"Who do you think you are?" (celebrity Genealogy series on NBC)

Has anybody else watched this? It’s an Americanization of the British version (which I haven’t seen) in which celebrities meet with genealogists and travel to places associated to places associated with their family history. So far they’ve done Sarah Jessica Parker and Emmitt Smith. Both episodes are available online through NBC or Hulu.

Sarah Jessica Parker’s was interesting. She had no idea her maternal ancestors had been in America for almost 400 years; she thought they were recent immigrants. She learned that one of her ancestors left his pregnant wife to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush and found a record of his death, and she nearly flipped out upon finding one of her 17th century ancestors was accused in the Salem Witch Trials.

Emmitt Smith was able to trace his ancestry to a slave named Mariah born around 1815 in Virginia and found the legal document by which she was transferred to a relative of her master’s in Alabama. She and her children were listed as mulatto in census records so this also opened up some understandable questions about her paternity and if her master was her father. In the end of the episode he went to Benin, Africa, to visit the area where his DNA testing said his most probable area of ancestry was.

Both shows had some interesting moments but they also had some serious “ugh” moments. Genealogy is one of my interests and many other Dopers who have ever devoted time to it can verify it becomes an addiction. It’s almost frustrating how much delight discovery of a 250 year old gravestone transcription or 1882 deed or, best of all, the last will and testament of a relative who died a hundred years “before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago” can bring you. However, most other genealogists will also tell you that while it’s a fascinating topic when you’re researching your genealogy, there are few things more boring than listening to somebody else talk about their genealogy, so I understand that NBC has to spike the interest quotient a bit.

The biggest irritation with the first show was SJP’s drama queen moment on learning of her witch trial ancestor and the “please please please let her have been one of the accused and not one of the accusers! Please!” (Honey, she’s been dead for more than 300 years- if she personally exterminated twelve Iroquois villages, it doesn’t reflect on you, it’s just interesting to know.) I was also irked, as a librarian and a genealogist, at their implication that she had to travel to Salem, Massachusetts to find out about this ancestor- no, almost all of the documents asssociated with the trials are available online from any location. (Now to get a feel of the place, yeah, but they acted as if only the librarian in Salem could supply the answers.)

The biggest irritation with the Emmitt Smith episode was an omission: he was being shown records about his ancestors in the courthouse in Monroeville, seat of Monroe County, Alabama, and they never once mention that this is the courthouse and the town fictionalized in To Kill a Mockingbird, and his relatives lived there at the time the events that inspired the book occurred*. That’s kind of like visiting Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and not mentioning “oh, btw, Dolly Parton is from here and owns that major themepark that dominates the town” or, well- visiting 17th century sites in Salem, Mass. and not mentioning the witch trials.

My favorite part of the Smith show was when he summed up my position on genealogy perfectly. Somebody told him “this will tell you who you are” and he responded, politely (seems like a nice guy), “I already know who I am… this will tell me about my family history”. EXACTLY! (I’ve never understood people who take huge pride or shame in the deeds of their ancestors- if you’re a descendant of the Mayflower passengers or of Heinrich Himmler, either way it’s nothing you did, but it is interesting to see how it affected your history.)

So, mixed reviews, but anything that sparks interest in genealogy is okay by me. In future episodes they’re going to do Matthew Broderick (Mr. SJP), Lisa Kudrow (who’s one of the show’s U.S. producers) and Spike Lee (which I don’t understand the need for since Henry Louis Gates already profiled the research into Lee’s ancestors for the PBS genealogy show African American Lives- go with someone else).

Anybody who has seen the British version: how similar or different is the U.S. version?

And others who watched it: what’d you think?

*While TKAM is fiction, many of the characters and the rape trial were inspired by actual events.

I just stumbled onto your thread, as I am doing some cursory research on my family. I like the show and find the topic fascinating. I would love to go check out the places where my ancestors lived, like they do on the show. It’s not that I am defined by my ancestors, but I enjoy getting a historical perspective on things.

It also provides me a new personal meaning to history when I think of my ancestors actually living through the events of their days. I can think in the textbook abstract of the Battle of New Orleans at the War of 1812, for example, but it brings on a whole new meaning to me when I learn one of my ancestors was a soldier there.

I’ve seen most of all 3 episodes (Kudrow was this past weekend). Pretty interesting, but yeah, the whole “We have to find something shocking/horrible in your past” theme and created drama is wearing a bit thin. I was also disappointed that SJP did not mention her role as a Salem witch in Hocus Pocus, when she found that her ancestor had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.

