Category Archives: Genealogy on TV

WDYTYA – Episode 2×03 – The Nitpicker’s Version

This week’s Who Do You Think You Are? took Rosie O’Donnell on a journey to find the identity of a mysterious woman who’s picture hung in her childhood home, as well as tracing her ancestors back to Ireland.

They started filming during her radio show, where she joked that, what if she wasn’t Irish Catholic, but instead found out that she was Jewish. Even though she was joking, this isn’t so far from the truth. Some people believe they know their background and may find it’s quite different. Throughout history, Jews have been persecuted, forced to convert, and often hid their identities from their descendents.

The Keeper of the Photos

Her brother, Ed O’Donnell was called in to start the show. Rosie described him as “the keeper of family photos and history and whatnot.” Ed had a picture that Rosie remembered, someone they still couldn’t definitively identify. He also had an interesting copy of Daniel Murtha’s WWI draft card, their grandfather.

After reading the draft card, Ed then asked Rosie where she thinks someone would start their search. This is where she said, “It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” At least she realized that right at the beginning of the episode. These shows make a lot of the research look easy when it really takes hours, and sometimes months of research, just to find a single document.

Jersey City, NJ

In the voiceover on the drive to New Jersey, Rosie said she wanted to track down the mysterious woman from the photo and had to track down more about Daniel Murtha. At the Jersey City Free Public Library, she met with genealogist Suzanne Nurnberg. Going to the microfilm reader, they looked for Daniel in the census, based on his address. In the census, they found Daniel, then his parents also on the same page. Printing out a copy, they examined the details from the census.

Born in French Canada, Rosie automatically jumped to saying Montreal, instead of Quebec. Suzanne suggested “somewhere in that area” as a more correct assessment. Rosie was also looking for the town where his parents were born, which was not shown on the census, and usually isn’t.

“A lot of times, vital records for Irish immigrants only say ‘born in Ireland’, they don’t give you the exact town. And the hardest thing really is to get the exact place of origin in Ireland; not an easy task.” Suzanne was not only correct about Irish immigrants, but for all immigrants. A good deal of the research I do involves making the leap from the US back to their European origins. Depending on when they immigrated, if and when they naturalized, finding that information can be easy or nearly impossible.

Rosie asked about any more information, and Suzanne pointed out more details about Daniel’s wife, Ellen. When Rosie asked about an earlier census, Suzanne plugged Ancestry, having found the earlier census for the family on the site. It’s curious why they didn’t go straight to Ancestry for the first census. Maybe they were using this episode to demonstrate that not everything is online and sometimes you have to search microfilm. The earlier census revealed Michael to have a different wife, and Rosie immediately realized that she could be the mystery woman from the photograph.

Suzanne suggested that Rosie go to New York to try to find more information about Anna, also mentioning that Rosie should check other spellings for the surname. This is also common among immigrants. Many would change their names to Americanize the spelling, or simply changed their names for other reasons. Sometimes name spelling variations happened because our ancestors were illiterate, so the record-taker spelled the name however he wanted.

New York

At the Municipal Archives, Rosie met with chief archivist Ken Cobb who had the death certificate for Anna. Noticing the cause of death, Ken suggested looking at the newspaper for any more details of the incident.

At the Brooklyn Historical Society, Rosie sat at a microfilm reader again, where she found the obituary that explained the event, reading all the details and taking notes. Her notebook had been briefly seen in an earlier scene. She followed up with historian David Rosner, who had another article about the accident.

Heading to the neighborhood mentioned in the article, Rosie met Rev. Robert Czok at the Catholic church to find baptismal records in search of the child that survived the accident. Flipping through the book, he found the listing for Elizabeth, which was not bookmarked as we’ve seen in other episodes. Of course, it was naturally found ahead of time, but in real research, the pages aren’t marked for you before you arrive, and it may take some time to find the listing you are looking for.

In the next voiceover, Rosie said that she got in touch again with Suzanne Nurnberg in New Jersey and asked her to send whatever she could find on Elizabeth. Realistically, we know that the research was already done, so Rosie didn’t have to ask Suzanne to do more research, but that is often how the research really goes. As one clue is found, then a new batch of research is begun to find more.

Returning from the commercial, it seemed like an unusually long recap for this season, almost like they tried to show a lot of time had passed while Elizabeth was being researched.

“Somehow, Suzanne went and found Lizzie Murtha…” Rosie said in the voiceover. Somehow… Armed with the census, a marriage certificate, and a family tree (that wasn’t shown on screen), the show went back to its family tree chart, where we saw more of Lizzie’s family. We also learned in this section that those charts can be kind of random, when Rosie said that Lizzie’s son Christopher was the oldest child, but he was shown as the third of four children on the chart.

Meet the Cousins

In Secaucus, New Jersey, Rosie met her cousins descended from Lizzie. Rosie told them what she had learned about Lizzie and showed them the photograph that they recognized. She also read Lizzie’s obituary to them, which must have been in the package that Suzanne sent her, though it wasn’t mentioned before. It also verified that Daniel and Lizzie must have known each other.

Both of these events are familiar to me and many genealogists: meeting relatives you didn’t previously know you had, and having a mystery photo verified by other relatives. The only way to really verify someone’s identity in a photo is through other people. No matter how much research was done about Anna and Lizzie, unless they found a photo in a newspaper, they could never know for sure who was in that picture without those cousins knowing.

Shifting Focus

In the next voiceover, Rosie said, “now that I’ve found all that I can about Lizzie and her mother Anna…”, except how much did she know about Anna? Was there nothing before her death? Did they find her birth, marriage, her parents? It makes more sense that either nothing was found, or that wasn’t the focus of the research. After all, Anna was not related to Rosie and collateral people are often not researched. She shifted her focus to Anna’s husband, Daniel’s father. She went to Quebec to find more.

They Really Were in Montreal

Rosie met archivist Guillaume Lesage at the Notre Dame Basilica, hoping to find more information about the family. She looked down the page to find the baptism of Michael Murtha in Montreal, which included his parents’ names that she did not previously know, Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle. As Guillaume translated the record, Rosie grabbed her notebook to take notes.

He sent her to the National Archive of Quebec to meet archivist Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, who had a copy of the 1861 census. Going back to the family charts at this point, they seemed to list the kids in birth order this time, showing three born in Ireland and three in Canada.

Back to Ancestry, they searched the Drouin collection, apparently searching by Ann’s maiden name, where they found a death record. Rosie stated that she was at a brick wall again, having not found the Irish place of origin. While brick walls are not uncommon in genealogy research, this was not one. Having a brick wall involves searching for records and not finding them. In this case, the only records Rosie had seen were the census and the death records, neither of which mentioned the origin beyond “Ireland”. Or was there a lot more going on that didn’t make the episode besides the previously completed research? Denyse suggested Rosie look for the obituary.

At the Grande Bibliotheque, Rosie again used the microfilm reader to find the obituary.

“I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt, in another time, in another country, in another language.” That quote was almost perfect. Genealogy research is almost a scavenger hunt, though I usually prefer to compare it to detective work or puzzle solving. She was in another time and another country, but it was clear that the newspaper she was searching was in English.

Finding the obituary, it said that Ann Doyle was a native of Kildare, Ireland. What they didn’t explain was why she was listed by her maiden name. Is this usual for Irish immigrants to continue to use their maiden names after marriage? Having done no Irish research myself, and certainly not everyone has, it would have been nice to mention why they didn’t find her listed by her husband’s name, or why they even thought to search for her by her maiden name.

“I feel like I won the lottery, in a way, because I never thought there would be a mention of Ann Doyle’s death in the newspaper, but there it was.” Rosie seemed awfully calm in her excitement when she found that obituary. It also seemed unusual that they went straight for Ann’s death and obituary and not Andrew’s or their other three children who were born in Ireland. Of course, according to one of the genealogists for the show, Kyle Betit, we know that a lot more research was done. As he stated on the ProGenealogists’ blog, “We searched many other records, and no other record stating where this family came from in Ireland has been found in North America.” So from this, I can probably assume that all the research that is not shown on TV has probably been done; everything I question in these nitpicker’s versions, where I say that they should have done something or ask if they bothered to look, they probably did look at.

Finally to Ireland

In Dublin, Rosie met with genealogist Nicola Morris. Why Rosie drove the car is beyond me, but she injected her own humor into the show a few times and maybe it was just another attempt. At Manor Kilbride Church, Nicola showed Rosie the baptismal records from the parish. Rosie shared a copy of the Quebec census, then Nicola showed her three of the baptisms, finding another child who was not listed in the Quebec census. Nicola also mentioned that the fourth child, Thomas, was not found in the register, probably because the register was incomplete. Here again we get some realism. Sometimes the record can’t be found because it just doesn’t exist anymore. However, sometimes it is also the case that a child is recorded by a different name. They didn’t mention in the episode the birth years of Thomas and Patrick to verify that they were different people, but they soon mentioned that there were the four children in the family.

Details about the Potato Famine in Irish history followed; explaining foreign history is always appreciated in the US version.

Nicola suggested that Patrick may not have survived to leave for Canada, but watching the rest of the episode, this is never verified.

Nicola sent Rosie to meet librarian Mario Corrigan at the Kildare Library in Newbridge to look into the Poor Law Union records. He showed her the original books from 1854. She asked a lot of questions about the workhouse before finding the listing in the book showing that they did live there and were recommended to be sent to immigrate to Canada. Both Mario and Rosie were wearing the white gloves while looking at the book. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t; there don’t seem to be any consistent rules across various historical societies and archives.

Rosie then visited the site of one of the last standing workhouses, in Birr, where she met historian Gerard Moran for a tour. She likened the living conditions to a concentration camp.

