Category Archives: Genealogy on TV

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

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

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

Meet The Whole Family

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

Right To Ancestry, As Usual

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

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

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

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

Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky

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

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

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

Married Or Not?

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

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

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

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

Strange Newspaper Source

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

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

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

Hop, Skip, And A Jump

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

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

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

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

Back to Paducah

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

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

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

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

Searching For Slaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Have To Go See Some Land

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

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

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

Back To Detroit

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typical But Still Lucky

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

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

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

To The Web Site

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

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

To Aberdeen, Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Raleigh, North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes Slaves, Sometimes Owners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing The Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett sent her to Macclesfield to find out more.

So Many Questions

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

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

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

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

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

Back At The Ranch

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


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

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

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

The URL for this article is×04-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×03 – Blair Underwood – The Nitpicker’s Version

Sadly, I’ve already fallen behind in reviewing the episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? but I will continue on. In my defense, I didn’t see the latest episode yet, so I’m still only two behind, and now one with this article. ;-)

Blair Underwood’s episode thankfully did not start with that two minute introduction like the first two did. They should have enough content to fill the 42 minute time slot without that every time; there is always more to look at or explain.

Blair already had great information about his Underwood line but wanted to learn more about his mother’s line. His father was an army officer in the 1960s and his grandfather was the second African American police officer in Steuben, Ohio.

At The Parents’ House

His brother, Frank Jr., had been working on the Underwood side for years. His mother, Marilyn, shared what she knew about her own grandmother, so Blair had his starting point. Frank Jr. explained that most families run into brick walls maybe 300 or 500 years back, but as African Americans, their brick wall is 150 years ago. This is something they share with a lot of Ashkenazi Jewish families, except for us, it’s just under 200 years. There just weren’t any records kept before that for many places, and if they were kept, they were not only few and far between, but they pre-dated the adoption of surnames, making it that much more difficult to figure out.

DNA Testing

Blair pulled out an DNA test, saying he would mail it out right then. His next voiceover started with “while I’m waiting for the results…” As much as we’d like to believe they do the research live on the show, I’m pretty sure he sent in his DNA for testing months before. Not only do they need to get the results back in the hopes of finding something, but then they need to follow up with that research. Please, a little reality.

This episode already reminded me of Emmit Smith’s episode, where he took the DNA test and they found where in Africa he came from.

Blair also specified that the DNA test was for the Underwood side of the family. So did they just do the Y-DNA test? He’s researching his mother’s line in the episode. Did they not care to test the mtDNA or the autosomal, or did they not get useful results so they didn’t mention it?

Didn’t Have To Go Far

Sometimes I wonder if they specifically look for what the celebrity wants to know, or if they suggest which part of the family that person should “research” during their journey to talk about during the interviews. Do they just happen to find interesting stories if they look hard enough for any family?

Blair immediately started with looking for his mother’s grandparents, Harry Royal and Ada Belle White. From his parents’ house in Petersburg, he didn’t have to drive far to get to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Genealogist Joseph Shumway was waiting for him with information.

They started with the marriage record for Harry and Ada, finding their parents were Ben and Fannie Royall and Thomas and Mary White. One document, one generation, just as it should be. I always find it a little disturbing when they jump back multiple generations without the slightest hint of the how they got there. Did they fill in all the vital records in between or just find thing to help them jump back further? Did they skip past the people that were listed as farmers in every census to find the one that sounded more interesting or did they also research that person in case there was a good story to tell?

Joseph then shared the marriage record for Ben Royal and Fanny Early. The spelling differences listed here are just as they were in the documents. Slight changes like these are easy to find, but genealogists have to learn to keep an open mind about variations. There are multiple reasons for spelling variations. I didn’t like how they kept referring to him as Benjamin when all the records they showed listed him as Ben. Did they have that name in something they didn’t show? Sometimes the shortened version of the name is the one a person is actually given.

They didn’t show it in the episode, but apparently that marriage record showed Fanny’s parents, Sonny and Maria, but didn’t mention Ben’s parents. Also, I’m not sure why they were suddenly showing the wife’s name before the husband’s in their chart.

Teaching Real Genealogy

At that point, Joseph explained that he’d done some looking around and found more about Sonny Early. So here we had the genealogist guiding the research, instead of making it seem like Blair did all the work himself.

The 1900 Census listed Sauney Early. Blair read across to some of the other columns to know more, something beginners often don’t do. Joseph pointed out the top of the page, the location of the census, at Central State Hospital. Blair knew it was a mental hospital.

We don’t know if he asked the question live; it could have been a voiceover added later, but Blair asked about looking at earlier censuses. I thought it was great how Joseph explained in this episode about the records, that the census was taken every ten years but that 1890 was lost in a fire. Thus, they went back to 1880, finding Sawney was a farm laborer. What they didn’t mention was that he was living with his wife Maria, daughter Fannie, and mother Malinda. They like to skip back generations, and right there they ignored one. In 1870, they found him as a blacksmith, with Maria and Alexander. Relationships weren’t listed, but the age was right for a possible son.

Joseph then explained again that the next logical step would be to search 1860, except that slaves were not listed, and having not found Sawney suggested that he wasn’t free. I always like when they use the correct words, that evidence or lack of evidence suggests things or that certain things are possibilities, rather than stating something as a fact no matter how likely it was if still unproven.

They call this “the wall” in African American genealogy. Blair mentioned that he knew ahead of time that he would hit this wall of slavery. Again, analogous to Jewish genealogy, first we hit the Holocaust (and sometimes its lack of records), then we hit the beginning of record keeping and surnames not much sooner.


The timeline was constructed by voiceover while Blair was driving to his next destination, wondering about the decline of the mental status of his ancestor, Sawney, from blacksmith, to farm laborer, and finally to the mental hospital.

In Lynchburg at the Jones Memorial Library, historian Dr. Dan Fountain guided Blair to look at newspapers on microfilm. Blair seemed to enjoy one article which called Sawney a “pestiferous darkey”. The next article described him as a “religious enthusiast or lunatic”. A third article from the New York Times was already printed for Blair, though it was news from Lynchburg. If it made the NYT, wasn’t it big enough to be in the local paper? And what made them even think to look in the NYT? In each article, it mentioned that Sawney was shot, and the third said he was killed, but Blair knew that that had to be incorrect since he was in the census after that time. So again they taught that not every piece of evidence is correct. One last printed article about the last incident, and they then headed out to see the geography where the incidents took place. A map revealed where Sawney lived and a deposition gave him a reason for killing his neighbor’s cow. Suddenly, he had a purpose for his actions and they didn’t seem quite as crazy.

In the end, they didn’t find out why he ended up in the hospital. Wasn’t that the intention of that line of research? Or did they find out and it didn’t make the episode? They just kind of abandoned the story.

Shifting Focus

Focus shifted to Ada Belle White’s family. Back in Lynchburg to see Joseph Shumway again, a death certificate for her mother, Mary, added her father’s name, Delaware Scott. Back to Ancestry and the census, they went to the 1860 census. Blair was worried they’d hit the wall again, but found his ancestor listed. Blair recalled that a slave would not be listed in the 1860 census, but he noticed that he was a land owner. Looking at the other names in the household, noticing an older woman named Judith, they realized that she was probably, then possibly, his mother. Since the census didn’t define the relationships, that was the correct conclusion.

At The Library of Virginia, Blair met historian Dr. Eva Sheppard Wolf. She had a register of free negros, explaining that it had even more information than was found in the census. The first record verified that Judith was his mother and that he was born free. Because he was born free, Blair asked and Eva answered that it was “a foregone conclusion” because the status came from the mother. Interesting, in that Jewish status also comes from the mother.

Free Blacks Going Way Back

Blair was surprised to hear that there were so many free slaves at the time, and Eva explained lots of information about free slaves, how they could become free, and the laws of the time.

I like how on one record, she asked, “Do you want to try to read that?” Sometimes it amazes me that the celebrities can read the old documents so easily. Maybe they’re clearer in person, or maybe we just don’t see them given a transcription. The document pointed out that Judy married Samuel Scott. Blair was amazed that there were free Blacks in Virginia in the 1790s, calling it “a monumental discovery”.