Our 7 year old is fascinated with this show, and we’re not sure why. The Emmitt Smith episode did lead to a discussion of slavery in the USA, and I found that explaining that in terms that a child can understand pretty much confirms that slavery in any form is unspeakably evil. She wants to start searching out her own ancestors - I’ve already told her that all my grandparents came through Ellis island in the 1920s, and short of travelling to Europe, the trail ends there.

I saw the Kudrow episode - it was very well done. I have also seen the BBC version, and really enjoyed the episode with Stephen Fry’s family - he is descended from Austrian Jews, some of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.

I think it’s great viewing, and will probably get more eyeballs than the Gates version (though that’s certainly good watching as well). Nice to see some reality TV that’s not terribly exploitative.

Dang! I’ve been wanting to watch this show and I guess I’ve missed 3 episodes already! I’ll have to cruise over to nbc.com or Hulu and get caught up.

My brother started to trace our family tree and found that many others in the family had already done most of the work for us. He was actually able to talk to a relative of ours who still lives in Scotland. Very interesting stuff.

I saw the one with Lisa Kudrow, and found it interesting. Especially when she spoke with the old woman who was there when her great-grandmother was taken from the village by Nazis- when she said she felt guilty for making her relive the whole thing, I did too, but it was a fascinating moment.

The Kudrow episode was the best one done so far I thought. It’s always chilling just how well documented the Holocaust was- the “killed and burned” records being just like so many “chickens purchased” in the records. Also has to be jarring to her the knowledge that if her grandmother- who she knew- had not gotten out of Belarus, she would have been among those stripped naked and killed and burned.

I’m guessing there’s a lot less serendipity in actuality than it’s made to look like. The producers/researchers probably already knew her cousin was still alive long before going to Belarus, and I doubt it’s just coincidence that his grandson who spoke English answered the phone. Very nice place they lived in incidentally; you don’t think modern-with-beautiful-entertainment-units when you think eastern Europe so much as you think the old peasant woman in the babushka who told her about her great-grandmother.

Regarding family history mentioned above, I also love genealogy mainly for the sense of connection and the ‘extension cord into history’ it provides. As a history buff genealogy has brought to my attention many things I didn’t know about: the 1815 volcanic eruption in Indonesia that was responsible for my ancestors coming to Alabama (even though they had never been in same hemisphere as Indonesia), or the Battle of Alamance in 1771 (a battle between colonists and royal troops several years before Lexington & Concord), or the minutiae of life on a plantation or farm that makes it all the more real. (I’ve written on the boards before how jarring it is reading the wills of ancestors and other relatives who bequeathe slaves as if they were beds or horses- “Lisey goes to my daughter Jennifer, I bequeathe Linus and Penelope and their increase to my daughter Sylvia, etc.”- it deflates the “they were like family” myth a bit.)

The show’s web site has a contest you can enter if interested. The grand prize includes travel to sites associated with your ancestry and so many hours of consulting with professional genealogists and the like- $20,000 or so. While I recognize the snowball in hell chances of winning it doesn’t cost anything to enter and it’d be cool, and while I’m not jonesing to visit York County, South Carolina or Trenton, New Jersey (places associated with ancestors) I’d love to spend some quality research time in Jamestown and then go to Scotland, Switzerland, or even Africa to do research. (I’m slightly whiter than Julie Andrews singing Christmas carols with the Muppets, but I have discovered I had enslaved African ancestors in the early 18th century who I’d love to learn more about.)

I’m fascinated how family lines split. Some successful and others not.

My family name has some very wealthy and prominent people. There’s buildings and several towns named after them. Sadly none of those rich relatives are in my direct line. My side of the tree were dirt poor Louisiana sharecroppers for at least 5 or 6 generations. My Aunt has traced the family all the way back to Holland. It all started with a few brothers that emigrated in the 1600’s.

I love to see Drew Barrymore on this show. She came from a family of actors. Certainly it goes back to her great-great grandfather. But what did the family do before?

I watched Kudrow, Eva Longoria, Emmitt Smith (I worked with a cousin of his in the 70’s and wondered if she was also watching), and Meryl Streep on the Gates version. I agree that it’s fascinating (especially tracing through DNA). What surprises me is how many records survive and that they’re still readable. How long does ink last anyway?

I think there should be more history on TV. Yeah, there’s a lot, but it’s mostly wars and battles and royalty and criminals.