Her brother arrived and they went to a pub to share what she had learned. They ended up in a pub called Murtagh’s Corner, joking that a relative might have owned it.

Conclusion and Opinions

Although we know that all the research was done prior to filming, this episode tried to make it look like Rosie was really doing the research. Of course she was guided, but maybe she expressed more interest in doing the work “erself, thus looking through the microfilms and the flipping through the books a little more than in some other episodes.

They spent almost half of the episode in Ireland, learning about the history of the Potato Famine and even more on the workhouses. This seemed a little mis-weighted, but it was the more impactful part of the story. As Rosie said, “We all have the choice to focus on the horror or the redemption, and the gift is to focus on the redemption.” This is definitely true of Jewish research; no matter where your family was at the time, at some point, you will run into relatives who survived or were victims of the Holocaust.

This is the first episode of WDYTYA where I had a negative opinion of the featured celebrity. During the episode, Rosie seemed genuinely kind to everyone and sincere about the research, but sometimes she just says things that rub people the wrong way, like her recent agreement with Helen Thomas’s statement that the Jews should stop “occupying” Israel and go back to Poland and Germany. I can only hope that after her experience in Ireland, Rosie realized what she was saying. Would she want to live next door to the workhouse where her family had lived and the one child apparently died? Still, at least her family was there for survival and not extermination.

This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.

WDYTYA – Episode 2×02 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I initially watched this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? in a room full of genealogists at the Family History Library during RootsTech. It was fun to laugh out loud with the crowd in a few places. From a few other blogs about this episode, it sounded like there were quite a few people who had never heard of Tim McGraw, a country music artist. I was not one of them.

His Real Father and His Uncle

We started with the story of Tim’s father, how he discovered at age 11 that the man he thought was his father really wasn’t, and eventually reconciling with his real father.

Visiting his uncle, Hank McGraw, Tim began his journey. Hank asked him, “So dude, tell me, why do you want to get involved in something like this, digging up all the stuff from the past?” Tim’s first response was, “You scared of what we might find out?” Some people in families will ask the genealogist such questions, wondering why we want to know about our ancestry. Though Tim was joking, I think some people really are afraid of what a genealogist might find. Family secrets lurk behind every door.

Hank showed Tim some photos, though he was shown walking up to the house not carrying anything. Hank had a picture of his grandparents, Tim’s great-grandparents. Tim was excited to learn her name, Ella May Nave.

The Journey Began in Missouri

In Kansas City, Missouri, Tim met with genealogist Kathleen Brandt at the public library. Kathleen had Ella May’s death certificate. Tim was again excited to learn the names of her parents from that record. This is so normal for a genealogist when they finally find a record with the next bit of information. I prefer this part when it’s preceded by the search — just having the information handed over would take a lot of the fun out of it for me.

Tim joked with Kathleen when she pulled out the computer, then they searched Ancestry for the Chrisman family. In the voiceover, Tim explained how Kathleen was able to take his family tree back eight generations, while the screen showed the family tree chart. Again, the chart went straight back showing now spouses and no siblings, and giving no indication of the records that brought them so far back. Was it all found on Ancestry? Someone watching the show, who didn’t know any better, might believe that it was all found that easily. They might also think that the entire goal is to keep going straight back as far as you can. Sometimes you have to search sideways in order to go back, but there’s no indication of that on the show.

In the voiceover, Tim said he wanted to know more about Isaac Chrisman, the earliest person in his ancestry, and Kathleen had an old document to show him, dated 1772.

He thanked Kathleen with, “You set us in motion.” For someone who apparently took his family back eight generations, I’d say she did more than set him in motion. Many researchers can’t even go eight generations back, let alone further.

To Virginia

To Rye Cove, Virginia, Tim wanted to see the family’s land.

“It was pretty cool to go back so far so quickly into my lineage.” Too bad that only happens on TV shows where months of research was already completed by professionals. Couldn’t they have him mention something like that in the voiceovers?

Meeting with historian Stephen Aron, Tim showed what he already had and asked to know more about Isaac. This was mildly realistic, in that you have to share with a genealogist what you already know in order for them to continue the search. Stephen shared a few maps, and while they drove out to the location of Isaac’s land, the voiceover explained more of the history of the battle over land with the Indians. At the site, Stephen finally showed Tim a document he found that mentioned Isaac’s death.

In Richmond, at the Virginia Historical Society, historian Daniel Blake Smith shared more about the history of the time, and senior archivist E. Lee Shepard brought another document explaining the fate of Isaac.

The Magic Tree

Tim then said he wanted to go back further to find more about Isaac and where he came from. I don’t think they answered that question at all. Instead, Daniel showed him a “simplified family tree”. What exactly was this magical family tree and who compiled the information in it? Why did they not show him any genealogical documentation? What kind of research was done to compile this magic tree? I’m assuming they did some research. I think this was worse than when just tell the celebrity several generations of names without sources. This is almost like trying to show a source where there isn’t one.

Switching from Chrisman to Isaac’s mother’s family, his grandfather was Jost Hite and the show continued to research this individual in Tim’s ancestry.

In the Shenandoah Valley, historian Warren R. Hofstra explained more about the land orders Tim had just seen with Daniel.

To the Capitol

To Washington, DC with Warren, they went to the Library of Congress. How late at night did he visit? It was dark outside and the reading room was empty; I’m betting it was after hours and opened just for the filming. Curator Julie Miller shared the journal of George Washington from 1748, when he visited the home of the Hites, and another mention by GW in a letter he wrote 20 years later.

“Have we answered all your questions?” asked Warren. “What I really want to know now, is I want to know where Jost came from,” Tim replied. Really, he wants to know more? His ancestor was just mentioned by George Washington, one of his idols, but that wasn’t enough? Of course, Warren already had a document, a subsistence list showing the names of people indebted to the English government.


Warren sent him to New York to find more. At the New York Public Library, Tim showed that subsistence list to historian Philip Otterness, who had another subsistence list from an earlier date, with a description at the top explaining what the list was.

Tim hadn’t suspected any German ancestry, but why? I don’t think he knew anything about his ancestry on his father’s side, so why would he or would he not suspect anything? Philip explained more about the history of those Germans who traveled to the US, including that Elvis Pressley’s ancestor was also on the same boat.

Tim returned home to tell his uncle what he found. Tim had previously compared himself to Jost Hite, and Hank did the same at the end of the episode.


I liked seeing the excitement from Tim upon learning the names and information about some of his ancestors, but I started to think about all the ancestors he didn’t learn about. How interested was he in learning more about the ones whose lives didn’t seem significant enough for TV? Why was he satisfied with knowing about his German-born ancestor and not tracing back even further in the family, when he kept asking to go back further the entire episode?

This also made me wonder about how much the celebrities are coached on what to say when the camera is filming. Many of their questions are added later in voiceovers, but some are asked during the filming. Obviously, the director/producer/whoever wants them to lead into the next documents that the genealogists have already found.

There were a lot of historians in this episode, and fewer genealogists. It felt more like a history lesson, which is not a bad thing. Just like last week, this one went far back into US history where I have never had to research yet, so those details need to be filled in. As usual, it was lacking in many of the genealogy details.

This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.

WDYTYA – Episode 2×01 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I think someone at Who Do You Think You Are? has been reading my blog (or every other genealogist’s). If the first episode, featuring Vanessa Williams is any indication of the quality of this season, we’re in for a great one.

The Intro Clips

Before we get into the episode, I have comments about some of the sound bites in the introduction.

“It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” – Rosie O’Donnell

Well, of course it isn’t. This entire show makes family history research look easy. Go to a library or an archive, find someone who has already spent hours searching through the records for your illusive ancestor. Meet a genealogist and they have all the documents. Find an expert on the specific battle that your ancestor fought in. No, it’s not that easy. To find those documents, you have to search. To find the genealogist or the historian with the expertise you need, might be another layer of research. On TV, they have it easy. I wonder what the context is on that quote.

“This is where it all begins.” Vanessa Williams

Oh no, not that line again. Please?

And Kim Cattrall. Did Sex and the City not make her enough money to hire a genealogist? (Low blow, I know, sorry.) This is her second appearance on the show, previously appearing on the BBC version. In fact, judging by her sound bite, it sounds like she was tracking down the same bigamist ancestor she did in that episode.

On to Vanessa

She goes on a mission “in honor of her late father”. Maybe she hadn’t thought to research her family history before he died, but that’s not an uncommon reaction to losing a parent or grandparent — you want to know who they and their ancestors were because you didn’t find out when they were alive.

The Cemetery Trip

Vanessa started at the family plot at the cemetery, visiting her father’s grave, and looking at some of the other stones for clues. This is a good idea. Look around and see if there are other stones with the same surnames nearby. In my case, I have found more than I was looking for at two cemeteries. At one, I found multiple graves with the same surname, at another, while asking in the office for the location of a couple of graves, they told me about some others in the family that I didn’t know were there.

Vanessa focused on the stone of David Carll, reading the abbreviations in the inscription, assuming what some of it meant, instead of pretending that she was absolutely sure. I like honesty, and it works well in genealogy. They show her taking notes at the cemetery and later in the episode several times. We’ve seen that before on the show. We know that the research has already been done before filming, but the celebrity taking their own notes suggests they have even more of an interest in knowing and remembering the details themselves, and that’s nice to see.

At the Oyster Bay Town Hall, she met the town historian, John E. Hammond. He had a couple records waiting for her. There were two things that bothered me in this scene. First, while she was reading the book, holding that pen in her hand, and even using it as a pointer. Second, John’s comment, “This is where it all started.” Usually it’s the celebrity who says that, and sometimes the genealogist/historian corrects them.