Switching to the chart, they added on Judy’s maiden name and her mother’s name, but they never showed in the episode where that information came from. Clearly, they had more documents that made the editing room floor, but they included it in the family chart anyhow.

Back To Lynchburg

For more on the Scott family, they had to go back to Lynchburg. Eva brought Blair to the Court Street Baptist Church where they looked first at land deeds. Were these records kept in the church? It seems like an unusual place to find land deeds. Tax records showed Samuel Scott had two slaves in 1838. Back to the 1840 census, which listed only the head of household, it showed he had one slave over the age of 55. It was fascinating to me to learn so much about free Blacks, and the laws about how they had to leave Virginia, and that free Blacks would own their relatives so they could stay together.

I was actually surprised that Blair didn’t come up with that idea, because it was my first thought while watching. Why else would anyone own slaves that old and especially without owning younger ones?

Then he finally hit the wall. There were no records that told how they became free. I did recall that in one census, Blair noted that the family was listed as mulatto. Remembering previous episodes of WDYTYA, I wondered if maybe they had the “usual” story that the illegitimate child of the slave owner was freed.

DNA Results

According to the voiceover, his DNA results were just in. I’m pretty sure they were in a while before filming began. Why can’t they make more honest voiceovers? Dr. Ken Chahine from Ancestry met with Blair, explaining about the DNA tests a little. Having the normal range of 26% European, again nobody mentioned that census listing earlier where Blair noticed the family was listed as mulatto. After finding the general area of Africa that his DNA matched to, they found one person who apparently was a 10th cousin, born in Cameroon.

Now, I can only wonder how they figured they had a 10th cousin. First of all, what DNA test did they do? At the beginning, we knew that the DNA was to test the Underwood side, so they likely did the Y-DNA. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but how could they possibly be so accurate? I certainly haven’t looked at the DNA results on Ancestry, but is there anywhere that says the relationship given is just an estimate? That was not shown in the episode. I don’t think they could possibly guarantee an exact result so far back.

Ken explained that Blair and Eric clearly shared a relative on the paternal line around 1600 or 1700. So, then there was about a 100 year range of when they shared a common ancestor, but somehow they also narrowed that down to a 10th cousin?

Back To Africa

Blair was thrilled to find out he was going to Cameroon. Had he seen the earlier episode where Emmit went to Africa and he was hoping for a similar result? Blair took his father and they met their very distant cousins.

It was interesting that Eric was asked in 2005 to take a DNA test because African Americans were wanting to trace their ancestry by DNA. Was Ancestry collecting DNA samples even before they offered the service? I don’t remember hearing about their tests until very recently. Or maybe the samples were shared between companies?


I thought this was a great episode. Of course, there were things I still think they could improve, but it seems like they’re reading all the blogs and critiques and making the episodes better. Or maybe they are just watching their own episodes and realizing the same improvements the rest of us see.

Putting more reality into the episodes is good. As much as these shows are for entertainment and to get people interested in doing their genealogy, without a little reality, people would give up very quickly when they didn’t get the same kind of results. Instead of implying that the researcher (aka, the celebrity) will know where to look and be able to find everything on their own detracts from the work the professionals have done. I like to see the celebrity sort of leading the research and asking their own questions, but it’s also good when they meet a pro and, instead of asking if they can find something, the pro just says “I found some things for you.”

I like to see the genealogy lessons that were in this episode, even though they didn’t point out each one. There was the lesson of checking the census and searching back every ten years, 1890 being burned, and 1860 not listing slaves. There were plenty of possiblies and probablies and other such words where there should have been. And when they found the newspaper article stating Sawney had died, when they already knew he hadn’t, showed that not every document is always correct.

The DNA test bothered me a little. Certainly my own DNA testing has recently colored my distaste for those. While the test is scientific and some results are good, the way they determine relationships between people still needs a lot of work. However, when they narrowed down his ancestral location, showing several places on the map, that was more believable to me. And I can believe that they found a very distant cousin, it was defining the distance of the relationship that I know could not be possible.

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

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei

The URL for this article is×03-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×02 – Marisa Tomei – The Nitpicker’s Version

Mostly ignoring Twitter for an hour, I finally got to watch Marisa Tomei’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I preferred watching the week before with the company of other genealogists at RootsTech, and also because it was devoid of spoilers online. I didn’t ignore Twitter as much as I should have.

For the first episode, I expect the extra long introduction to all the celebrities and sound bites about what they’re going to find, but was it necessary to include the two minute introduction for the second episode? Don’t they have a lot of family history to uncover?

Starting In Brooklyn

Marisa said that her father built up a large tree for his side of the family, but I guess nobody worked on her mother’s side before. Parents Gary and Addie, and brother Adam met her and shared some family photos. The big mystery of the family was Marisa’s great-grandfather, Leopoldo Bianchi, who was murdered in 1910. Family lore said that he probably cheated on his wife, but they weren’t completely sure.

This episode jumped quickly to, where Addie had put the family tree data into their web site. Why did she do that? Probably because there wasn’t a single bit of information on the site relevant to the episode. Is it really necessary to use the site in every episode? They insert a bit of genealogy reality, how about the reality that not everything is online and not everything is on Ancestry? They get enough commercials in between.

The family clearly knew quite a bit about their ancestors and the towns where they came from. And what kind of computer was she using? It looked like a convertible laptop.

Marisa then had a talk alone with her brother. While they took the time to show more about how close the siblings were, was that scene really necessary? They didn’t really say any more about the family history and there was no great sharing scene at the end between them. It felt like they were filling time because they didn’t have enough content for the episode. I find that hard to believe.

Off To Italy

The second episode of the season and it almost immediately flew off to Europe once the story was established, just like the previous episode. We must have more America-centered episodes coming later. Marisa headed to Italy, to Cecina in Tuscany, where Leopoldo lived. She also wanted to know about Leopoldo’s wife and her family.

She began her search at the Cecina Municipal Cemetery archives, meeting with a guide, Fabio De Segni. Fabio was speaking English, but they had captions for him. He stayed with Marisa for quite a while in this episode. The cemetery caretaker, Loris Gagliardi, was waiting for them.

Allowing her to “do the research” herself, Marisa asked for information about Leopoldo’s death in 1910. When it wasn’t found, Loris suggested looking in 1911, finding a record. The scene seemed a little confusing, obviously editing whatever attempt at searching in 1910 yielded, then cutting straight to finding the 1911 record, which was most likely waiting for Marisa and the cameras to arrive. However, I did like that it showed good genealogy methodology, to begin looking in the year when you think the event happened, then to check surrounding years if it isn’t found. Not every family story is going to have a perfect memory. Even some documents won’t always have the correct information and a wider berth must be given to the search.

Fabio helped with the translation of the document, then handed her a translation of the entire document. She was most shocked to read that he died of an illness, but also that he was transported to Cecina, because she thought he had been killed there.

I also noticed in the scene that she had a notebook. I didn’t see her writing in it at any time during the episode, but it’s likely she was keeping some notes. It’s always good to see the celebrities taking enough interesting in recording the information for themselves.

Marisa took a walk alone out to the gravesite of Leopoldo and his wife, Adelaide.

Travel By Boat

Knowing where different family members came from, they headed to Elba, a small island 12 miles off the coast, where Adelaide Canovaro was from.

They went to the Parish Church of Rio nell’Elba to find some records on Adelaide’s family. Father Leonardo Biancalania, the parish priest, arrived with a stack of large books. While they captioned some of Marisa’s English while in the church, they did not caption his Italian at all. Kind of an oversight there.

Apparently, Father Leonardo told Marisa that the books were all the Canovaro family, according to what she said. Maybe what he actually told her was that he found the Canovaro family in each of the books. Marisa and Fabio next flipped through baptism registries. Closing the first book after finding Adelaide’s record, they went on to the next in 1855 for Arturo. Switching to the chart view, they traced straight back ten generations to Alesandro Canovaro born in 1641.