This week it’s Spike Lee. It’s of special interest to me because his ancestors came from some of the same parts of Georgia as mine (specifically Twiggs County* and a town called Dublin).
*I wonder how well they’ve done their research; like many counties across the country, Twiggs used to be several times the size it is now but split into several counties when the population multiplied, so wherever his ancestors lived in Twiggs County might be a different county now. (Georgia has 159 counties, which I think is actually a national record in the “counties per capita” population.)

Often they’re photocopied or, with many of the older ones I’ve looked at, actually hand copied. Lots of county courthouses have will books in which the older wills probated during a year were just transcribed verbatim into a ledger for that year. They often include such citations as [sic] for grammatical errors or [his mark] for the signature of an illiterate*. The original records were often disposed of at some point after being recorded.

Handwritten paper documents from the 1830s will probably be around a lot longer than typed paper documents from the 1930s because it was acid free and better quality.

*It’s always amazing to me seeing estate records for people who often accumulated a substantial amount of property yet never learned to read or write.

I saw this one. It was OK. Well, a little bit better than usual for a non-PBS show like this. Not nearly as good as the one they just did on PBS. That one was excellent.

I’ve only started on my own family history - I thought the show was great for those who are curious about genealogy from what I saw of Lisa’s.

Canada had a version of the show on around Christmas time, and I found I could relate more, being my own story is more similar to these stories. I really loved the episode about Chantal Kreviazuk talking about her eastern European ancestors and Mary Walsh’s quest for her Irish ancestors.

I’d say, I prefer the shows about non-celebrities more, there is a show here called Ancestors in the Attic which I find far more fun.

Surprisingly, I’m really enjoying this show. SJP was annoying as usual, but I liked the Emmitt Smith episode as well as Lisa Kudrow’s episode. And it was nice to see her looking her age rather than botoxed to hell and back like Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston. I’m especially looking forward to the Matthew Broderick episode because of the Civil War aspect.

I’ve been watching them online - Lisa Kudrow’s was the best, but I find it quite irritating that they were subtitling the Polish grandson’s translation. Yo NBC - he’s speaking English!

The language you are speaking has nothing to do with the purpose of subtitling. Quite a few Americans have trouble understanding people with non-American accents. I’ve met people who can’t understand Received Pronunciation.

It’s good that genealogy is getting some notice. Hopefully more people will become interested in their ancestry. My only complaint (and it’s petty) is that these are all people who are well off and who are having their research handed to them without having to put in the hours and endure the frustrations inherent in family research.

Marlee Matlin once said she has trouble reading the lips of English speaking people with thick regional accents.

I have the same complain whenever I give my siblings my findings.:smiley:

There’s a tie-in book to the series available. I looked through it at the bookstore and would say that for people who have already done a good deal of genealogy it’s probably got nothing remarkably new, but for those who are new it’s a pretty good introduction.

I’m hardly a master genealogists, but some of the tips from my own research I’ve passed on to people who’ve had success with and which I’ve never read in a book is the Google the name of God rule:

Most wills and some other legal documents used to begin with the phrase In the name of God Amen; this was very standard in the 18th and 19th century and I’ve seen it used in earlier and later wills as well. Using one of my own family lines I found through this method as example, if you’ll make a google search like so

it can befruitful in finding their wills online (if, obviously, their wills have been transcribed online). The quotations for “in the name of God Amen” are important (if there’s a comma between God and amen it doesn’t throw it off) but I wouldn’t use them around a person’s name; a will written by Joseph M. Tanner might not be retrieved if you type “Joseph Tanner”, plus there are sometimes misspellings. Such are the mysteries of googling the name of God.

Surely you’ve had to deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Daughters of the Confederacy, Daughters of the American Revolution, or any of the myriad of ancestry type groups out there. I know I had to when I assisted people with their genealogical research. People investing so much of their identity in their ancestors was something I just got used to after a while. I used to help novice genealogist with their research. When I first started I was genuinely surprised by how interesting I found some of their family histories. Even the dull stories could be put into the context of American history.


The other fun thing about digging up the roots of the family tree is when you notice certain tendencies happening again and again throughout history. It’s not ‘who I am’, but it is ‘who we are’. My family isn’t small, and we’ve all noticed certain… idiosyncrasies over the decades.

Finding them repeated a hundred or a thousand years back is really funny. And sad. It’s even better when we find ‘those we left behind’ have managed to follow the same general pattern.

(You wouldn’t think ‘getting so pissed at someone, generally your father, you join an opposing army’ is a repeatable pattern. Apparently it is.)