Vanessa headed to Washington DC, but first checked in with the sponsor’s site and searched for David Carll in the US census, finding that David was mulatto and his wife was white. On my second viewing, I noticed the computer: it had a sticker across the middle (where the Apple would have been) with the show’s logo.

At NARA, researcher Vonnie Zullo produced David’s pension folder. I like that she had to tell Vanessa that she could touch the document. I haven’t personally done a lot of work in original records, but aren’t there times you’re not allowed to touch them? At least not without gloves on, I suppose. Soon pulling out the white gloves, Vanessa got to handle the tintype with the picture of David, which they had printed for her. I wonder if they ever found another tintype in a file if they would print it for any ordinary person. Let’s be optimistic and pretend that they would, especially since they probably wouldn’t let it leave the building for someone to print it themselves.

Headed to the South

Going to South Carolina, Vanessa met with Hari Jones, a Civil War expert, who was able to tell her about what David’s regiment did for the war, not only the battles, but staying behind to be sure the slaves were liberated. That was a great story.

Back to the Beginning

Most episodes start with a visit to the family to ask questions. While this one started showing Vanessa with her family, she didn’t ask any genealogy questions. At this half-way point, she began climbing up another part of her family and visited her uncle Earl Williams in Baltimore for more information about her father’s family. She pulled out the notebook and wrote her great-grandfather’s name, John Hill Williams (though she just wrote the name without a note saying who he was), but followed that with asking his wife’s name. And that’s how you do it when you interview your relatives to put together the family tree. You just keep asking for more information; get the father’s name, ask about his wife, ask his dates of birth and death, ask for hers, ask about their parents, etc.

Are We Done with the Restaurants?

Meeting with genealogist Natalie Cottrill, she told Natalie what she has already discovered from her uncle. When hiring a genealogist, you have to tell them what you already know, all of it, and share with them the records you have, so they can find more and not repeat research already done. Natalie found the family in the census, listing his wife Mary, then “went further” and found Mary’s obituary. I wonder what other records were found on the way to that discovery that wasn’t shown in the episode — genealogists know there was probably a lot more done to get there. As Vanessa read the obituary, she again stopped to take notes on her ancestors’ names. I wish she would have read the whole thing through once before interrupting to take notes. I also noticed that after her father’s name, it listed a couple of siblings, which were ignored in the episode. While the episode is focused on tracing backwards, it’s important not to skip over siblings when doing research.

Natalie had another census for the next generation going back in her family, finding that William Fields, father of Mary, was a school teacher. We already learned earlier that both of Vanessa’s parents were elementary school music teachers.

“Every clue I get is just another piece of the puzzle to my life and who I am. Education was in our blood, and the importance of education is here in black and white right in front of me.” Seeing her ancestor with the same profession as her parents was very interesting. I’ve never found a genealogist in my ancestry, but finding the musician ancestor was very meaningful.

The census also showed that he was mulatto. I thought the episode might have been headed back to find his slave origins and who might have been his father, like the earlier episodes for Spike Lee and Emmitt Smith. And him having been a teacher so soon after the Civil War, it got me thinking that perhaps he was the son of the slave owner, but was also educated because of that fact. Of course, that is entirely speculation, but might have been interesting had they followed up on that part of the story.

Back to the South

To the Tennessee State Capitol, Kathy Lauder, an archivist at the State Library and Archives, showed Vanessa a statue listing William Fields, who served in the legislature in Tennessee.

“This is where it all begins,” takes it’s place after this scene. Instead of meaning that her family started there, it seemed like she was saying that that was the place where her family started to take a stand and change history for African Americans, comparing William to her own history as the first African American Miss America. Much better than previous similar lines from other episodes.

They had a photograph of all the representatives, and provided her a larger copy. How often do you go searching for your ancestors and find not just one but two photos that were not held by members of your family?

Again with the white gloves, Vanessa got to see a couple of documents from William’s time in the legislature, including a bill to require parents to send their children to school.

“And this was passed…” Vanessa inquired. “To a committee… where it died,” Kathy finished. It wasn’t actually good news, but I thought it was cute how the question was answered.

To learn more about William, Vanessa met with Dr. Beverly Bond, an historian, at the Memphis public library. A document about the church where he had been a teacher and his obituary were consulted.

At the Shelby County Archives, archivist Vincent L. Clark pulled out a large book of minutes from the Quarterly Court, where William had served. After reading an entry written about him after his death, she got very emotional, comparing his story to her father’s.

Vanessa returned to her home in Los Angeles to share what she had learned about her family.


At the beginning of this article, I suggested that someone had read my previous articles. There was no superfluous music video at the end and no genealogists met Vanessa in a cafe or restaurant; the only non-library or archive meeting was in an office. They still had the “coming up” sections before commercials, but they did away with the recap when returning, which is especially noticeable if you watch the episode without commercials.

Unlike the previously mentioned episodes for Spike and Emmitt, Vanessa didn’t pursue her history back to it’s slave roots, although it was implied that William Fields was probably born a slave. They ended on a positive note of her two ancestors, one who fought to free the slaves and the other who tried to improve their lives after the Civil War. Because this show is about family history instead of genealogy, continuing to trace backwards for more was not entirely necessary, but of course, I wonder if they did.

I don’t know if they included more American history lessons in this show than in others, but I certainly appreciate them. All of my families and most of my clients’ immigrant ancestors arrived to Ellis Island, so the Civil War era is never part of my research. Including details is important for understanding. Watching the BBC version once, I got a little lost in the history because I never learned British history.

This article continues the Nitpicker’s Version series. The previous season ended with the episode for Spike Lee.

WDYTYA – Episode 7 – The Nitpicker’s Version

The final episode in the first series of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Spike Lee’s search for more about his mother’s history. Just as with Emmitt Smith, as you’d expect from an African American, his ancestry takes him back to his slave roots.

Beginning at the Cemetery

Spike took his kids to visit his mother’s gravestone at the cemetery. After leaving flowers, they also left rocks on the top of the gravestone. I just read an article about that particular Jewish custom and how non-Jews were adopting it. It was interesting to see it here.

Spike talked about his grandmother and how she stepped up when his mother died when he was 19; she helped put him through college and start his business. Then he realized that, especially as a filmmaker, he had “squandered” the opportunity to film her talking about her family. Of course, this is the regret that all genealogists have — that we didn’t ask the questions when we had the people around. Either we didn’t know what to ask, or we didn’t have the drive to know more until they were gone.

A prior DNA test told Spike that his father’s side came from Cameroon and his mother’s came from Sierra Leone.

First Stop, Dublin, Georgia

As Spike began the “drive into town” sequence, the show skipped to the family tree charts, showing his parents, grandmother Zimmie, then skipping back to find her grandmother because he already knew that his great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Jackson, was born into slavery. However, even when you know the next generation back, you shouldn’t necessarily skip over the documentation of the more recent generation. You never know what you might find in the records that you weren’t expecting or that will give clues you’ll need later in the research.

At the Laurens County Library, genealogist Melvin J. Collier helped Spike to find Lucinda’s death record. I know it’s been a while since I’ve watched the rest of the season, but is this the first episode to have the very first meeting with a genealogist at a library instead of a cafe? They went right for the sponsor’s site,, to find her date of death. At a microfilm reader, they searched for an obituary in the newspaper. Finding it, Spike learned that Lucinda had two other sons.


Melvin called this a “genealogical goldmine”, to find an obituary for someone who was born a slave. Genealogical goldmines are always nice to find. I was recently doing work for client, researching during someone’s lifetime for clues, when the goldmine — and the answer to the client’s first question — was found only in the obituary.

Other goldmines can be jewels in disguise. Years ago, I read that US naturalization papers were a goldmine but that the certificate of naturalization itself was not. I beg to differ on that one. With the certificate, you have all the information you need to find the other paperwork, so I believe that it is just as much of a goldmine since it leads directly to more and doesn’t just serve as a clue to it.

Curious about Lucinda’s husband, Spike continued to look for more by checking the death certificate of her son. In a cafe, though not meeting with anyone, he opened a file on his computer. They don’t mention where this file came from; it just sort of appeared. I wish the death certificates of my great-great-grandparents would just appear on my computer desktop too.

Life on Mars

Spike was amazed to find that Lucinda’s husband’s name was Mars, a name his grandmother had suggested he use in his first film. She told him she had a “crazy uncle named Mars”, though with this discovery, he thought she may have said it was a crazy grandfather. His original memory may have been correct; she may have had an uncle with the same name. The obituary stated that Lucinda was survived by three sons, but it didn’t say if any predeceased her. Did he think about that?

Meeting historian Mark Schultz at the Georgia State Archives, they looked for more information about Mars, specifically to find who owned him. Going to Ancestry again, they found him listed in the 1880 census with the surname Woodall instead of Jackson. This was obviously not such a simple search and again the program failed to show that you can’t always find someone so easily, especially when you’re searching for them listed with a different surname. Mark stated that he was doing an “open search” for the given name Mars in Georgia, apparently with no other search information. By the time they were filming, the research was already done and they knew that searching by the name Jackson would not produce the results they wanted. Also not mentioned, but visible on screen, besides the three sons in Lucinda’s obituary, they had another son and three daughters.

The show went back to their family tree chart, showing the family name changing from Jackson to the earlier Woodall, but didn’t bother to add all the other children in the family. That is sad. How long could it have taken them to add the voiceover “Along with the three sons previously mentioned, from the census, we learned that Mars and Lucinda also had four other children…”?

Who Owned Them?