A Long Line Of Only Children?

What about all of those men’s siblings, wives, other children? There must have been at least dozens of other people they could have found in those records. Every wife brought a different surname into her ancestry and every sibling brought more cousins to her family. Are people not interested enough in finding their more distant living relatives to search sideways? And of course, one rule of genealogy is to search the siblings because sometimes you can find information on them but not your ancestors, so the only way to learn more and go back further is to research sideways. Knowing there are good genealogists behind the research in the show, I can only assume that they did branch out to each sibling and each spouse, also looking for more interesting stories for the episode. I know that some people really just want to know one line of their family and would be thrilled to find them back to 1641, but I want to know all of my family lines going back.

After they finished with the stack of books, Marisa wondered why they left, or why Adelaide left the island, or was she the one who had “broken the whole lineage” and left the island. I guess she wasn’t thinking of the dozens or hundreds of other people that descended from that same person from 1641. Was the island full of his descendents or did some of the others leave? This is the trouble with WDYTYA going straight back. Even the celebrities don’t realize how many more relatives they could have just gained knowing ten generations of ancestors in a single line.

Pictures of the car driving during her voiceover suggested it was the only car in the city; there was not another one to be seen.

Fabio suggested checking the Elba Historical Municipal Archive, so they met with historian Dr. Gloria Peria. Again, Gloria spoke in Italian and there were no captions. Fabio translated for Marisa, but they could have captioned the Italian. First, they looked at the marriage certificate for Leopoldo Bianchi and Maria Canovaro, with the name Adelaide in parentheses. Marisa did say earlier that Leopoldo’s first name was actually Francisco, so neither went by their given first names.


The next document was another variation of the marriage certificate, which also showed an immigration date, that they moved to Cecina six years after they were married, seven months before he died. Marisa began to piece together the timeline. This is another example of a tool used in genealogy, but she probably didn’t even realize it. Sometimes when putting together a story, or trying to break through a brick wall, if you gather the information into a timeline, you may find that you’ve overlooked something.

An article in the local newspaper in 1911 reported that Leopoldo was killed by Terzilio Lazzereschi in Castiglioncello. They never showed her being given a translation, but considering all the later translations she was given, I think they gave her one and it hit the cutting room floor. The article confirmed that Leopoldo was shot and it wasn’t an illness as the cemetery record stated, which she never believed.

Back To The Mainland

Going to Castiglioncello, Marisa said that Fabio stayed in Elba to look for more information. They make it sound like the research wasn’t done in advance of the filming and he had to find something new. Do they ever find something new while the celebrity is filming? Has any celebrity ever asked a question that they didn’t previously research and they rushed to find it? Or was it just a bad segue, leaving a way to bring him back into the episode later?

In the voiceover, Marisa mentioned that Gloria suggested who she should meet with next, so the experts are guiding the celebrities to the next step. How much is really done in person, we can’t tell from the episode. The voiceovers could have been added months later.

Let’s Meet In A Cafe

The first season had a lot of meetings in coffee shops and restaurants, as if no one had offices and libraries or archives weren’t good enough. There was a significant restaurant meeting for Steve Buscemi also. Steven Hughes, a local expert, met with her in the same cafe where the altercation took place 100 years earlier that ended with the death of her great-grandfather.

Reading another newspaper article about the incident, I loved hearing her frustration at “reasons that are still unknown”. I think every genealogist knows feeling that at some point.

Adding the interview where Marisa told the story about her cousin screaming out “murder in the family” in a dream when they visited the city before just made it all the more unusual.

Almost To The Trial

Heading north to Lucca, where Lazzereschi was indicted, she wanted to know more details of the trial. Meeting with Dr. Francesco Tamburini, he had more documents from the court records. Finding that he was acquitted of shooting someone in the back of the head, I thought it was funny that Francesco compared the lawyers to OJ’s “Dream Team”. She read that he was finally found guilty of carrying a weapon and served only 38 days.

The commercial break cliffhanger sounded like they were about to learn that he would finally be punished for something. It was a letdown, to find he was just insistent about getting his money back. He then disappeared from the records.

Fabio Is Back

Marisa met with Fabio again, at another cafe. He revealed that an 83 year old relative of Marisa’s, Rosetta Vanucci, the daughter of Leopoldo’s sister who remembered Adelaide, was not well enough to meet with her, but sent a letter. Rosetta’s letter filled in the details of how Adelaide remarried and how Marisa’s grandfather ended up in America. I imagine that they had planned to have her come on screen, just as some other episodes have had a surprise distant cousin for the celebrity to meet, but it just didn’t work out.

In this scene, we could see Marisa’s notebook was labeled June 2011, so we appear to have a filming date.

Back Home To Share The Story

Back in New York, Marisa shared the details she learned with her mother. At the beginning, it seemed like there was going to be something more about sharing with her brother, but he was not seen again.

Marisa was surprised to see the relief from her mother upon learning that Leopoldo was not killed because of something he did wrong.

“It’s the things we carry with us from our family’s legacy, our family’s history, even the secrets, that we don’t know that we’re carrying.” – Marisa

“I think all of this absorbs into us and influences our behavior in some mystical way, some spiritual way, affects the generations even to come.” – Addie


This particular episode was one that did not involve using Ancestry at all and so it was forced into the beginning by placing the Bianchi family tree on the site. I know that Ancestry is the sponsor, and that certainly shows in the commercials, but can’t they give it a rest for even one episode? They also had to forcibly insert it into Kim Cattrall’s episode, which was actually filmed by the BBC. They did have multiple commercials, which also perpetuate myths, that I am going to nitpick this time too.

The first commercial I noted was where a woman says she was the family detective. She wasn’t. All she did was click on a leaf on the web site. That is not detective work. It’s not even genealogy research. If she had found the record herself, that would be the detective work.

In another commercial, a man said his ancestor was born on the boat on the way to America. Finding the census showing that he was born in Poland proves nothing. The census is one of the most used genealogy records as well as one of the most likely to be incorrect. By finding that record, he didn’t disprove a family story. Just as this exact episode showed us. If they had stopped at the cemetery where the record said he died from an illness, then there would have been no episode. Ancestry, stop teaching bad research in your commercials while your TV show is actually teaching good techniques.


This episode reminded me a little about Kim Cattrall’s episode, where she basically just researched a single person in her ancestry. So it was a little surprising that I didn’t see anyone complain about that. Once we’ve finished name collecting, we like to switch to story collecting, so stopping and spending a lot of time researching one person isn’t unusual. I suppose one reason “the crowd” preferred this episode is because there were lots of documents involved including newspaper articles and court records, whereas Kim’s episode was more about finding people who knew him. I liked both.

“And now I have much more of a connection to him. I can feel his presence. He’s alive in my heart and in my mind’s eye and in my family again.”

That is exactly what genealogy is good for. Just because someone is no longer alive doesn’t mean that they weren’t important. By researching them, we remember them again, even if we never got to know them personally.

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

  1.  Martin Sheen

The URL for this article is×02-nitpickers/.

Genealogy In Prime Time

No, this one isn’t about Who Do You Think You Are? Have you been watching the TV show Pan Am?

Pam Am follows the lives of several Pan Am employees, mostly two pilots and four stewardesses, as they travel all over the world doing their jobs and sometimes living soap opera-type lives.

Warning: spoilers follow.

In the previous episode, stewardess Colette Valois met a mysterious man on their flight to Rome, later finding out he was Prince Omar III; I didn’t quite catch his kingdom name.

(Actually, it was two episodes previous, since they aired one out of order. What were they thinking? Now I know I wasn’t nuts when they seemed to skip over things earlier and I thought I missed an episode, and then another one was completely out of order. Really ABC, this show is a soap opera with a continuous story line, you can’t skip around like that.)

The latest episode, aired 19 February, titled 1964, took place leading up to and including New Year’s Eve. Omar decided to officially begin courting Colette, which naturally included a background check. In previous episodes, we have learned that she was an orphan in France, her parents killed in the resistance, and she was raised by nuns.

