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?