Back to the Ancestry search, they looked for Woodall in Twiggs County, where they’d already been searching, and found one family with a large plantation. While Spike jumped right to the conclusion, “That’s who owned them,” Mark replied with, “That’s very likely.” Because we know how this show works, we know that Spike is correct, but when someone is actually doing the research, they can’t just jump ahead without verifying this kind of information.

Spike followed that comment by asking if there was any way to verify the slave ownership, but it appeared to be a voiceover, probably added much later while the show was in editing. At least this helps point out that verification is needed. They checked the Slave Schedule and found the list of slaves, but the census only lists the slaves by their ages and doesn’t show their names. They didn’t check if one of the listings matched Mars’s age.

Still working with Mark, next on microfilm, Mars Woodall was found in the agricultural census of 1880 listed as a landowner.

To The Land

Before leaving Georgia, Spike went to see the land that Mars owned, from a map given to him by Mark. Again, they didn’t explain what records were used to find the map to the land.

“It all started here!” How many of these celebrities have gone to a place and said that? I don’t think it started there. I think it started in Africa, where human beings evolved from more primitive beings. Or really it started with the Big Bang. Maybe the generation in this particular part of his ancestry started their free lives there, but why do so many of them say things like that?

Spike had some of the things he wore in his first film as the character Mars sent to him so he could put them on while standing on the land that his ancestor Mars once owned. He then dug up some red clay with a rock and dropped bits of it in a plastic bag. So he planned by having the items sent to him but didn’t think to bring a trowel and a jar for the dirt?

They kept the camera on Spike while he ad libbed all kinds of things while “digging” the dirt. I think a better use of that time would have been to fill in some of the details they skipped over instead.

In a voiceover, Spike said that no one knows what happened to Mars or how he lost his land after 1880.

In the voiceover after the commercial, the narrator still claimed that James Woodall was only the “probable slave master”. They still hadn’t found any verification and unfortunately sometimes that’s the way the research goes. Not everything was documented and not all the documents have survived time.

Back to Lucinda’s Family

The next section started with, “he was sent a copy of her death certificate”. It almost sounded like it was sent anonymously. How about, “the certificate was ordered from the civil records office” or something similar; it would take about the same time to say.

Back to the family chart graphic, they reverted to the earlier version, before finding Mars and Lucinda’s other two sons. Why couldn’t they have just built on to the more complete version?

Spike looked for Lucinda’s parents, Wilson and Matilda Griswold, in the census on his computer. He found Matilda living in Griswoldville with the Grier family, but not Wilson.

To Macon, Georgia

Meeting with historian Daina Berry, she showed Spike several documents. First, on the Slave Schedule in 1850, she found a long list of slaves belonging to Samuel Griswold. A document to hire out slaves mentioned Wilson, probably meaning he was a skilled worker. Another document mentioned Griswold’s home and properties were burned by General Sherman’s army, and some slaves were taken with the army, in 1865.

“An ancestor of mine was on a plantation that General Sherman came and burnt to the ground… That’s history right there.” This line is great, but it’s implication is also wrong. His ancestor has a link to a known historical event, but it’s all history. Every one of our ancestors is part of history, whether they did something significant or not, had some tie to a major historical event or not, it’s all our history. As the tagline goes, “An historian studies history, a genealogist studies history.”


Visiting a large plaque where the town once stood, Spike read that the cotton gin was converted to a pistol factory. Another car pulled up on the other side of the road and historian Bill Bragg shared more information about the factory, including bringing a pistol that was made there. Bill also had a picture of Griswold and another of his wife. They commented that the two didn’t look very happy, but back then, people were told not to smile for the pictures because the exposure was so long that they couldn’t hold the smile long enough to get clear pictures. Because Matilda was listed in the census as mulatto, there was the possibility that the slave owner, Griswold, was her father.


In genealogy research, discovery doesn’t always happen in the most logical order. At this point, the episode returned to the earlier meeting with Daina Berry for more information. Daina pointed out that Griswold’s daughter married Grier, matching Matilda’s age to a listing in Griswold’s list of slaves that was probably her. The narrator explained that when a slave was fathered by the white slave owner, sometimes it was gifted to a family member and sent away. Daina did more research on Ancestry and found a Griswold descendent still alive.

Did they mention Ancestry enough times in this episode? I think this one might have a record number.

Meet the Cousin

In Arlington, Texas, Spike met Guinevere Grier, Samuel Griswold’s descendent. Listening to Spike tell her how they’re related, counting the number of “greats” and explaining their cousin relationship was kind of funny. It is much easier to me to just refer to my ancestors by their names rather than figuring out the relationship, otherwise I stumble over the counts in just the same way.

The superfluous ending music video was broken up with sound bites from Spike. Did they do that in the other episodes? I think so, maybe, but not as much as this one.


Spike seemed satisfied with knowing his family’s slave roots, unlike Emmitt Smith, who wanted to go back further. Emmitt used his DNA test to determine where he was from in Africa, just as Spike did, but this episode didn’t follow up on that with a visit to Africa.

There were several times when Spike would jump to conclusions in this episode. His jumps were the most likely versions of the stories of who the slave owner was or who the father was, but because there is no documentation for proof, and they apparently didn’t try DNA tests to match the families, many of the statements should be said as “likely” and “probably”, as the genealogists and historians stated, instead of “definitely”.

I’m looking forward to the next season of Who Do You Think You Are? Are you?

This article is the seventh in a series:

WDYTYA – Episode 6 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I know it’s been a while since these last two episodes aired, but I wanted to get them in before the second series starts. In case anyone has forgotten from my saying them in previous Nitpicker’s Versions, I do love this show. But as a genealogist, there are so many things I think they could do better, certainly to educate the general public about genealogy research.

The sixth episode of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Susan Sarandon seeking information about her grandmother, Anita. From the introduction, it sounded like Susan had already done some research, but her grandmother’s information had always escaped her. She recalled some family stories and headed to Virginia to interview her mother.

Meet the Family

This is the typical beginning to this show and is the correct beginning for genealogical research. Then again, had she ever tried asking her mother about her Anita before? Her mother was “apprehensive”, so maybe that had stopped her in the past.

To New York City

Susan met with Megan Smolenyak in a cafe. There’s something about this show that everyone meets the genealogist in cafes. Megan produced Anita’s birth certificate, the 1920 US census, and Anita’s marriage certificate. They carefully examined some of the information on the records, including Anita’s parents’ information, the number of siblings she had and how many were still alive, and that her father was widowed by the time she was 12. Though her marriage certificate said she was 15, she was really only 13 and was already six months pregnant.

Susan mentioned her regret of not having talked to her grandfather while he was still alive. This is also typical of genealogists. Many find the urge to trace their ancestry when they are already part of the eldest generation still alive in their families. Even those that start young often don’t know what they should be learning from the older relatives and miss opportunities.

Susan met with Dr. Mary Brown, an expert on Italian immigration, and she produced Anita’s parents’ marriage certificate.

Get the Family Involved

At the New York Public Library, Susan brought her son to do some research, where they searched surname distributions in Italy, finding both of Anita’s parents’ surnames in the same region.

There was no indication in the episode if proper research was done to find the city of origin in Italy. Did they check ship lists, naturalizations, or any other US documents or did they just jump to the surnames in Italy?  It may have been their only chance to find her roots in Italy, but the show didn’t mention if it tried any other methods.

Going to Italy

In Florence, she met Cinzia Rossello at the Riccardini Library who had found some records proving that Susan’s great-grandfather, Mansueto Rigali, was born in Tuscany and a conscription document showing that he owned land in the small town of Coreglia.

At the Loppia Church in Coreglia, Cinzia found records of more of Susan’s ancestors baptized in the church. She kept flipping to bookmarked pages and moving down the assembly line of books laid out on the table, tracing straight back to 1640. Of course, this line went straight back on the Rigali surname with no indication if they searched for siblings or up the family lines of the spouses.

This is another place where they have gone wrong and many amateurs will not realize it. Not only do you have to trace siblings — often because there will be missing records on ancestors and their siblings will be the link to the next generation — but you have many more family lines than just going straight back with one surname. Did they search for siblings? Did they search for spouses and their families? Or did they get lucky and just go straight back? Some people only want research on a certain name in their family, and nothing about siblings or other lines. If I were to do research like that, I’d rarely get anywhere.

Local guide, Gabriele Calibrese, told Susan more about her great-grandfather Mansueto and others of his profession, showing the passenger ship list and telling the story about how many statue makers went to America from the small village.

Back to New York

Susan visited the Rigali family plot in a cemetery but didn’t say how she found it. This is another bit of research that was completely skipped over and didn’t even get a mention. How did they find it? Whose death led them to the cemetery? She had a list of nine people who were buried with no marker. I was glad when she said she should put one up. I hope she did.

To another restaurant, Susan met historian Burton Peretti. After discussing a bit of history about night clubs, he produced a marriage license for Anita when she was 25, where she claimed no previous marriages. Susan knew that her grandfather had not divorced her until years after.

Back to the NYPL, Susan again brought her son, Miles, and searched city directories to find Anita under her newly discovered married name. Finding the names of Anita and her husband listed at different addresses, Susan started a sentence with, “If that’s them…” instead of assuming she had found the right people. This is how many genealogy sentences should start. Sometimes you can’t be sure you’ve found the right people until you verify with more documentation.

Turning to the obligatory search on Ancestry, they searched for Anita’s death record. Miles suggested searching for Anita using her given name and birth date and skipping her surname. This was clever advice. When you’re not sure of some of the information, and you’re faced with a searchable database, you have to try different combinations of the information that you know to find the record you need. I have often searched for records using given names, ages, other family members, without using surnames. Sometimes information needs to be left out of the search because you don’t know the correct information (Anita’s final surname) or because it was transcribed incorrectly or spelled differently.