In fact, Omar’s people found out that the nuns changed her name and that her parents’ surname was Halevy, a Jewish name. His sources also discovered that they died at Dachau. They also found a picture of her family, including a younger brother that she knew nothing about.

Happy to find that she had one family member who likely survived the war, she later showed the picture to everyone she knew, saying that she wanted to find him.

Now, how can I find a prince somewhere to find the unfindable information about my Feldsteins?

Colette Finally Meets Her Family

The full episode is currently online at ABC. I can’t wait to see where this particular story line is taken.

WDYTYA – 3×01 – Martin Sheen – The Nitpicker’s Version

Season three of Who Do You Think You Are? began during RootsTech 2012. While I watched with a big crowd last year, this year I was the bridge between a group who wanted to watch and play the drinking game and someone who knew which hotel bar to use for it. Watching at the Peery Hotel bar was one of the highlights of the conference. I had to re-watch the show in its entirety to catch the whole thing, but it was worth it.

I wonder why they picked Martin Sheen first. This episode had a very long introduction to the season, so was Martin Sheen’s episode already the shortest or did they have to cut it more?

The voiceovers talk about Martin discovering information about two ancestors, but neither was an ancestor. The first two people researched were his uncles. Kind of a lax definition of “ancestor”.

Family Visit

“Ramon Estevez”, aka Martin Sheen, stopped in to see son, Emilio. They didn’t discuss genealogy, except that Emilio was carrying on a family tradition of having a vineyard, and the bottle he held featured a picture taken by Martin in Spain. They never again mention how the vineyard is a family tradition during the course of the show. Having a vineyard in my own family history, that would have been interesting to me.

Right To Ireland

After a lengthy introduction from Martin about his activism, he went right to and found a death record for his uncle, Michael Phelan, his mother’s sister. He immediately crossed the ocean to Dublin, Ireland, visiting the military archives, to learn about Michael’s possible involvement in the civil war.

Explaining the history is especially helpful for Americans who know nothing of Irish history and the civil war that began in 1922. It’s sad the amount of history I didn’t learn in public school. Some genealogists study history in college, but I was still in computer programming back then. Even if I went back to learn history, I’d focus on Eastern Europe anyway and still need these bits to have any clue.

Martin thought his uncle was supporting the opposite side during the civil war, but he admitted that he really didn’t know. They showed a picture of Michael, but only a deleted scene revealed where the picture came from: a cousin of his. (I believe it was Michael’s daughter.)

At The Pearse Centre, he met with Dr. Edward Madigan to consult about the number of times Michael was imprisoned, according to a letter in his military file, and his commitment to his cause of Ireland’s freedom.

Prison #1 – Kilmainham Jail

Visiting one of the many prisons where Michael spent some time, Dr. William Murphy pointed out that Michael was held “as far as we know” in a certain cell. Sounds like their records weren’t kept well, or weren’t complete. They didn’t explain why it was a “best guess”. If they weren’t completely sure, how did they guess at all?

On To Spain – Family Visit #2

Headed to his father’s side of the family in Spain, he visited his sister, Carmen, in Madrid. She brought out a few old family photos.

Explaining the family tree by the chart, they jump over to their father’s youngest brother, Matias. Another thing they didn’t explain is the surnames, how they are all listed as “Estevez Martinez”. The children used both the father’s then then mother’s surnames. Was this common only in Spain or elsewhere too?

It turned out that Matias was involved in the civil war in Spain, so this gave us another civil war history lesson, with Spain’s civil war beginning in 1936.

Civil War #2

At Biblioteca Nacional de España, Martin met with historian Dr. Alejandro Quiroga. At the very beginning of the civil war, Matias faced a military tribunal, where he was sentenced to life in prison. Another book showed a list of prisoners in alphabetical and numerical order. There were two Estévez Martinezes: Constante and Matias. Looking back at the family tree chart, there was no Constante shown in the list of Matias’s siblings. I hope they looked into who that was, or are those two names very common? (I think Martinez probably is.) Martin asked and Alex confirmed that 611 was his prison number. How did they manage to number everyone alphabetically? I think the question and answer were misunderstood or something got spliced oddly in editing.

A third book revealed that Matias was sentenced in September 1936, to be released in 1966, and was released in 1940.

Martin took a train to Pamplona to see the second prison where Matias served, but they didn’t mention why he didn’t visit the first. Was it out of the way? Not very interesting? No longer standing?

He met with Dr. Julius Ruiz, a Spanish civil war historian, at Los Fuertes de San Cristóbal for a tour.

To Tui, Galicia, Spain

They didn’t explain why Martin was suddenly in Tui, but he met with genealogist Matthew Hovious at the Archivo Histórico Diocesano with his father’s birth certificate, sent to him by Carmen. I couldn’t see clearly if his father was born in Tui, but obviously more research had been done there, thus forwarding the story.

Matthew read the names of both parents, then the maternal grandmother; the grandfather was unknown. They were able to trace back a few more generations but did they ever find the name of Dolores’s father? Of course, when drawing these charts, they often just show the minimum amount of information, so there is that possibility.

However, they did show her name as Dolores Martinez, and her mother as Carmen Martinez, whereas so many others in the charts had two surnames. So maybe they didn’t find her father’s name, and perhaps there were two generations of unknown or unspecified fathers. And then finally, at the top of the chart, each person again only had one surname. So were they skipping listing the names or was that not the custom to use both parents’ names at different times in history?

They did point out that Paula’s marriage record stated that she was the natural daughter of Don Diego Francisco Suarez and Maria Gonzalez, which specified that her parents were not married, as opposed to listing her as the legitimate daughter if they were. This part they explained clearly, but they had more to say about it. The show likes to skip those smaller details if it doesn’t specifically relate to the rest of the story.


Another record from the 1740s showed that Diego was married to another woman, Manuela de Alfaya. They found that Diego and Maria had six children together. In 1777, at the first confirmation ceremony after Diego’s death, Maria had all of her children confirmed.

Martin asked how Diego became a Don, but again, what that title meant was not explained. I realize they don’t have time to explain everything, but if it leads to the next part of the story, I think it could use up a few seconds. Not everyone knows what that means and it was highlighted.


In La Coruña, at Archivo Del Reino, historian Edward Behrend-Martínez shared the only document they found about Don Diego Suarez, where Diego prosecuted a young woman, Antonia Pereira, for having an abortion.

A fancy scroll was unrolled with the family chart. Martin read first on the side of his grandmother, then he went slowly, one name after another on his grandfather’s side, until he reached the name Antonia Pereira. They must have filled out the entire family tree to find that connection. I can only wonder if the same researcher found that connection and how elated they could have been to find such a convergence of history.

Sharing With The Family

Meeting Martin in Parderrubias, sister Carmen and son Ramon learned the story details. I thought they had mentioned that town name earlier, but I couldn’t easily find it. I think it was mentioned while he was in Tui.


“If you’d written a novel with all these truths in it, they’d say ‘Ah, it’s a bit over the top.’ It actually happened.”

I thought this was a good episode. Instead of being completely guided, each historian and genealogist telling him what to do next, only a few did and often guided by Martin’s questions. Some previous episodes felt like the celebrity had to be told every step to take, but this did not, even though Martin needed guidance and translations in Spain.

With both parents immigrants to America, he immediately crossed the ocean, skipping over his parents to their brothers, then going back farther on the Spanish side. He mentioned that his mother died when he was 11; did they not find much about her? Obviously the show has to be focused where the interesting stories are, but I would have found a vineyard to be interesting enough to mention. Is it just me?

And I’ve finished with time to spare before the next episode. My Twitter feed is already running with spoilers from the Eastern and Central time zones.

Happy Ancestors’ Eve -or- Genealogy in the Year 2375

Earlier this month, Mark Tucker at Think Genealogy blogged about Family History in the Year 2364, referring to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). In the episode, after being cryogenically frozen for 300 years, a couple of simple questions to the computer revealed the entire family tree of one character, displaying a picture of a living relative who was the spitting image of her husband.

