Lessons Learned from WDYTYA

Genealogy hit prime time television last month with NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? I haven’t been writing about it here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching!  At first, many genealogists were dismayed that the show didn’t highlight more of the “how to” of genealogy.  But, that’s not its purpose.  First and foremost, the show is meant to entertain.  But hopefully non-genealogists will get interested in tracing their family’s history after seeing some of the amazing discoveries that the stars made about their own families.

We are now just past the midway point of the show’s schedule. In just four episodes the show has highlighted various record sources and periods of history, and each story has had a powerful emotional impact.  Despite the fact that WDYTYA doesn’t highlight actual research techniques, there are still many lessons to be learned for those already involved in genealogical research.  Or at least reminders of things we’ve already learned but occasionally forget.   Here is what I have learned so far:

Episode #1 – Sarah Jessica Parker

In SJP’s search for more information on her mother’s family, researchers uncovered her 3rd great-grandfather’s obituary that also cited his father’s year of death.  But the information was later proved wrong with additional research.  Lesson:  Don’t trust everything you read in the newspapers; try to find primary sources for vital information. How many of us have been led down the wrong path by following a family story or second-hand information?  Try to verify information using primary sources if possible, which means a record created at the time of the event.

Episode #2 – Emmitt Smith

Emmitt’s story about his ancestors born into slavery was powerful.  He not only learned about his fourth great-grandmother, Mariah Puryear, who was born a slave, but he was shocked to discover that her father was likely her owner.  Lesson: We may learn things about our ancestors that we won’t make us proud.  Upon learning this information, Emmitt had a great response: the man is his ancestor, but he is not like that man.   Lesson: If you uncover something distasteful about an ancestor – and who among us has not – you might want to consider you have become something better. We should also remember that the “black sheep” ancestor also has ancestors, and some of those may be worthy of admiration.  Genea-blogger footnoteMaven provides the proper perspective with this insightful quote:

It is the wise Family Historian who understands that we can no more take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors, than we can take blame for their failures.

Our knowledge of them is merely insight into ourselves. You can not change history, take care not to misrepresent it.

Episode #3 – Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow’s episode was an emotional tear-jerker as she learned about the death of her great-grandmother by the Nazis.  However, the lesson I learned from this episode came from an event that struck me as humorous.  At the Polish State Archives in Gdynia, a document reveals that Lisa’s presumed-dead cousin had a child in Gdynia.  Lisa became so excited at the prospect of finding a descendent.  She asks what records they could look to find the family – census records, tax records, surely there is something?  Archivist Krzysztof Dzieciolowski smiles and plops a large telephone book on the desk.  Lesson: Don’t overlook the obvious when searching for relatives! Occasionally research can be as simple as looking in the phone book!

Episode #4 – Matthew Broderick

Broderick wanted more information on his father’s family, and he discovered war heroes from World War I and the Civil War.  It was interesting that his grandfather was described as “ill-tempered” and the family didn’t talk much about the past.  Perhaps his grandfather’s ill temper came from his experience fighting in the Great War – he was a battlefield hero, but never talked about it.  Broderick also discovered that his 2nd great-grandfather died in battle during the Civil War.  Until the research for this episode, Broderick’s ancestor was buried in an unmarked grave.   Lesson: Just as we can uncover things we’d rather not know, we also can learn about great deeds.  It becomes our responsibility to honor our ancestors by remembering them.

I look forward to the remaining episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? What other lessons shall we learn?


9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from WDYTYA

  1. After watching the Matthew Broderick episode it made me wonder if someone was going to get the headstone changed so it will include his name. I know the historian said he would forward the information on to the VA but will that get a new headstone put up? I wish they would have told us that information.

  2. Thanks Donna for the great recap!

    “I highly recommend this great program for everyone. It gives an excellent preview of the positive life enriching discoveries waiting to be found by each person who seeks to know about the bigger picture of where we came from.”

    For more about Sarah Jessica Parker and her family ties:

    After seeing the last episode with Matthew Broderick I wondered how different his portrayal in “Glory” would have been had he know about his Civil War Ancestor.

    I have a Revolutionary War Ancestor which is howI was able to get into the DAR. Now I would like to find a Civil War ancestor.

    Ancestor-at-a-glance charts I have added more fan charts at: http://familyforest.com/resources/55/fan-charts

    You may find someone you are searching for here.

  3. Donna,

    What an interesting take on the series. I’ve read lots of reviews, but none containing lessons learned like yours. It’s a nice new blogging slant on the show…especially since I haven’t really watched it.

    At the risk of being targeted by all of those radical genealogists out there, I watched the first one and SJP really creeped me out…so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of the others for fear of more creepiness.

    I do appreciate your take on it though.

  4. Enjoyed the article, Donna, especially since I haven’t been able to find the show on TV (yet) in the UK.

  5. Alice,

    The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War does a good job of making sure that the graves of Civil War veterans are properly marked. A couple of years ago, the branch in Excelsior Springs, MO, not only identified the remains of six Union soldiers who had been killed by bushwhackers, but erected a large monument on the common grave and contacted all of the descendants and other relatives (including one in the Netherlands) they could find to take part in a dedication ceremony. The cemetery is a civilian one, but I would imagine this organization and others like it will make sure that Matthew Broderick’s ancestor is properly honored in a military cemetery.

  6. I don’t think I am alone when I say this…

    WDYTYA should pick an average Joe or Sue and show more of the real work that goes into researching one of their family lines.

    I have worked off and on for more years than I can remember filling in the names, dates, documents requests and when I “hit a brickwall” I usually pay for someone to get me closer to getting over the brickwall. Sometimes they review what I have already done and find just enough to keep my interest peaked, othertimes they review my work and add much more than I expect.

    What alot of average genealogist needs is guideance from the professionals who want this Hobby/Lifes Work to endure.

  7. Love your blog – I have given your blog the Ancestor Approved Award – You can stop by AncestorSoup.blogspot.com to pick it up, and learn more. Thanks for some great posts!


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