At the New City Library in Rockland, Susan followed up on the death information and found Anita’s obituary. Visiting the address from the obituary, Susan met a neighbor and learned about Anita. From there, she visited nieces of Anita’s last husband who lived nearby. They were able to tell her more about Anita and share pictures.


As with other episodes, there were some great comments when discovering details in the records, excitement at verifying information, and there were huge gaps in the genealogy research. However, looking at the genealogists involved, seen in the episode and listed in the credits, I can only assume that the proper research was done and simply not shown on screen. Unfortunately, that’s what gives viewers the wrong impression about what can and should be done to find this much information and how much work and time went into it.

As Susan learned more about Anita, she connected to the grandmother she never knew. She found more compassion for the woman, learning about her shortened childhood and short marriages, but finally finding happiness for her last 35 years.

Every time I see these episodes that dig deep into a single person’s life, it makes me want to know more about the individuals in my ancestry. I know many details but I’ve never really connected with their life stories. With so many, sometimes I feel like I don’t know which one to start with.

This article is the six in a series:

WDYTYA – Episode 5 – The Nitpicker’s Version

From the previews, we already knew that Brooke Shields was going to find that she was descended from royalty. Reading some of the articles that have been written recently by people who don’t like genealogists, this is what they think the field is all about: finding where your family intersects with the royalty of Europe. Although Brooke has this on one side of her family, the majority of genealogists do not. Or maybe many of them do, but not in Jewish families. Either we run out of records to trace, or Jews were simply so isolated from the rest of the population that our families don’t intersect with the European royalty that everyone else is trying to find in their families.

Why Do The Research?

I think that most people find an interest in genealogy because they inherit old items from parents or grandparents, or are involved in helping someone downsize from the old family house to a smaller place.

For Brooke Shields, it was the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I didn’t really understand what it was about that event that made her suddenly interested in her family history based on what she said, but I can understand that people reacted very strongly to that moment in time and that was simply her reaction.

No Family Visit

Brooke started by going to New Jersey, where her mother was born. Apparently she had no family to talk to in the way all the other episodes started. There was no mention of any other relatives. Were there none alive or did she not have contact with them? Either way, sometimes you have to start without.

Michelle Chubenko was her first contact, a genealogist who worked in New Jersey. They searched through microfilms for the birth record of her grandmother and sister. Can regular people do that if they go to the archives? I have never been to the New Jersey archives but I’ve been to others, and such things didn’t happen. You have to request the record, giving specific details, often the details you are trying to learn, in the hopes that they will find the record for you. Oh, the privilege of celebrity and a camera crew.

Looking up her grandmother and sister, they saw that there were four children in the family, which Brooke didn’t know about. She was “in shock” that there were two more siblings, but Michelle found the records of the other births. Just because she hadn’t heard of them, why would she be surprised to find there were more?

Come to think of it, my grandfather was one of twelve. When I was told there were two others that had died in infancy, I was surprised. Not because I didn’t think it was possible but just because I hadn’t been told about them before. Watching the first time through, I didn’t think of this and took her shock at the revelation to be wrong, but now I see that it was probably the same kind of reaction I had.

From the birth records, they determined that of the two brothers, one died in infancy while the other was still alive when the fourth child was born. Brooke suddenly wanted to know everything about him, saying she felt like a detective. That is exactly what genealogy research is about.

To Newark

Going back to the old neighborhood, historian Tom McCabe showed her a 1910 picture of the street where the family lived and pointed out the buildings where they lived and where two of the siblings were born.

Meeting with Michelle again, now in a restaurant, Michelle “did additional research”. I always like when they mention that they did research and didn’t just produce all kinds of information out of thin air. She found Brooke’s great-grandmother’s death certificate, when her grandmother was only ten years old. She also found the death for Edward when he was 13, along with a newspaper article about his drowning.

Why do they meet so many genealogists in restaurants? Are there no better places? Just seems odd to me. Sure, that may happen in real life when you’re meeting a stranger and need a public location, but that’s not the case here. Maybe they just like the bad lighting conditions for the episodes.

From Mom to Dad

Once Brooke had discovered enough to understand more about her grandmother, she switched to her father’s side. When I look at how far back in time the research went for her father’s family, I can only hope that they did more on her mother’s side but didn’t find anything TV-worthy.

At the New York Historical Society, genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts unrolled a family tree scroll going back to the early 1700s.  (We later see the other side of it goes to the 1600s.) This is one of those moments that I don’t like, where they skip over far too much of the research and just suddenly produce all kinds of results. Not only that, but he traced that far back and all she could ask about was what came before.

Of course, she may have asked questions about every person in the chart and none of that made it into the episode, but not only does this show that genealogists can magically produce detailed charts going back several hundred years, but that the person receiving the information should only ask what came before that and expect to find more going even further back in history. Usually, when time and money aren’t an issue, whatever information is found is all that can be found. This also suggests that no matter what information is available, if you get on a plane and go to another country, you’ll find so much more when you get there. Is that true? If so, I need to start racking up more frequent flyer miles.

To Rome, Italy

Daniela Felisini, a professor at the University of Rome, who had written a book about the history of the Torlonias, brought Brooke to the location of the original textile shop and bank where her ancestor began building his businesses.

Villa Torlonia was one of the palaces that her ancestor bought for the family’s summer home. Wouldn’t we all like to find a place like that in our family’s history?

Once again, she wanted to know more about where Giovanni came from, which was her original goal. That family tree scroll went back to Marino, Giovanni’s father, and that was who she wanted to know more about. Going back to his birth in 1725 wasn’t enough.

From the wedding certificate of Marino, they discovered a French origin for the family.

Not the Best Part of the Show

Before the commercial break, a clip is shown where Brooke is standing in front of the house and says “This is where it all began.” (This is not shown later in the episode but just in the previews.) She is not the only celebrity to say this in the show previews. Each part of this particular episode was about finding what came before whatever research she was given, so why does it begin at that house and not several generations before? Is that as far back as the research went in that family so it became the beginning of it?

This is like when people say they are finished with their genealogy. No, they probably aren’t. They may be finished with the records that are available, but their genealogy goes back a lot further.

The narrator’s voiceover after the commercial was also disturbing. “She thought her father’s side was Italian, but now she’s just discovered she may have very strong French roots.” I remembered this a little differently after the first viewing, but it still sounds a bit wrong. To me, it sounded like her family could be traced back to the early 1700s in Italy, but she wasn’t really Italian?  If you can trace your family back 300 years in a country, I think your family is from that country. Just because they came from somewhere else before that doesn’t negate your link to that country. After all, we’re really all from Africa, if you trace back far enough into the history of the species, but we don’t all claim African roots.

Augerolles, France

On the trail of Marino Torlonia, she went to France. Historian Carene Rabilloud showed her the baptism, where he was born in France. Next, she visited the house where the family lived 300 years earlier.

Brooke felt “linked” to the family and it was repeated a few times that she studied French literature in college and she was amazed to find that France was part of her ancestry. Moments like that are some of the bonuses you get from studying your genealogy; finding specific connections to your ancestors.

Again, The Chart Was Not Enough

After tracing beyond one side of the scroll, she wanted to go back on the other branch that went back to the early 1600s.

“Not being satisfied without the least bit of royal blood in my veins, I must find out about her.” As I stated before, this is what some people think genealogy is all about. Brooke sounded like she wasn’t quite so serious as that may read in this blog, but it was what several writers have complained about recently in those anti-genealogy stories.

This is where finally got their plug. What train was she on that had Internet access? I want to take that train when I go to Europe.

Paris, France

Charles Mosley, a genealogist who specializes in royal families, was her contact at the Louvre. Christine Marie’s father was Henry IV. This seems like a pretty important bit of information. Why did the genealogist in New York not have this information on that fancy scroll? Hopefully only because they wanted to break this information later in the episode.

At Saint-Denis Cathedral, she got to touch the actual heart of Henry IV, which seemed macabre. (Borrowing that word from David Tennant in his BBC episode, when he handled a skull found under the church floorboards.) Charles said that the heart was her property more than anybody else; well, hers and all the other possibly hundreds or more descendants, right?

Of course, once you get to European royalty, it all traces back to Charlemagne, so Charles was able to tell her more about her royal ancestry going back even further.

Considering how far back in time you have to go to get to Charlemagne, it makes me wonder about the so-called Borg Tree on Is that tree based on descendents of the royal lines? A cousin of mine married into a family that also traced back to those royal lines. I was sent a file of the genealogy that just went straight back until it got to Charlemagne’s grandfather. If you combine all the information including siblings, cousins, and descending down the families, how many people alive today would be connected to that family tree?


“Being able to sort of find your place in the grand scheme of things, there’s something empowering about it.” That’s a nice way to sum up genealogy research. There are lines like this in each episode. We are all the sum of the people who came before us, whether we inherited something from them in our appearances, our talents, or if it’s just a matter of a change of geography that changed the course of our family forever.

I was kind of disappointed with this episode the first time I watched it, with perpetuating the search for royalty in her family and constantly asking what came before that family tree scroll instead of showing that she could be satisfied just knowing that much. I think it was done that way deliberately to continue the story and show her searching for her ancestry beyond what was written there, but when you take that much care to put together a large scroll in fancy calligraphy that way, you don’t stop at the interesting parts.

Rewatching the show, I was not as disappointed as during the first viewing, but I think this was my least favorite episode so far. And considering how much I enjoy watching every episode of this show, saying it’s my least favorite isn’t really saying anything bad.