My initial thought was that there was a better episode from Star Trek about genealogy. In 1999, Star Trek: Voyager brought us on a journey into the ship’s captain’s ancestor at the end of the year 2000 in the episode titled 11:59.

For the uninitiated, Voyager is the story of a starship that got pulled into a distant part of the galaxy and spent it’s seven year run headed back to Earth. This particular story began with Neelix taking an interest in Earth history. Neelix was a Talaxian, an alien they picked up in the pilot episode. Quizzing Captain Janeway a bit on Earth’s history, she shot a question back at him and began telling the story of her ancestor, Shannon O’Donnell, who helped build The Millennium Gate. Much of the episode is spent in a flashback from 27 December 2000 at 5am until 31 December 2000 at 11:59pm.

Even in this fictional story, I had to do a little nitpicking. It’s amazing that the ancestor in question was the last in her particular line to have a surname besides Janeway. (Isn’t it always like that on TV?) She mentioned watching the moon landing at age 11, so born about 1957, in 2000 she would have been about 42. They found a picture of her from 2050 with her family. I guess she got married and had a couple kids quickly, unless she adopted Henry’s son and Captain Janeway is not a blood descendent.

Unlike the TNG episode, when asking the computer for information, they were slightly more realistic with what they had to do and what was found. There are some sound bites worthy of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and mentions of real genealogy records and disproving family stories.

It was kind of worrisome that on TNG, they were able to find so much information so quickly but that Voyager only had fragments of it. Even in this digital age, how much information will not be available in the future? Shannon was making an analog recording at the beginning, but she believed in technology. Could there really be almost no record left in 300 years?

And so I’ve created my first video and posted it to YouTube. (So be nice. Sorry if the audio is low; it kept weakening every app it ran through.) It highlights the genealogy and family history parts of the episode. BosnianTrekker has posted the entire episode to YouTube in five parts, beginning from here, if you’re interested in seeing the rest of it.

Happy Ancestors’ Eve!

WDYTYA – Episode 2×07 – The Nitpicker’s Version

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Gwyneth Paltrow was advertised (at least online) as the Jewish research episode. While she researched her Jewish side for about half the episode, only the last ten minutes really got into anything specifically Jewish.

No Family Visit to Start

Gwyneth started with her mother’s side of the family, recalling a family story about someone being from Barbados, probably her mother’s grandmother, Ida May Danner. Instead of visiting any family to ask questions, her mother sent a couple photos of Ida May. Gwyneth set out to find the Barbados connection.

Starting in New York, for Pennsylvania Research

Beginning at the New York Public Library, she met with librarian Maira Liriano. Gwyneth did the voiceover leading into the scene, stating that she was meeting a librarian “who’s already pulled some records for me.” At least there was no implication that she was going to do the research herself. I didn’t understand the point of what seemed to be a voiceover of Maira welcoming her to the building. Did they have to mention the name of the building in order to put it on the show? That was just weird.

It started much as other episodes where Gwyneth shared the photos with Maira and asked if there was a connection to Barbados. An obituary for Ida May revealed her parents’ names. Right to Ancestry, they searched the 1910 census. Since she died in 1967, why didn’t they start at 1930 and go back? Why didn’t they start in 1900? They skipped over tracing Ida May’s life back and went right to her mother. Rosamund Isabel Yetter’s death certificate, Ida May’s mother, revealed her birth place in Barbados.

Gwyneth asked if there was more they could find and Maira had her search Ancestry to find the ship list. Finding the ship list, Gwyneth assumed that the 18 year old Rosamund travelling with the 27 year old Martha, “she’s got an older sister”. While this may be the most obvious conclusion to make, that doesn’t mean it’s correct. They never did show or mention any evidence to verify the two were sisters.

It was also interesting that there were four different spelling corrections in the index. I can only wonder if they added at least one of those to make the search easier for Gwyneth; the original index spelling is what it looked like on the ship list and may not have been so easily found otherwise.

It was also a bit odd that Maira pointed out that the ship was a bark, highlighting the abbreviation, when later in the episode, they highlighted where it actually said the word “bark”.

When told that she’d have to go to Barbados to learn more, you could tell that Gwyneth was hoping that was coming, apparently having watched the show before.

To the Island

At the Barbados Department of Archives, genealogist Dr. Pat Stafford had some books ready to share. Gwyneth looked down the page opened for her of baptisms and found Rosamund listed. In the burial records, she found that Rosamund’s mother, Sarah Frances Stout, died in 1864 at age 42 and was already a widow. What was also visible in the book listed under Sarah Frances Stout was a 20 year old Samuelina Stout, and two more columns to the right of both listings showed the name Roebuck Stout. Who were these mysterious people? There were clearly some other members of the family, even if they were cousins, but the two sisters were not entirely alone.

When Gwyneth wanted to know more, Pat said that she could only “tell [her] what the records say… and they don’t really reveal anything else to me”, suggesting that Gwyneth needed to speak to an historian. That is one problem with genealogy. The records only tell so much, but there is so much more going on in between the vital records — the stories of the people and how they lived — that we don’t know, and that is often harder to find. Gwyneth joked that she wanted to find that historian on the island and didn’t want to go back to New York.

Between two daughters aged 27 and 18 when they went to America, I also wondered if there were more children. That seems like a large gap in time between kids. We can only assume that Martha was also found in the baptism book to verify that she was the sister, but did they look for any more kids? Was Samuelina another child in the family born between the two?

Historian Pedro Welch was questioned next. Gwyneth again presented part of the previous research but had trouble asking questions. She had the ship list to show him, but she was shown arriving without it. She wanted to know anything at all, like we all do, but sometimes specific questions have to be asked in order to get answers.

Learning more about the history, Gwyneth and Pedro decided that Rosamund was fiesty with great spirit to take the journey to America. But they didn’t consider her older sister. Maybe it was Martha’s decision to go and Rosamund just went along for the ride. Maybe Martha wanted to see her younger sister get married and still single at 27 realized they had a better chance in America. Did they do any more research on Martha in America?

We All Have More Than One Ancestral Line

Switching to her father’s side of the family, Gwyneth wanted to know more about her grandfather Buster. She visited her aunt Fran Paltrow to learn more. Along with a bit of the story, Fran had a death certificate for Ida, Buster’s mother. To me, it looked like it was brand new and had just been ordered for the episode.

An expert in New York Jewish history, historian Deborah Dash Moore had more information for her. It appears they met at a restaurant, which we haven’t seen since the first season. Deborah had a book from the Normal College, which was the previous name of Hunter College, which Fran had mentioned that Ida attended.

The 1900 census showed a family of three, but they failed to highlight the fourth person listed in the household, Esther, Ida’s grandmother.

Another mysterious document was produced showing the family ten years earlier. The type of document was not revealed. Joseph, Ida’s father, was listed about ten years younger, but given the ages shown for Ida and her brother Isaac, it appeared to be about seven years earlier. Was this the 1892 New York census? I recall someone online mentioning that it did not appear to be, but it was from about that time.

Even in the voiceover showing the family chart, Gwyneth gave the document a date of 1890. Was it ever revealed since the episode what the document was? I sure would like to know where to find New York families around 1890.

With two family members missing in 1900, Deborah next revealed the death certificate for Rebecca Hyman, Ida’s mother, in 1897. Again jumping to conclusions, Gwyneth assumed that dying from cirrhosis of the liver that Rebecca was an alcoholic, but Deborah jumped in to correct her because that was not necessarily true. Gwyneth realized that Rebecca died the year before Ida was discharged from college. Next up was Samuel’s death certificate, Ida’s brother, dated two months later.

This also brings up the question of why Joseph’s mother was living with his family by 1900. Did she move in to help with the children specifically? Probably, but this was not addressed in the episode.

Some Logical Searching

At the NYC Municipal Archives next, Gwyneth met archivist Michael Lorenzini. He suggested checking the 1920 census, the first census after Arnold’s (aka Buster’s) birth. She mentioned the name was originally Paltrowicz, first saying it the way Fran had, then Americanizing it while looking at the records. There seemed to be a lot of trouble with this surname as the episode continued.

