Who Do You Think You Are?

My wife got hooked on NBC’s celebrity family history program, Who Do You Think You Are? watching it on Hulu.com. At her encouragement I watched all seven episodes yesterday. I loved it and recommend it heartily. Considering that the program should appeal to anybody who’s interested in families, geneaological research, travel, history, or celebrities, you’d think it would have pretty broad appeal. It’s been renewed for next season but its ratings so far have been pretty phlegmatic.

The celebrities into whose family histories the program delved this season were Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee. I learned quite a bit in these programs including that one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestresses was accused of being a witch, that Matthew Brodericks family has been gallant for 150 years, and that, if my Cousin Ansgwerd is right, I may be distantly related to Brooke Shields.

In just the seven episodes that have been aired to date they encountered some of the big, prototypically American stories. There was the WASP story (Sarah Jessica Parker), the story of the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow), and the terribly tragic African American story (Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee). If you’re not aware of it, practically all geneaological research for African Americans hits a wall at 1870. That isn’t quite balanced by Africa’s tremendous genetic diversity which makes genetic testing more helpful in pinpointing origins than it is for most of those of European descent (genetic testing of African Americans can identify fairly small likely areas of origin while genetic testing of people of European descent frequently just tells you they’re of European descent).

If you only watch one episode of the program, watch Emmitt Smith’s. The guy is tremendously appealing as a person and his family’s story is, too. I wonder if he realizes how lucky he is? His search for his origins brings home several points that, apparently, need re-emphasizing. That most African Americans are of mixed race. That geneaological research for African Americans prior to 1870 is extremely difficult. That slaves were treated worse than cattle. And that slavery continues right down to the present day in the parts of Africa from which most black African slaves were imported. I think this program ought to be required viewing for every American 9th grader.

There are several more prototypically American stories I’d like to see them cover next season. They should find a celebrity whose famine Irish ancestors they can trace right back to Ireland. It won’t be hard finding celebrities who have Irish ancestry (nearly 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry) but situating them in Ireland might be pretty tough. I’d like to seem them tell the family story of an American celebrity with Hispanic roots that go back 150 or more years in this country. That’s not as rare as you might think (in an earlier day the charming Leo Carrillo had that sort of background). It would also be interesting to trace the family history of somebody whose origins are completely different from what they thought, i.e. somebody who thought they were Irish but were actually Russian Jews. Stories of that sort, too, are not as unusual here as you might think. America is a place where people came and re-invented themselves.

11 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I might check that out. The e-mail advertisements I received made the show seem like it was one step above a celebrity advertisement for a genealogical service.

    I had thought about ordering a DNA test for my dad to clear up the mystery of the “Shaws,” but became concerned that it would not tell us anything. Shaw is an English name, adopted also by unrelated Irish and Scottish clash anglicizing Gaelic names. My dad holds to the family tradition that our Shaws are Irish; my uncle who is more the genealogical researcher says we are Scottish, or at least Scotch-Irish. (Probably because we migrated before the 19th century) Anyway, the historic distribution of the name btw/ the Spey river valley of Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland is probably smaller than most African countries; to suppose there is large DNA differences is probably unrealistic.

    My understanding of the Irish side of the equation is that since Catholics were discriminated against in terms of property ownership and trades, there is not very much written evidence for genealogy research. I concur that would be an interesting show to watch.

    Anyway, has anybody here used DNA research?

  • Well, there is that aspect of it PD. Ancestry.com figures prominently in every episode. Indeed, in each episode there’s at least one scene in which the researcher says “Well, let’s go to Ancestry.com” and the logo and page are clearly displayed.

    Maybe I can clear up the question for you, PD. What were your father’s, his siblings, and his parents’ names (and years of birth if you know them) and where did he live when he was a kid?

    I haven’t used genetic research because it can’t give me answers to the question I’d most like answered which are all about my mother’s side. I can trace my dad’s family back for at least 600 years in one line, for 300 years in several others, and for at least 200 years in all lines. On my mom’s side I hit a wall around 1830 and in one line I’m stumped at around 1860.

    One of the fun things about researching my family’s history is that we’re almost entirely composed of black sheep. My generation is, regretfully, the most respectable of the bunch. I was relieved to learn that my father’s mother’s father’s father had run away from home for a couple of years as a kid. He’d seemed so tame before that. It showed that he fit in.

  • There were also a lot of Jewish children who were ‘appropriated’ in a form of forced conversion during the Holocaus, were t raised as Christians and never told about their real parents, only to find out their real background later.

    Ex-Secretary of State Madeline Albright is one of them.


  • I have been fortunate that my grandfather did much genealogy research back in the ’70’s (no internet then — lots of legwork scaring up old records).
    Lots of good stories: Mayflower, Boston Tea Party, a distant relation to Lincoln. One rumor: One Great-Grandfather came over on a dead man’s passport. Emigrated through Riga, but was from a town in Russia that not longer exists. I don’t know how I could possibly reasearch that one any further.

    Funny you mentioned Leo Carrillo. A friend’s wife told me he was her grandfather’s brother.


  • Claire Link

    I just watched the Brooke Shields episode – this show is so cool! You’ll have to explain to me how we are distantly related to her! My mom has always told me that I resemble Brooke Shields, so that is an interesting coincidence! Also: prepare for a “Who Do You Think You Are?” marathon this weekend, because now I’m hooked.

  • Paula Link

    I found this while I was trying to figure out if the show had been renewed for another season. This series is based on a British series which is much better, IMHO. Because there are no commercials, it’s an actual full hour. They show more of the steps involved in the research, and it’s far less of a commercial for ancestry.com. However, it’s hard to see it in the US unless you buy the DVD’s or , ahem, do some file sharing.

  • Sharon Pike Link

    I’m interested in your Schuler family. My mom was a Schuler, daughter of Leo, son of Thomas, son of Joseph Maria Schuler (whose wife was Josepha Magdelena Schuler. ) They came from Sattel so there must be a connection. I have a huge database so we will probably find a connection.

  • lrmaxwell Link

    Just came across your site. I too am a huge fan of “Who Do You Think You Are?” As an African American, I am all too aware of the roadblocks. Fortunately, I can trace back to about 1820 before my headaches begin. (LOL) Watching the African American profiles gives me more education in areas that I am lacking in my geneology research.

    I have a girlfriend who is a Schuler, she is African American, and we’re starting her geneological quest. You never know, right?

  • Fortunately, I can trace back to about 1820 before my headaches begin.

    You are astonishingly fortunate. As you are no doubt aware most African Americans hit a wall in their genealogical right about the time of Emancipation.

    I have a girlfriend who is a Schuler, she is African American

    My Schulers are Swiss and most of my Schuler relatives in this country live in the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky area along the Ohio River. I wish her good hunting!

  • MERKEL Antoine Link

    My Schulers are also Swiss from SATTEL .
    Genealogy since 1470.

    I live in Alsace (Strasbourg area ) FRANCE.

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