This article is the fifth in a series. Previous articles:

WDYTYA – Episode 4 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Matthew Broderick had a similar problem to me. His father’s side of the family was the big mystery; my paternal grandfather’s family is the biggest mystery to me, with the earliest record being my grandfather’s passenger ship list to America.

Start with the Family

Matthew started by visiting his sister Janet. Together, they carried a huge trunk of old photos and possibly other items. The part I missed from this scene was the big “Oh wow, this stuff is amazing!” No such trunk exists in my family, certainly not for my paternal grandfather’s family. Any genealogist would love to find such an item.

I like when Janet told the story about the card joke, how their grandfather called a bad poker hand a foot, and how their mother thought it was a dumb joke but used the same expression her whole life. Even little bits like that are interesting to learn about our ancestors.

Matthew hoped that he found nothing embarrassing, hoped it was a good story, but said he was “ready for anything”. That is a good attitude. Studying your ancestors’ lives, you never know what you might find.

National Archives in NYC

Matthew read from the military record of his grandfather, James Joseph Broderick, seeing that he was in the medical department, transferred to Le Havre, and therefore headed to France to find out what happened. Again, someone watching might think that the only way to find out about your ancestors is to fly across the world, when that is rarely ever the case. It is certainly interesting to go to the places where our ancestors lived, but how many people ever get to do that?


On the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield, Peter Barton, a World War I historian, explained to Matthew what the battle was like, further explaining what the medical personnel’s job was like, and how important his grandfather was to every man on the field.

Producing a copy of a document, Matthew learned that his grandfather was awarded a purple heart. He was wounded in 1918 and received the medal in 1933. What they didn’t explain was the large gap in time. Do all medals take that long to be awarded? I would like to know.

Going to the cemetery, they visited the graves of men from his grandfather’s division. Producing another document from the file, Peter handed Matthew a letter that recommended James Broderick for the Distinguished Service Cross. Another missing point: did he get the medal? The letter was a recommendation, but they failed to state if it was awarded. The previous document stated that the medal was awarded.

Switching Families — to Connecticut

Changing his focus to his grandmother Mary, Matthew went to the Connecticut State Archives, where he met with Richard Roberts, the archivist. got their usual plug when they searched the census.

They found that Mary was living in an orphanage which Matthew was shocked to learn. It almost seemed like he realized that that could have been the end of the line for that family’s research. But Richard told him that there were more clues. They looked through the coroner’s records to find what happened to Mary’s parents.

“These cold, little facts get more and more human. As you put them together, you get a story of a life of a human being and it’s just fascinating.”

We all learn about history in school, but when you find that it’s your own ancestors who lived through the events, it makes it more personal. This is part of the beauty of genealogy and family history research. I wonder if I would have been more interested in learning about history in school if I had also researched how my family played their part in events.

“It’s funny to know things about your parents’ parents that maybe your parents didn’t know.”

I can relate to this as well. When I began my own research, my father could not even tell me the names of his grandparents. He had his parents’ ketuba (the Jewish marriage contract) which listed both his grandfathers’ names, and he was named for one of his grandfathers, but he didn’t know.

Who Has Seen the Census on Paper?

Mel Smith, an archivist at the Connecticut State Archives, brought out books of the 1870 census. Has anyone ever seen census pages on paper? I didn’t even know they had such things. Did they do this because they already plugged in the previous section? They were searching for William Martindale, Matthew’s great-grandfather.

Mentioning that the 1870 census does not define the relationships in the household or specify whether someone is single, married, or (in this case) widowed would have been a nice addition to the voiceover. Someone who doesn’t normally work in these records would not know that. I had to look it up myself, as the research I usually do rarely goes back that far in American history. But these kind of details are usually skipped over in the show, and this one is insignificant compared to many other things I mention that are overlooked in the final cut of the episodes.

Back to the 1850 census, they found the same family again, including William’s father, Robert. Why did they skip the 1860 census? The voiceover soon explained that the family was missing from that census. I’m glad they explained it, and so quickly. It’s good to point out that not everyone can be found in every census, just as not everyone can be found in records even where you expect them.

By the age on the census, Matthew determineed that his great-grandfather, William Martindale, probably fought in the Civil War, so they followed up on that.

More Paper Records

Breaking out more boxes of old paper records, I wondered why I didn’t notice so many genealogists on Twitter freaking out because neither Matthew nor Mel were wearing white gloves.

Matthew read from the enlistment papers of Robert, stopping to revel in seeing his signature and then looking at his physical description.

They continued by looking through muster rolls. The pages were folded and looked delicate. Did Matthew open each page to see where the regiment had been? They found a page that showed the regiment fought at Gettysburg. In a voiceover, Matthew said that the muster rolls showed the regiment went from Tennessee to Savannah, Georgia, but how did they know that Robert’s trail ended in Atlanta? Another fact skipped over in the episode. Obviously the research was completed, but as usual, not explained.

To Atlanta

Gordon Jones, curator of the Atlanta History Center and Civil War Exhibit, brought Matthew out to the location of the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Another document was produced for Matthew to read, stating that Robert died in that battle.

Brad Quinlan, a Civil War historian knew more about what happened to Robert after he was killed. They visited the original burial location then went to the Marietta National Cemetery where the bodies were later moved. Robert was buried as an unknown soldier. Brad created a list of all the men in the regiment who were buried there and found only one that was unknown, thus finding Robert.

The preview from the show stated that Matthew’s search helped to solve a 160 year old mystery. It sounded like it could have been solved if someone had really tried before, since Robert was the only one who was missing from the list, but it was very touching to see an unknown soldier mystery solved, especially noticing in the scene how many small stones there were, clearly more unknown soldiers.


“We’re all related to the generations that happened before us. What they went through shaped our time.”

They’re really good at getting the right sound bites from the celebrities in these episodes. Matthew had quite a few good ones.

This was another great episode of Who Do You Think You Are? filled with important events in American history. I find these episodes fascinating because I learned about these events in history classes in school, though I may not have paid much attention back then. Even so, they are not so much a part of my history because all four of my grandparents were born in Europe. Nevertheless, I think I’ve learned more about history from movies and documentaries than I ever did in school. This episode just brings those same stories to life even more. By learning about what happened to a single person, and going through the emotional ride with that person’s descendent, it just makes it seem more real and more personal, like it was something that happened to real people and not just something that was written in history books.

This article is the third in a series. Previous articles:

Additional: By email, Roger Lustig informed me that the Purple Heart was reinvented for George Washington’s bicentennial in 1932, which was when World War I vets could apply. Thanks Roger.

WDYTYA – Episode 3 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I knew going into Lisa Kudrow’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that it would be a little depressing. Any time you research the Holocaust, that’s where it goes. It was a bit in parallel with Jerry’s Springer’s BBC episode, which I will likely refer to in this review. His quest, as I recall, was to find out what happened to his grandmothers, both of whom were killed in the Holocaust.

Meet the Parents

As usual, the episode started with a visit to her parents’ house. I loved that Lisa recognized the old pictures. What wasn’t mentioned in the episode, but some of us learned in other interviews, was that her father had already researched the family history. In which case he had probably shown her the photos or had them around the house where she had seen them.

Recalling the story from her grandmother when she was young and asked about her parents was interesting. I think a lot of us have those random stories floating around in our minds. Maybe we don’t think of them, but they just resurface sometimes when we don’t even expect it. Then her father, Lee, shared a similar story, one that he had held on to for so many years, about Yuri Barudin visiting and telling them that the family had been killed. Lee remembered the name of the ship and that Yuri had been a witness to the massacre. He remembered the visit clearly but may have pictured what happened and changed some of the story in his mind. (Of course, I’m writing this article after having seen the entire episode.)

Lisa stated that she wanted to find her great-grandmother’s final resting place. It didn’t seem likely to me that such a place could be found; possibly a memorial for the Jews in the town, but not anything like a gravesite.


Lisa headed to Belarus to meet with Tamara Vershitskaya, a Jewish historian. Tamara was her guide all through her visit to Belarus.

“It would be amazing if I could find any documentation.” Lisa knew that documents were lost and destroyed and she could only hope to find some. With statements like this, hopefully amateur genealogists watching the show will realize that not everyone will be able to find documentation like Lisa did.

Tamara said that Jewish communities were reduced to 5% of their populations, 10% at most. Was that specific to Belarus? I thought some were eliminated entirely, possibly just because no one returned home to the towns. Often, that may have been because the Nazis convinced the locals to act out against the Jews. Who would want to go back to live with those people again?

Zonal State Archive

Natalia Ivanova, the archive director, had a book they had copied from Moscow with lists of people who were killed. That was an amazing find. It made me think that I need to go to Europe and find out if documents like that exist for my family, because I can’t get access to them from America.

Now, I know that the show does the coming up next and just a minute ago previews, but why did they have to repeat the entire conversation between Lisa and Natalia? Were they so short on content that they had to fill extra time with so much extra repetition?

Ilya, Belarus

Next, Tamara and Lisa went to the place where her family lived in Ilya, walking past a building without mentioning it. Was the house gone? It took the next scene to find out.

They visited Maria Aleksiyonok, who knew her family and remembered the massacre of the Jews. Maria mentioned the houses were burned down. She had a lot to tell Lisa and it was very emotional for both of them. I can only hope Lisa learned more from Maria off camera, because she was clearly a wealth of information.

The Holocaust

They headed to the center of Ilya that used to be a market square. The Jews were brought there in 1942 for selection. David Rubin wrote about the event and Lisa was given a translation to read. A quick search online to JewishGen revealed that it was taken from the Yizkor book. That chapter is not translated online.