Seeing the oldest child was 16 in 1920, Michael suggested checking the 1910 census. Finally a bit of research shown logically; find a reasonable starting place and work your way back without skipping decades. Interestingly enough, when they ran the search, there were no results found, but though that web page was briefly shown, the episode was edited to skip any mention of it, going right to the family in 1910. Again, they found a child in the family who disappeared between the censuses.

Asking if that daughter died, Michael said, “That’s probably what happened. And we can pull the death certificate.” Well, if they’ve already found the death certificate, why say that it probably happened? Handing Gwyneth the book of death certificates, he told her the certificate number to turn to. The coroner’s inquest told a bit more information about the death. Pulling an SS-5 out of a folder, he showed that the next daughter was born three weeks after the first daughter died. Could they not find a birth certificate for 1912?

Going Back Further

Switching to Buster’s father’s family, there was a story in her family that they came from generations of rabbis. The only rabbi she knew of was Simcha “Simon” Paltrovitch. I can only question why, on the family chart, they spelled his surname that way and his son’s name as Paltrowitz.

At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Jewish historian Glenn Dynner had more documents for her. The Polish marriage record between Szymon Paltrowicz and Cypa Lewitanska in Nowogrod in 1862 was shown to her. If they were going to change the spelling of the surname for each generation, why not use the spelling in the record? The rabbi conducting the marriage was Hersz Paltrowicz, Szymon’s father. Also, this was not a typical Polish marriage record like any of the ones I have seen.

Jumping back to the chart, they introduced another spelling, Pelterowicz, which I found in JRI-Poland, but again, they were just changing it every generation with no explanation why. On the marriage record, the surname was spelled the same for father and son, the Polish spelling. They also listed Hersz on the chart as Tzvi Hirsch. While that’s a typical Jewish name combination, there was again no indication of why they were changing his given name.

Glenn next showed a memorial book from Nowogrod. He explained exactly what the book was, saying that, “they would write was is called a memorial book.” Why did he not say it was called a Yizkor book? I’ve never heard a Jewish genealogist refer to those books as memorial books, so they would be called Yizkor books.

Gwyneth read a translation of a section of the book about Tzvi Hersz, but even in that, he was referred to as Reb Herszela and not Tzvi Hersz. Next up was a book called Ketzer Tzvi that Szymon wrote, naming it after his father. That was the first time we saw the name Tzvi used. Again, another translation was read by Gwyneth, something Szymon wrote about his father.

Gwyneth finally visited her mother at the end of the show to share what she had learned.


While I was able to follow the changing names when the episode got into the Polish family, someone else would not know that Tzvi Hirsch is also Hersz, or that Simon, Simcha, and Szymon are the same person. They did not explain it, though an earlier part of the episode explained that Edith and Ida were the same name. It is not unusual to find name variations in older Jewish records, or even Americanized names for those who never immigrated to this country, but I really didn’t understand why every generation of Paltrowicz was spelled differently when they showed the family tree chart, especially since I didn’t see those spellings used anywhere in the records. They did not explain that some were the Polish spellings and some were transliterations of those spellings.

While I think they tried to show Gwyneth more involved in the research, this episode felt a bit more like the first season where the celebrities were just passed from one genealogist or historian to the next with records waiting for them. Others have searched through records, or at least flipped through a few pages of the record books, but the most Gwyneth did was search for a name down a single page of records.

I know another genealogist who likes to check on the Ancestry searches shown in the episodes. I decided to check on the JRI-Poland research. Interviewed about the episode, Stanley Diamond said that JRI-Poland was used for the episode (and their home page has changed to feature the story), but searching the database, that marriage is not found. It seems that his contacts in Poland were probably called in to help, which also might explain why they found the unusual marriage record; it was probably a synagogue record and not the usual metrical records that ordinary researchers usually have access to.

However, there are some listings in Nowogrod for the family of Abram Herszowicz Pelterowicz (Herszowicz is the patronymic, so this was the son of Hersz), a death for Hersz in 1877 listing his father as Paltyl, a birth of Peltyn son of Abram in 1873, and a birth of Peltyel in 1864 son of Symcho Pelterowicz and Cypa Lewitanska, a brother to Szymon Meyer. [Thanks Glenn for correcting me.] This was not a common surname according to the database, and with the repeated given names, for those who understand Jewish naming patterns, clearly this was all the same family. If I was researching the family myself, I would naturally get copies of the documents to verify the index information, verify the familial connections, and look for more details in the records, but the JRI-Poland database is usually correct. The name spelling variations can sometimes be accounted for by variations in the records, messy handwriting, transliterations from other languages (often Russian to Polish), or because the indexes were indexed and they may have alternate spellings.

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×06 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Steve Buscemi was the focus of this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? This was another episode that focused mainly on a single ancestor. I noticed no complaints again like Kim Cattrall’s episode. I did notice, after someone mentioned, that Vanessa Williams no longer appeared in the opening credits.

From the Country of Brooklyn

I loved Steve’s story about having his bicycle stolen, “while I was riding it”.

During his drive to visit his family, we learned that Steve didn’t know anything about his maternal grandmother’s family as Amanda, his grandmother, had taken her own life when his mother was three. His parents, John and Dorothy, and brother Michael were waiting for his arrival. He learned Amanda’s parents were Charles and Jane Van Dine, looked at some pictures, and learned that Jane Van Dine, his great-grandmother, died in 1928. That seemed like a good place to start, and that’s exactly where the episode went.

Real Versions of the Records

At the NYC Municipal Archives, Steve met genealogist Joseph Shumway, who had Jane’s death certificate. It was especially interesting to me to see the original record book like that, as I am constantly looking up those same records on microfilm. But do ordinary people ever see that or would the archivist just make copies? Steve read the information quite out of order how it’s presented on the certificate: cause of death; usual residence, which happened to be the same as a restaurant he frequented; her parents’ names, Ralph Montgomery and Julia Vanderhof, both born in the US. He also noted that she was 48 but only in New York for 32 years, and born in the US. I really like when the celebrities pay attention to the details like that.

Going to Ancestry, they searched for a census record to find Jane with her parents. Only one search result was consulted, which matched “the age range”, for 1880, showing her born in Delaware and living in New Jersey at 11 years old as a servant. Steve was confused by that listing, as was I, but for different reasons. They had no evidence that this was the correct Jane Montgomery. Not knowing where she was born, besides the US, and only having her death certificate could not possibly lead to that 1880 census listing. Her death certificate said she was 48 in 1928, which meant she was born about 1880. How could she be 11 unless they already had some other documentation showing that her death certificate was wrong? Joseph specifically stated that they wanted to find her with her parents, but they didn’t seem to look for it. If Jane was 11, she should have been in the 1870 census with her parents. But if she was born 1880, she clearly wouldn’t be.

Her parents were not found in the 1880 census in Camden or surrounding areas. What about the rest of the US? If they were so poor that they had to send their 11 year old daughter to work, who’s to say they didn’t move farther away to stay with other relatives or somewhere with a lower cost of living?

Bad Advice

Joseph next suggested searching through Ancestry member trees to find someone else researching the family. Why would they do such a thing? Obviously, we know they did this ahead of time and found something, but I would not recommend that as a research step to anyone. When looking for other living cousins it might be a good idea, but those trees are filled with errors, the errors are duplicated by others, and there are likely a large number of abandoned trees. I can only hope that someone watching the show who doesn’t know better doesn’t follow this advice for doing research. I would suggest searching other people’s family trees only as a last resort when you can’t find anything else.

They found a match that had only Ralph’s estimated birth year and location, 1834 in Milton, Pennsylvania. The rest of the people in the tree had almost no details. The “Living Descendent”, Joseph suggested, was probably who created the family tree. Was there only one living person listed in the tree? This could have been a collateral line to someone else’s family. It didn’t seem to me to have enough information to be entered by a descendent.

