On tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC, Emmitt Smith wanted to take his family roots back to Africa, and while the task may have seemed impossible at first, the stars aligned for Emmitt and researchers – not only did Emmitt trace the path of his American slave ancestors, he also discovered the location in Africa where his ancestors hailed from.
Here’s where his journey led:
- Emmitt’s parents’ house, Pensacola, FL: Emmitt’s family didn’t talk much about their past when he was growing up. But a discussion with his parents offers him key clues that prove invaluable in his search. The two most telling are that his grandmother, Erma Lee Watson, had “white blood” and that she was from a small town, Burnt Corn, Alabama. Before traveling to Burnt Corn, Emmitt finds a website that also lists the names of Erma Lee’s grandparents: William and Victoria Watson.
- Burnt Corn, AL: The town of Burnt Corn is largely vacant when Emmitt arrives, leaving him wondering where to go, what to do. But at a local store, Emmitt finds someone to ask questions of. As luck would have it, that man is also related to William and Victoria Watson, knows who Emmitt is, and relates more details to Emmitt about their family’s past.
- Monroe County (AL) Courthouse, Archives, and Heritage Museums: Until this point, Emmitt has been working from stories, but now he turns his search to documents that can back up those tales. But first he gets a tough lesson in history: marriage records for African Americans were segregated in Monroe County in the late 19th century. Needing more information, Emmitt turns to Ancestry.com to find a 1900 census record for Victoria and William Watson, which gives him a birth year for each as well as marriage details and more. This information helps him locate a marriage record for Victoria and William, which includes Victoria’s surname, Puryear. Victoria’s death certificate goes a step further, listing the name of her father, Prince Puryear. An 1870 census record – the first census in which formerly enslaved African Americans were listed by name – turns up Prince Puryear, race mulatto. There are other Puryears living nearby, including Mariah Puryear, age 55, also mulatto. Is this Prince’s mom?
- Clairborne House, Monroeville, AL: Tackling slave research before 1870 means focusing on the slave owner. Since it was a common practice for slaves to adopt the surname of their owner, the search turns to local slave owners with the surname Puryear. There is one: Alexander. A letter written by him mentions a slave, who is quite likely the same Mariah.
- Puryear Family Plot, Monroeville, AL: The Will of Alexander’s wife, Mary Puryear, shows Emmitt the family connection he was looking for: lists Mariah and her children by name, Prince included.
- Mecklenburg County Courthouse, VA: Traveling to the home of the Puryear family in Virginia, Emmitt learns more about the process of slave trading. He also sees a deed indicating the transfer of Mariah, age 11, to Alexander Puryear from his father, Samuel. It’s believed that Mariah was Samuel’s daughter. Unfortunately, Emmitt’s paper trail ends here.
- Ouidah Museum of History, Benin, Africa: A DNA test points Emmitt to his ancestor’s home in Africa. Traveling there, Emmitt learns how his ancestors would have been taken into slavery. He also discovers that things aren’t much better today: in his homeland there still exists child trafficking.
Most American genealogy starts out the same: you begin with the known and venture into the unknown, from 20th century records, including census records, and follow clues back to the past. But in African American history, toward the end of the 19th century, you have to change gears and stop following your own family and follow the slave owner’s family instead.
Learn more about finding African American ancestors and get quick links to databases that could prove revealing, at Ancestry.com. And venture beyond the listed collections: Emmitt also found big discoveries in land and property records and written histories. Census slave schedules (1850 and 1860), newspapers, tax records, and smaller state-based collections can prove invaluable to your search, too. To find resources associated with a specific state at Ancestry.com, select Card Catalog from the Search tab. Scroll down and filter by location, choosing United States. Then select the state you’re interested from the list.
If you missed Emmitt Smith on Who Do You Think You Are?, full episodes of show will be available online here. And while you’re there, also watch a preview of next week’s episode featuring actress Lisa Kudrow.
About Heather Erickson
Heather Erickson is Head of Global Communications for Ancestry.com and has been with the company since 2009.