It probably makes statistical sense that Emmitt Smith would run into a distant cousin when he visited Burnt Corn, Alabama. If your family put down roots in a small town and remained there for any length of time, at least a handful of descendants could still be around the town today. In Burnt Corn, which boasts only around 300 residents, that handful of Watsons to whom Emmitt is related might seem awfully big.
But even in a small town, it seems like Watson would be a tough name to track – after all, it’s relatively common, although I’ve learned through the years that having a somewhat unique surname doesn’t always make connections easy.
To really figure out if I’m related to everyone with my surname, I’d have to do quite a bit of research – way more than I’d have time for in a single lifetime. And based on people who’ve contacted me through the years to say that we have a family link, it would appear there are more Adams and Maples in my family tree than there are Croasmuns.
“So how are we related?” That’s usually my first question when someone calls or writes to say we’re connected. Sure, “cousin” works, but I want to know what kind. Sometimes figuring that out gets tricky.
There are a handful of cousin/relationship charts and calculators available online and each one requires the same thing: that you and the other person know your relationship to the relative you share. In other words, it all comes back to the paper trail. Most recently I was contacted by the neighbor of the spouse who had been working on the family tree of my second cousin once removed. Yes, it took me a while to get the connection straight.
Following a connection based solely on a surname may not guarantee success, although it can prove to be a good jumping-off point. In Emmitt Smith’s case, even when he found a Puryear slave owner with a slave named Mariah, Emmitt still sought documented proof that Prince – the Puryear to whom Emmitt knew he was related – was her son. He found that proof.
Since it seems like Croasmuns are sometimes well hidden (one of the problems with a unique surname is that it often gets mis-transcribed) I let technology do some of the cousin-finding for me. Member Connect at Ancestry.com shows me who else is saving the records I’m looking at. If they’re family, I may want to connect with them and compare notes. Or I can scroll up and down a census page to see who is researching other people in the neighborhood — maybe they know something that can help me with my family search, too. As for straight surname hunting, message boards and family trees are always helpful. Even if I don’t find the exact relative I’m looking for, I almost always learn something new about the family.
By the way, if you missed Emmitt Smith’s episode or you want to preview next week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Lisa Kudrow and her search for an ancestor who was killed in the Holocaust, visit www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are. Also remember to enter the Ancestry.com Ultimately Family History Journey Sweepstakes. C’mon, who wouldn’t love to have $20,000 to visit the family’s home?