Steve sent a message to the user asking more about Jane and if s/he knew anything about the lives of her parents, Ralph and Julia.

Researching Out of Order

Apparently with no other ideas, Steve was sent to the State Archives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to look for more about Ralph, beginning with his birth. Again, they’ve strayed from the research path. In genealogy, the rule is always start with what you know and work your way back. Why would they not look for Ralph in the 1870 census, or the 1900, and try to find his death rather than his birth? All they had to go on about his birth at this point was apparently that Ancestry member tree which was desperately lacking details about the family.

Archivist Aaron McWilliams told Steve that there was a fire in Milton so many records were lost. Steve searched the tax records while Aaron “checked” the federal censuses. This gave Steve the opportunity to flip through the books himself. This season, the celebrities seem more involved in the search process than the previous one. Whether they were really more interested than the first batch or the format of the show was altered to allow them to “do the work themselves”, I can’t know, but I like to see them actually looking for records.

Steve found Ralph listed as a dentist, but after skipping backwards so much, there was again no way to verify if he’d even found the correct person.

“I don’t think that I would have ever imagined that I had a dentist in my family.” I liked Steve’s humor in this episode.

“I am a Dentist. I have a talent for causing things pain!”

The narrator explained the practice of dentistry at the time, emphasizing the use of anesthesia and the problems with it, and the need for dentists to build trust in the community, almost like they were saying that Ralph did not have the trust, or had killed someone through misuse of the anesthetic. I was half expecting them to find information about some such event, but nothing ever came of it. Why so morbid a description of his occupation?

Aaron “found” the 1860 US federal census for “R. B. Montgomery”, listed as a grocer, only a few years after the tax records that Steve had found. Aaron also pointed out the other individuals listed in his household were “mostly likely his wife and then the children”. A smattering of good advice in the episode: best to not assume, especially with no other evidence yet found.

Steve questioned the names, not recognizing Ralph’s supposed wife’s name of Margaret. Again, this only showed that they had skipped information and were looking at records with no indication that they’d even gotten the right person. “He seems to have had another family before the family he had with Julia.” Thank you Steve. Ignoring the fact that they are already assuming that they’ve got the correct Ralph Montgomery, it’s good that they are stating that these are likely and they seem to be, as opposed to making them facts that haven’t been proven.

Steve questioned what happened to the first family, knowing that they are not the family that showed up later. Where exactly did they show up later? On Jane’s death certificate was the only place we’d seen the names of Ralph and Julia, right? Did they skip over a lot of other research that they showed Steve and not us? Probably.

Aaron suggested going through more local records, including court records and newspapers.

Right about this time, a tweet appeared in my stream about “The History of Anesthesia”. It seemed appropriate.

Another Day, More Records to Randomly Search

Back at the State Archive on another day, Aaron suggested that Steve search the newspaper in 1860 while he looked through court records.

Steve, in a voiceover, said that if he didn’t find something in 1860, he would work his way back. Finally, some research that might go in the correct direction in time. Steve was shown looking at the paper on microfilm, skipping quickly past many pages. What was he skipping past? How did he know not to look at every page? You never know what kind of an article might mention a person. He must have been told to watch for a certain type of article, which he eventually found,  a short bit that started with “Supposed Suicide” in November. They didn’t really make him search the entire year of 1860, did they?

Out by the river of that supposed suicide, Steve read the contents of the article for the viewers. Aaron showed up (at a river in winter?) with some court records of a grand inquest where Ralph, with another man, apparently beat a man in 1857. A second document showed that in 1859, the prosecutor dropped the charges of assault and battery.

Where did he go in 1861?

Discussing the events, Aaron mentioned that Ralph disappeared from the tax records in 1861. Again, more records that we weren’t told about previously. Also, what could have possibly happened in 1861 that he would leave town? Gosh, that’s a tough one.

I don’t know why Aaron had such great suggestions before (to check newspapers and court records) but didn’t think about checking army records from the Civil War. That wasn’t mentioned until the voiceover, quickly followed by Steve searching Ancestry again. And voila, there he was in the army.

“He didn’t just up and leave town, he joined the Civil War. This is pretty amazing.” I’m glad it all made sense to Steve because I was still wondering how they knew that they were even searching the correct family.

And Suddenly to Fredericksburg, Virginia

Looking for more information, Steve met with historian Andy Waskie to learn more about Ralph’s time in the army. Andy showed Steve a few muster rolls, one at a time, explaining they had to be filled out every two months for pay. The second one showed that Ralph had deserted. The next muster roll showed that he returned after two months.

Why did Steve go to Virginia? Was there something on the Ancestry search? I didn’t see anything. Again, more research in the background that wasn’t shown in the episode, but not even a voiceover explaining that research revealed his regiment was stationed in Virginia?

Between Andy and the narrator, we learned about the battle, also learning that Ralph deserted for a second time, with a record shown that was dated 1864. What they didn’t mention was his rank on that document read Private but the Ancestry record showed he was a Corporal.

So much Ancestry in such a short time

Back to the computer again, Steve searched the special 1890 census for veterans which showed Margaret as a widow. The details stated that she did not know what happened to Ralph and presumed he was dead.

Because Jane showed up in Camden, Steve went back there to find out more about Ralph’s second family after the war. Before the commercial, Steve read from the death certificate, “cause of death”, then got cut off. Were they trying to imply something?

Skipping Ahead

Historian Paul Schopp met Steve in Old Camden Cemetery, handing over an envelope. Inside, Steve opened it to reveal the death certificate for Ralph, listed as a dentist again, died at age 44 i n1878, showing his birth place, and the cause of death as tuberculosis, which Paul explained was an occupational hazard for a dentist.

They skipped from the Civil War to his death, but in between, didn’t he have another wife and several children? “With Ralph gone…”, Steve wanted to find more about that second marriage and family. Interesting that when seeing his death certificate and standing in the cemetery, Steve suddenly felt like Ralph was finally dead and wanted to move on.

Back to Brooklyn

Driving back to Brooklyn, in a voiceover, Steve said that he received a message from the person who posted the family tree on Ancestry. The narrator said he was going to meet “a relative he never knew he had”. We all have those. What are the chances that someone who isn’t a genealogist knows their third cousins?

Carol Olive was waiting for him in the restaurant mentioned at the beginning of the episode. This was the first time that meeting someone in a restaurant made perfect sense, and I do believe it’s the first one we’ve seen this season. Jane and her great-grandfather Ralph were children of Ralph B.

Carol had Julia’s marriage certificate from after Ralph died. She also had the 1892 New York census, showing the family in Brooklyn, Julia with five children, but with Jane listed as Jennie.


This episode seemed put together in a very haphazard way. When doing research, we don’t always find records in an order that would make logical sense for a TV show. For instance, all of the Ancestry searches probably would have been discovered at the same time. They were obviously trying to present the information in a logical order, but it did not work. There was too much skipping around in the order the “research” was presented and in the records that were shown. I know they have more documentation than what is mentioned in the episode, but the documents they did share didn’t make any sense and contradicted each other. There was no evidence that they were even researching all the same family.

They never mentioned anything about the fact that Ralph’s first wife assumed he had died but then he got married again and thus was apparently a bigamist. He also had two sons named Ralph, one with each wife. I can only wonder if they did any more research on that first family or even on the other kids from the second marriage. How many other cousins does Steve have that he didn’t know about?

Steve said, “We have to learn from the past so that we can make the future better.” They like getting sound bites like this from the celebrities. Can they take this one to heart and do better with future episodes?

As much as this was a compelling story to watch, and even with all my complaints and excessive “quotes”, I still enjoy watching even the worst episodes of WDYTYA. But in this one, there was too much missing for the evidence to be believed by someone who pays enough attention.  Next time, maybe instead of taking a lot of randomly acquired information and trying to present it logically, they should be more true to the actual research and reveal the family history in random order.

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×05 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Lionel Richie’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? naturally started with him playing and singing one of his songs. Growing up in the Tuskegee “bubble”, he was sheltered from the civil rights movement. During his opening monologue, he stopped to look at old family photos hanging on his wall.

