering where his mother was. Warren noted where many of the other kids on the boat were from, so he sent her to Chester, England to find out more.

Crossing The Ocean

Some episodes immediately jump to other countries, this one took a while longer. At the Cheshire County Records Office, she met with Brett Langston to find more. They started with computerized records, so she searched for his baptism record, where she found Georgius, Thomas, Silentia, and Anna. All but Anna showed Macc for residence, also, they were spelled Brassfield again, with the double S.

“It’s amazing how you can just find somebody.” Yes, Reba, after a lot of people have put a lot of effort into indexing to make it easy. Actually, it is easy to find people, but it’s difficult to find the people in between to connect them all together, because some records are indexed and others are not.

Brett went to get the baptism record, “and a few more things besides”. Well, there were three others listed in the index for baptisms.

He asked her to wear gloves because she was wearing nail polish. That’s one I hadn’t heard of before.

With George’s baptism, she knew that Thomas of Macclesfield was his father. Reba immediately wanted to know when he was born and what was his mother’s name.

The record was from 17 June 1688. With that date, the index made more sense for the column “dated” which contained seven digits, apparently skipping the 1000 in the year. Therefore, George was baptized 17 June 1688, Thomas 17 November 1691, Silentia 12 May 1695, and Anna 9 October 1702. So apparently the indexed Thomas was not his father.

Brett brought out an old parchment to find the marriage for Thomas to Abbigall, and I think it said Binnow for her surname. Reba read the name as Abigail; was it just spelled differently but pronounced the same as our modern spelling? She asked if there was a death record for the parents. A register from 1720 showed Thomas buried 30 June 1720. Another death register for 1696 listed Abigal (with that spelling).

Reba was still perplexed with a father sending his son away at nine or ten years old, saying she couldn’t even send Shelby to summer camp.

Brett sent her to Macclesfield to find out more.

So Many Questions

With all of the great questions she had asked, did she ask about the other Brassfields that had shown up next to her ancestors in the records? What about those other three baptisms? With Abigail’s death in 1696, they obviously weren’t her kids, but did Thomas remarry and have more kids after sending George away or were they cousins to George? After all, the 1691 was Thomas, so was it Thomas Jr.? These are questions that are not answered in the episode.

At Saint Michael’s Church, she met James Horn, an historian of indentured servitude, “who has been working on the Brassfield family”. I prefer that they admit the person has been researching rather than implying the celebrity is there to ask questions and the historian just happens to know everything being asked. James explained that George didn’t have many good options, where indentured servitude was his best chance at a good future, that he would never have been a land owner otherwise. James asked Reba about what happened to George as if he didn’t know, but then went on to tell her that 150 years later in America, there were 100s of Brassfields in America who were all descended from George.

From this, I would conclude that she has a lot of cousins out there, both in America and England. How far did the off-camera research go into the extended family? If it was my own research, I would have gathered all of it and found how it tied back in to my own family if I could.

They stepped outside to see where Thomas and Abigail were buried and they were stepping on gravestones laid out on the ground. That seems like an unusual set-up to me, especially where they zoomed in and showed them wearing down. Walking on them can only make them wear down faster. Reba stepped out into the grassy area where James said her ancestors would have been buried, where she spoke to Thomas and thanked him for sending George to America.

And she finally found somewhere in England where she felt good about being there.

Back At The Ranch

Returning to her family ranch, she shared the story with her mother.


Every time they bring more reality into the show, I love it even more. I know they want to tell the good stories, but pointing out that it took a lot of work to get to the people and the stories, and showing sometimes how records are not always found when you expect them makes it much more realistic. If the purpose is to interest people in doing their own genealogy research, then those people have to understand that it’s not always about flying across the country or around the world and finding someone who gives you all the answers when you arrive. Sometimes it’s hard to find more, but you have to not give up when your first attempt to find information fails. Everyone hits blocks in their research, but they have to understand that everyone does and they should just keep working on it.

This is the fourth article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei
  3. Blair Underwood

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