Lisa, Tamara, and Alexander Gavrilik, a resident, walked down the street where the Jews were marched and killed, to find the memorial that is apparently placed exactly above where they were buried. Thinking back to the Jerry Springer episode, he did much the same thing; he wanted to walk where his ancestors last walked.

“You make people afraid enough of something completely manufactured, and you can drive them to become murderers.” That is exactly what happened. Except in some cases, the Nazis were able to put that fear into the town residents and they turned on the Jews themselves. From this story, it sounded like the Ilya residents were witnesses but did not participate.

Mention the Sponsor

Lisa headed to to look for ship records for Yuri Barudin and found him listed Boleslaw, finding him employed on the Batory, as her father remembered. The ship name made it more credible that Yuri was Boleslaw, but Lisa still carried a bit of skepticism with her about it, which was perfect for genealogy research.

Gdynia, Poland

Lisa went to Poland, where the ship list stated Boleslaw had been discharged to.

She met with researcher Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski, to learn more. He found Boleslaw in a record of people who settled down in Gdynia, which listed his wife and son. I loved this scene. I love how she asked if there was a census or voter registration, and he brought out a phone book. Then when she found Boleslaw Barudin listed in the phone book, she kind of freaked out with excitement. She was too scared to call and wasn’t sure if he would speak English.

I think I can safely assume that the family had been contacted previously, so the call was not completely unexpected, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Lisa’s surprise was genuine.

It was great when her cousin mentioned that she was in his house and not on his TV. Did these Polish relatives know that they were related to her? At least one of them remembered pictures taken with her grandmother, but no longer had them. The story of Boleslaw’s visit was cleared up, that he had reported what happened to her family in America, but he just delivered the message and was not an eyewitness.

Standing by the water, Lisa was still raving about meeting her cousins, saying that she couldn’t wait to tell her father. She couldn’t wait to tell him, she repeated, then pulled out her cell phone and called. Fantastic.

Technology is Great

Returning to her father’s house, they used the Internet to contact the Polish cousins by video. I was glad when Lee mentioned that his mother was Boleslaw’s aunt, which solved that mystery. Obviously it wasn’t a mystery to them how they were related, but it was a gap in the show.

As emotional as learning about the fate of relatives in the Holocaust is, I find the reuniting to be more emotional and I understood what Lee was feeling after that conversation with his cousins. Having only read a bit on Twitter and one quick review of the episode, I didn’t think it was a bad thing to show him getting emotional after finally being reunited with his cousins.


I guess there’s not a lot of nitpicking in this article. Instead of this episode being a full-on genealogy search for the family, it was mostly just to fill in a couple of gaps in her father’s research: was there more to know about the fate of his grandmother in Ilya and what had happened to Yuri. So the things that I nitpicked about other episodes weren’t really in this one so much.

I knew this episode would probably be my favorite even before it aired. This story is the one closest to my family’s story. Watching this just makes me want to go to Eastern Europe even more, to see where they lived and maybe to find that elusive document that tells of their fate. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives still left in Poland, Ukraine, or Moldova, where my grandparents were born, but maybe I do and I need to look for them. For most families, they are all accounted for, either by knowing where they went after the war or that they were killed. But there is one elusive family where all we know is that the Jews in that town were all killed. But what if they weren’t in that town when the war started?

This article is the third in a series. Previous articles can be found at Episode 1 and Episode 2.

Addition March 21: I received an email today (from someone apparently named Lucy) who pointed out something that I missed in my critique, but it is also relevant. One element not addressed in the episode: does the Barudin family identify as Jewish? Many survivors who remained in Europe abandoned their religion, largely out of fear. She also wondered about the fate of Yuri’s family, since his parents and other immediate family were possibly in Ilya as well.

I would think that if they identified as Jewish, that it might be only in more recent times. After all, Yuri changed his name to Boleslaw to not sound Jewish, so he clearly wouldn’t have practiced outwardly. There have been many Jewish families who do not pass down the traditions or even the knowledge of their religion after being forced or frightened into converting. (This goes for Jews in other locations and times as well.) So that family may no longer consider themselves Jewish. Or perhaps they used this new connection to their Jewish American cousins to rediscover that part of themselves. I and other Jewish genealogists are often contacted by people who believe that they are descended from Jews who were forced to convert, in an effort to prove that Jewish heritage. But those are more often Americans, Canadians, or British. I’m not sure if anyone would want to be openly Jewish in Poland even now. Sometimes I read that it is a better time, but then I read something else about some act of anti-Semitism.

As for the fate of Yuri’s family, he probably already knew it, since he was the one who relayed the message to the Kudrows in America.

WDYTYA – Episode 2 – The Nitpicker’s Version

After the first watching of this episode, I could only think of a couple things to nitpick about it, and some of those things were actually positive items in the episode. As an African American, Emmitt Smith set out to trace his ancestry to places and historical times where I’ve never researched, so just like the previous episode with Sarah Jessica Parker, I learned new things about genealogy research and history. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

Before he began the trip for his research, his wife mentioned that he had missed some family reunions over the years. He also took a DNA test.


Emmitt began by visiting his parents. I recall the BBC version of WDYTYA also usually starts with visiting family, as did SJP’s episode where she visited her brother and her mother. This is always the best advice for any genealogist just starting out and it’s good how they show that it is the first step.

His father directed him to the web site his cousin had created. Hopefully the work done there was checked to be sure it was correct before continuing back in history.

Burnt Corn, Alabama

Emmitt said he felt like a detective, which is exactly what genealogy research is. I thought that was a great comment.

He stepped into a store to ask about his great-great-grandparents, Bill and Victoria Watson, showing their photos. Did they plan that he would find himself talking to a cousin? Very entertaining for TV, but probably not likely for anyone else, though such serendipity has happened before for genealogists.

While the East coasters were watching the show (and posting spoilers to Twitter), I noticed that a few thought it was nice that Emmitt was seen taking notes. SJP was shown doing that at least once in her episode also. It’s necessary just to keep track of all the new information you gather.

Monroe County Archives

Dawn Crook, an archivist, showed him a book of Marriage Licenses for Colored, which he had never seen before. She suggested that the easiest way to find more was by using the census, naturally going to the sponsor’s site, By their dates of birth, they determined that the couple were both born as slaves.

The next help he got was from genealogist Marjorie Sholes who said that she was “able to do a little research”. She probably did more than a little, but at least research was mentioned. She found the marriage license for Bill and Victoria, discovering her maiden name was Puryear, which was more rare and would be easier to research than Watson. She sort of guided him to seeing that they should follow up on that particular line of his family. If only we could all know which line would prove most interesting and findable.

Emmitt mentions that if they didn’t find anything about the Puryears that they may be at a dead end. This is very true in genealogy research. In anyone’s ancestry, there will always be a brick wall somewhere. There are plenty of records that don’t exist or were lost in a fire or a flood, or you research back to the beginning of the record-keeping in a location and there’s just nothing more to be found. But even so, if the Puryears were a brick wall in his ancestry, it would still just be one small part of his ancestry. The Watsons were his great-great-grandparents and everyone has sixteen great-great-grandparents.

Going back to, he and Marjorie searched for another census for his family in the first census where blacks were listed by name. Finding Prince Puryear (Victoria’s father), they also noted Mariah listed. He asked if that was Prince’s mother and Marjorie said “possibly”. That was the perfect answer. More of interest in the episode, they pointed out that the family were listed as mulatto, meaning that a white slave owner may have been an ancestor.

An earlier census showed a white Alex Puryear and family and the research continued to them. Marjorie found his will and the will of his wife, Mary, listing Mariah and her children, verifying that Mariah was the mother of Prince.

“Now we know that Prince’s mother is Mariah.” Before that record was revealed, it was only a possibility. This is another great part of the episode, where they didn’t seem to just jump to that conclusion but found some documented evidence and showed it to the viewers.

Mecklenburg County, Virginia

Searching for more information about Mariah’s slave owner, Emmitt headed to Virginia, where Alex Puryear was from, as some documents had stated. He saw Puryear on a few business names while he was driving through. He met with John Caknipe, a local historian, who told him more about the Puryears and the slave trade.

At the county courthouse, they skipped back one generation, with no details as to how, to Alexander’s father, Samuel. Emmitt made a big deal out of the fact that John reached for Deed book 22, which Emmitt made a big deal over having worn that jersey number. I suppose some of the shock there was taken away by the previews of that scene, though some East coasters were amazed at the coincidence.

In the document, Samuel gave Mariah to his son. Emmitt figured that she was about 11 years old at the time. It was noted earlier in the episode that Mary Puryear had kept Mariah and her children together, when giving them to her son, which was significant also.

Meeting with Steven Deyle, an expert in American slavery, he said that “we can only suspect” when he told Emmitt more information about Mariah. Without evidence, sometimes that is all we can do in genealogy research. Emmitt said he had a “hunch” that Samuel was Mariah’s father when asking Steven’s opinion. All of these small bits just show that we can’t always know everything, but knowing the history might give us an idea of the lives of the people we’re researching even if we can never find anything to prove it.

Steven told Emmitt that Mariah was probably the end of the line because there were no more records. As I stated eariler, that is just the way it is. However, Samuel was Emmitt’s 5g-grandfather. Emmitt wanted to know why, if they could trace horses back to England, why he couldn’t trace his family back to Africa. Even without finding that connection, he was lucky to have traced as far back in history as he did. There are so many other families who can’t go that far back.


Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak was the DNA expert that he met with, telling him that he was partly Native American and probably had several European ancestors, leaving 81% African, which was one of the highest she had ever seen. From the DNA, she was also able to tell him what part of Africa his ancestors were from, Benin.