This episode was unique to the others because Mark Lowe was one of the researchers involved and he shared with us some behind the scenes information during Thomas McEntee’s BlogTalkRadio after it aired.

To Grandmother’s House We Go

Lionel started by visiting his sister, Deborah Richie. He described her as “the keeper of the family photos”. Rosie O’Donnell described her brother the same way. It’s normal for one person in each family to be the designated “keeper”, but to also find that person has done some genealogy research is quite helpful. In Lionel’s case, she had.

They began by looking at some photos. In my own experience, the non-genealogists in the family don’t want to know about the genealogy. They might like to hear stories, but mostly they love to look at the pictures.

Deborah said that she ordered a document and revealed their grandmother’s Social Security application. Some genealogists were wondering if she did that on her own or if the researchers told her to order it. Judging by the envelope, I’d say that they delivered it to her. It was with this document that they discovered her maiden name was Brown and her father was Louis Brown. Previously, they knew about her mother but didn’t even know the name of her father.

“That’s powerful, right there. I love that,” Lionel said in response to learning the name of his great-grandfather. And that’s how it works in genealogy, especially after spending hours researching to finally find the information you seek.

The SS-5, the application for Social Security, is a fabulous document for genealogy research. Is this the first time we’ve seen one on WDYTYA? Not only does it give the parents’ names, but also the place of birth. If your immigrant ancestor lived long enough or late enough to apply for Social Security, it is probably the best place to find their ancestral origin.

I was a little surprised to learn that Deborah had previously done family research but hadn’t gotten this document for her grandmother before. The first documents I ever ordered were my grandfather’s and his brother’s SS-5s. Maybe she didn’t think Adelaide had ever applied?

They also noted that Adelaide was born in Nashville, so I guess she never told them that either.

To Nashville

Meeting genealogist Mark Lowe at the Nashville Public Library, Lionel shared the SS-5 with Mark, again demonstrating what a normal person would do when meeting with a genealogist: share what you know so they have everything and can move on from there. Mark suggested Lionel start searching the marriages about two years before Adelaide was born, so Lionel was shown turning the pages and looking through the list of names to find the marriage record on his own. When they weren’t found in 1891, Mark suggested looking another year earlier, where Lionel found the listing.

Louis Brown, or J. L. Brown as he was listed, would be a difficult person to spot, but with a great-grandmother named Volenderver Towson, it makes it much easier to know you’ve got the right record.

The only thing I would nitpick about this is assuming the marriage was two years or more before Adelaide was born. Some people got married after their first child, even in that time. They probably started at that year to allow Lionel to search a little and to not make him search a lot.

The next document was a complaint to initiate a divorce. And the final decree showed that the divorce was granted in 1897.

At the Metropolitan Government Archives, Lionel met historian Don Doyle. In the 1885 city directory, they found him listed.

“Now you know what you’ve done. You’ve only stoked my curiosity. Because if we can back this far, we got to go back some more.” Lionel was drawn into the hunt early in the episode. I think this season has shown the celebrities even more interested in the research than many in the previous season.

The 1880 directory was falling apart, so Don handled the book. Not knowing what SGA stood for in the first book, they knew that Editor in the earlier one meant that he was literate.

At Prince Hall Affiliated Organization, Lionel met with historian Corey Walker, who explained what the Knights of the Wise Men was. Lionel compared it to an insurance company, which is partly what it sounded like when Corey explained it. Founded in 1879, J.L. Brown was the Editor only one year later according to the city directory. Seeing the Rules, Laws, and Regulations book, Lionel learned that his ancestor had written the book and SGA stood for Supreme Grand Archon, the national leader of the organization.

By 1891, after an outbreak of small pox and the treasurer running off with what was left of the money, the Knights of Wise Men was mentioned until 1915 but was no longer a nationwide organization.

To Chattanooga

Sneaking in the Ancestry plug during Lionel’s drive to Chattanooga, they quickly showed Lionel finding John Brown in the 1900 census in Chattanooga. How did they know they had the right John Brown? They probably had more information to verify than what they showed on TV; they didn’t even scroll across to place of birth or occupation.

At the Public Library, historian LaFrederick Thirkill had a couple things to share with Lionel. They found J.L. listed in the 1929 city directory as a caretaker at the Pleasant Garden Cemetery. With a smile on his face, Lionel asked, “Any more information?” LaFrederick showed him the book, Biography & Achievements of the Colored Citizens of Chattanooga, which had a page about and a picture of John Louis Brown.

LaFrederick provided one more document: his death certificate. Listed as his father was Morgan Brown, but his mother said “don’t know”.

“Don’t you just love records like that,” Lionel said sarcastically. Yes, Lionel, we do, oh so much.

Visiting the cemetery, Lionel was disappointed at the condition of the cemetery; LaFrederick led him to the pauper’s section of the cemetery, where J.L. was buried, then left him alone to “reflect”. Very respectful. They never did say if he had any kind of marker, whether a stone or something else. I’m guessing he didn’t or we might have seen it.

There were a lot of comments from other genealogists about the cemetery’s condition and how it would not be that way for long. We can’t be certain, but we can hope that these celebrities do the right thing to help preserve and recover cemeteries and old records where they can. If that is happening, then let’s hope that the celebrities continue to have a variety of backgrounds and put some of the money we’ve spent on them to good use for genealogists everywhere.

While many of the genealogists online thought of other US cemeteries that looked similar, I thought of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I have seen pictures of some and they are in quite similar shape or worse, with some being vandalized or the stones used in sidewalks and buildings. That history can never be recovered.

Back to Nashville

At the Tennessee State Library & Archives, historian Dr. Ervin L. Jordan, with both men wearing the white gloves, reviewed an application for pension in 1924 which revealed the name of his owner, Morgan W. Brown.

“Only assuming that Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown, the owner, it’s the same guy.” Later, Lionel said, “I’m on the search now for Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown.” Often the celebrity jumps to conclusions and the genealogist has to point out that they’re making assumptions, but in this case, it was Lionel who stated it was only an assumption and was interested in determining if they were the same person. I think even well-seasoned genealogists might assume it was the same person, until they went further in the research and discovered two men with the same name.

Back at the Public Library, historian Jacqueline Jones tried to clear things up, explaining that Dr. Morgan Brown had a son named Morgan W. Brown. In Dr. Brown’s diary, they found mention of Louis’s birth to Mariah, one of the slaves. Further, they found Dr. Brown’s will, where he freed Mariah and her son, gave her a place to live, chose the land to be given to her, and provided two years of schooling for Louis. They could not verify if Morgan W. had carried out his father’s wishes.

Back in Los Angeles, Lionel shared the information with his sister and two of his children. Seen throughout the episode with a black notebook but never seen writing in it, Lionel used his notes to tell his family about the story.

Behind The Scenes

After the episode, we learned some great information from Mark Lowe. He worked on the episode from April to January. For two months, he worked on a part of the family that didn’t make it into the episode. We learned that Lionel was a prolific note-taker, though he was never seen writing during the episode. Apparently, that was partly vanity, as he needed glasses and didn’t want to be seen on screen wearing them, though we saw him folding them up at least once.

Each scene is filmed three or four times, once all the way through to capture the moments of discovery, then again with breaks and camera angle changes to see the documents and such.

Another day of filming that didn’t make it into the episode was platting and visiting the land designated for Mariah in the will, currently on the property of the American Baptist College.


Many genealogists praised the variety of records seen in this episode, also liking that they had to be found in a variety of libraries and archives, just like real genealogy research. The parts they still don’t mention are the eight months of research by the untold number of genealogists working on the project.

They seemed more obvious the first time I watched, but there were a couple times when Lionel had trouble reading the records. I was always a little suspicious about the celebrities being able to read the old records so easily and thought we finally had a break-through, until Mark pointed out the issue with the reading glasses. Maybe someday we’ll see an episode with old Greek or Russian records so we can see how difficult it really is to read some of the old records. ;-)

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