The big spoiler, for me, came when the East coasters on Twitter said he was going to Africa; that wasn’t in the previews. He couldn’t trace his own genealogy there since the paper trail had ended already, but he learned more about the slave trade that his ancestors were caught up in.

Ola Falola, guide and translator at the Ouidah Museum of History, with help from guide Madame Loucress, told Emmitt about the history of the slave trade.

At a more remote village, he met Mede Nicasse at the Sanctuary of Moses School, who explained that the children at that school were usually sold by their parents so that the parents could survive. To me, that didn’t sound much better than what his ancestors went through, and maybe it was worse. Instead of Europeans coming and stealing away people to turn them into slaves, their own parents were responsible for the act.

His wife arrived in Africa and they sat on a boat to talk. What did he say to her off screen? She was crying before he even said anything to her in the episode.

Final Thoughts

Emmitt had a hard time dealing with the slavery part of his ancestry; even being a bit surprised by a book marked Colored, having not been witness to segregation. Being an African American, he obviously knew that he would come from slaves, but maybe he just didn’t really face it before. Or perhaps because he didn’t know the particulars of his ancestry, this suddenly put him in touch with the reality. He now knew the names and a couple of faces of his slave ancestors so he had to really delve into their lives.

This is not all that uncommon from Jewish ancestry, where we all know that we lost people in the Holocaust, and it’s taught in school, but it isn’t talked about much in the family. In the next episode, Lisa Kudrow will follow up on that part of her family history. I’m looking forward to watching that and the rest of the series. It’s been a few months since I was so excited to see a TV show.

This article is the second in the series. The first can be read here: WDTYTA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version.

WDYTYA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was great. I enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes. But I also know that genealogy is about the details. So now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch the episode, I am going to break down the details and ask more questions. Warning: this will be a long blog post, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with headers. I also hope that in my nitpicking, I haven’t gotten anything wrong. I confused even myself while I was writing this, so I hope I didn’t mix up any of the details.

No Lineage

At the beginning of the show, Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) visited her brother, I think as an introduction to her and her family. He made an unusual comment that he thought “there was no lineage”, referring to his thinking that both sides of the family were recent immigrants. There are people who think that once your ancestors are no longer from America, there is nothing else to do. I wonder why people think that? True, for some locations, you may never get a single bit of information, but he wasn’t speaking of a specific ancestral line, rather the whole family in general. In my experience, if you’re searching for any of your ancestors, there is at least one familial line where records can be found, and usually more than one.

SJP mentioned that her father’s side was Eastern European Jewish. Her mother, Barbara, mentioned that all she heard about was German ancestry. Obviously, they couldn’t follow her entire ancestry in the 42 minutes allotted, but I would have found those interesting too.

New Jersey

When SJP visited her mother in New Jersey, she just walked in the door without knocking or using a key. Some people (other bloggers) thought that was very sweet, how they had that kind of close relationship. But really, does she not lock her front door? And it was interesting how her mother was always just around the corner. Maybe it was a small house. :-)

Prime Time TV

Sitting at a microfilm reader for hours is too dull for a prime time TV show, but sometimes the traveling across the country puts some people off. In fact, Friday night, one of my non-genealogy tweeps was talking about watching Friday night TV and I suggested WDYTYA. She thanked me afterwards but said she doesn’t “have the money to fly back & forth across the country” though she did find the show interesting. That is an unfortunate effect of the show. Do people think that they really have to do that much traveling to research their genealogy?


SJP’s first stop after visiting her mother was Cincinnati where she met with Natalie Cottrill. Natalie produced a death certificate, an 1860 census page, and an obituary. SJP’s ancestor John Eber Hodge was born in September 1850, while his father died in 1849. Can anyone count how many months that is? Here’s a fun voice-over from SJP: “I’ve asked Natalie to pull the California census information from…” Really? I doubt that SJP actually asked for that but more likely Natalie had already done the search and they needed a segue to show the result. Maybe the sponsor wanted an extra plug in the show? He showed up in the 1850 census, but one of the possibilities was that he abandoned his family. Did they look for him in the 1860 census? They did check that to narrow down their search for him, I hope. Trying to find out what happened to him, that seemed the logical and easy thing to search for next.

I like that Natalie mentioned that the 1849 death was a mystery, though not necessarily because it was more than nine months between his death and the birth of his son. I wish she had mentioned that mysteries and inconsistencies were a normal part of genealogy research, or had pointed out that the obituary is not a primary source for the deceased’s father’s death and that more research needed to be done. In all likelihood, she did mention those things, but they just didn’t make it into the episode.

Stephen Aron at Cincinnati’s Museum Center produced another document, showing that John Hodge teamed up with several others and went to El Dorado, California, sending her across the country to find out what happened.

El Dorado

Jon McCabe, the local historian in El Dorado, showed her where he may have mined, eventually producing a letter written by John Gish, his business partner, that mentioned his death. This entire sequence, I believe, was more for entertainment than for research. There was no real reason for her to go there as I think the letter was found in Cincinnati. But that’s prime time TV: it’s for entertainment.


SJP then headed to Boston, almost on a whim if you go by the voice-over, to see if her Hodge family was part of the old New England Hodge family, as Natalie had mentioned to her earlier.

She met with Josh Taylor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. This was one of the parts I really didn’t like. Again, I sincerely hope that everything important was cut from the show for time. He told SJP her genealogy going back for several generations, without any mention of how he found the information. John S. Hodge was the son of Eber Hodge, born just after the Revolution, his mother was Abigail Elwell, her father was Jabez, son of Samuel, son of Samuel, and son of Samuel born about 1635 in New England. What kind of documents did he use to find that? There wasn’t mention of a single source.

Checking the Great Migration Study Project of immigrants from 1620-1635, they searched another new name, Robert Elwell, who was Samuel’s father. Why didn’t he just mention that person before? Was that few seconds of dialogue cut for time? The computer showed that Robert Elwell immigrated in 1634, but this wasn’t stated aloud. Further computer details revealed that his first three children were Mary, Samuel, and Josiah, and there were many more details that I don’t feel the need to mention.

When SJP read the name of Salem on the record, of course the Salem Witch Trials came to mind for her and probably most people who were watching. Taking place in 1892, Josh said that Robert died around 1670 or 1680 but that his son Samuel would have been alive at that time. The computer screen stated the exact date of 18 May 1683 for Robert’s death. Maybe he just didn’t remember that when he mentioned it.

Actual Research Shown

SJP went on to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, where librarian Elaine Grublin helped her. In these scenes, they showed SJP doing her own research for Esther Elwell, wife of Samuel, looking at the computer database, copies of a document, and one original document. Many people complained that, with an original document, they were supposed to wear gloves and that the pencil shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. Another genealogist friend of mine told me that the gloves are not to protect the document but to protect the hands from the 300 year old grime that is on them. As for the pencil, well, I agree with that one.

Also, I don’t doubt that these documents were found and probably waiting for her to arrive. Really, would they travel to a library, film crew and all, if they didn’t know ahead of time that they would find something?


After reading the warrant about her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, being accused of witchcraft, SJP went on to Danvers, Massachusetts, where she met with historian Mary Beth Norton. Mary Beth pointed out that SJP’s ancestor was lucky because the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which convicted and sentenced every person who was accused of witchcraft, was dissolved on 22 October and the accusation came on 8 November, so her ancestor was not tried.

The biggest part about this whole section of the show that bothered me was, when was Samuel born? I mean the Samuel who was the son of Samuel and Esther. That is kind of an important point. The details were not stated or shown on the computer screen. Was the next generation of SJP’s family already alive or not when Esther’s life was put at risk with the accusation? That would certainly change the course of her family’s history. Samuel was born in 1635 and Esther in 1639 (as seen on the earlier computer screen). It seems to me that they may have already finished having all their children by 1892. Or maybe by then they had already skipped on to the next generation Samuel? This is where skipping details is problematic.

The final part of her journey before returning home was to visit the memorial in Salem. But SJP was told that Esther lived to be 82. So why not visit that grave since SJP was so emotionally involved in learning what happened to her?

Strange Comments

SJP made a few comments during the show that I thought were odd. She said that she didn’t really feel American until she found that her roots in this country went back to 1635. Why did she need to trace her family back to feel like she belonged in this country? All four of my grandparents were immigrants, as is my mother. I am an American and I’ve never felt otherwise. That just seemed odd. She also thought, at the beginning of the show, that she wasn’t connected to anything historical. But why did it have to be American history to be historical? There is history in other countries as well.

After the commercial breaks, there were recaps of what came before, and before the commercials there were previews of what was coming up. Was that video montage at the end really necessary?


One other curiosity came in the credits. I have listed in this blog the names of the people who appeared on screen with SJP, but only one of those people was listed as a genealogist in the credits: Natalie Cottrill, Megan Smolenyak, Krysten Baca, and Allison Aston. Did those four do work for the entire series and some of the others were just specific to the episode? OK, so some of them were credited as historians during the episode and not genealogists.


As I stated at the beginning, I really did enjoy the episode. As Lisa Louise Cooke stated in her Genealogy Gems News this morning, the show is for entertainment and not as a how-to for genealogy, referring to so many blogs that pointed out genealogy research omissions and such. And I know this blog entry is exactly what she was talking about. But I’m just a good nitpicker and used this opportunity to put that skill to use. Genealogy research is in the details and some that seemed to be important were skipped over.

I think there was room in the episode to mention how many people were involved and how many hours of research it took to find so much information. People watching might get the mistaken impression that everything can be found indexed on the computer, historians and librarians have plenty of free time to be at your disposal, one must travel across the country to find a single document, and that all you have to do is find the right genealogist and they will already know all about your family.

Then again, the BBC version doesn’t do any of that either.