Posted by on March 16, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

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?

About Jeanie Croasmun

Jeanie Croasmun has been working at Ancestry.com while futilely attempting to prove the horse thief story in her family history for over seven years. During that time, she learned enough about her family to determine that the story is likely a great work of fiction. But the search continues ...

15 Comments

Laura Shields 

I have been doing my family genealogy for years. Ever since I was a little girl I have been told that I am a descendant from Johnny Appleseed! I have been trying to figure out how. It has been a tale that has been passed down and a part of the family that has never actually been unlocked.

I wish you the best of luck in your journey. May you find your answers for you and your research, just luck all of us do.

Sincerely,

Laura Shields
(froglind)

March 16, 2010 at 3:39 pm
Car Transport 

I’ve always wondered the same thing about my last name- especially since I don’t usually come across it in many social settings…great post :)

March 16, 2010 at 5:54 pm
Pat Secord 

My mother’s maiden name was Dryer – looking things up on the internet, you would be amazed how many ads popped up for washers and dryers!!

March 17, 2010 at 4:25 am
Ida 

In my family we have a Fisher who married a Dunn from Ireland a few generations back in the Fisher line one of the girls married a Dunn from England.

March 17, 2010 at 4:55 am
Dsatexas 

Most of my ancestors were secretive about family matters. I was always told “Them there people don’t want nothing to do with you”. That was my inspiration to find out why, so I moved to the area. A 3rd cousin helped me. We were grandchildren of “them there people”. What we found was shocking, heartbreaking, comical & very proud. On the other side, I found children & grandchildren of some great Uncles. With all the research & paperwork, I came on Ancestry. Having my documents, along with the knowledge, I was able to do my tree. What about “them there people”? It was true that some would not welcome me, but the majority were very glad to tell me about “our family”. All of us have the truth now.

March 17, 2010 at 5:04 am
Cheryl 

Hi I was inspired by the new show to start looking! Well guess what i think i found!I think I am related to 5 U.S. president’s! Including Abraham Lincolns is that cool or what!!! And one guy that translated the bible!!! Are you kidding me Can this be real? What a true American story!I am not a paying member yet but have did the best I can to research this .One of my Grandfathers was Thomas Taylor 1574-1618 that came on the ship True Love and his son John The Emigrant Taylor 1607-1652 If anyone can help me prove this please let me know if you can help Thanks so much!!

March 17, 2010 at 6:25 am
Susan McBroom 

Your tweet captured my attention immediately but I really wanted the answer to, “if you have a not so common name does it mean you are related to everyone with that name”. Still loved the blog even though it didn’t answer my question.

BTW……I have collected many cousins charts over the years but I have to say the link you gave was the most confusing I’ve seen.

March 17, 2010 at 6:53 am
David Smith 

Re: #6

Cheryl

If you were looking at at the “Find Famous Relatives” feature, sorry probably not.

It uses info from a database called One world Tree that is riddled with errors. It somehow managed to connect a bunch of unrelated people to few key ancestors of some lines containing a number of notable individuals of English descent.

As an example, it connects a Swiss 10x great grandfather on my German born mother’s family to an English woman living in Sussex.

Dave Smith

March 17, 2010 at 9:38 am
mary walker 

when i started building my tree i had my info in place up to my grt.grt.grandfather(isaac newton walker)b:1780 in n.carolina.i did not know the names of his siblings.it has been very frustrating because their are so many isaac,james and william walkers that it is “mind boggalin” if there is such a word.i can’t seem to figure it out…..help!

March 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm
Richard Omer 

One of my ancestors is from Germany with the surname Gift and indeed pretty much everyone with that surname in the USA traces back to that same ancestor.

One of my co-workers is named Nettles and pretty much everyone with that surname traces back through South Carolina to a Captain John Nettles who settled in colonial Virginia.

The common thread between these two surnames is that Gift mean “poison” in German and Nettles means “weeds” in English!

My own surname is uncommon but other than one large family which settled in Kentucky, most Omer people emigrated from Germany and England or elsewhere with no known relationship.

March 18, 2010 at 8:43 am
Beverly Scroggs 

Jeanie

Just loved your “believe she descends from magicians” comment, made me laugh and smile to myself, because I too an having distant grandparents that are in the censuses then the next census they are not and then the next, here they are again. What did they do that missing census, get lost? Anyway thanks for the laugh.

March 18, 2010 at 10:24 pm
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March 21, 2010 at 7:02 am
Al Cary 

The problem I’ve seen is that durimng the 1850 thru 1900 census’ the last name of my g-g-parents was changed a total of three times. If people ask me if they are related to me with last name of Cary I tell them probably not. I then go on to explain how the last name went from (Kerle. Keri, Carey, to now Cary). I believe the census takers wer just as illiterate as the people whom they were interviewing. They spelled it like it sounded.

Another big proble I encountered was people did not check for complete, name spelling, where born, what county/state, more info you have that jives makes it more believable.

March 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm
Mary Beth Marchant 

My mother’s maiden name (Insall) is unusual in the US but more common in England where my gg grandfather came from. He settled in Louisiana, had a large family, and when he died his widow and children came to Texas. When I find the Insall surname in Texas, I can definitely trace the connection. A few with that same surname settled in the North but are probably related. Now, on the other hand, try researching common names such as Smith, Brown, Jones and Johnson(my maiden name). All are in my family lineage. My gr grandfather was a Smith who married a Brown and whose mother was a Jones. That is very frustrating. And if your surname is also a common given name, that is even worse. My husband’s grandmother’s maiden name was Paul. We all have our obstacles but with patience research, we can at least overcome some of them.

March 24, 2010 at 2:10 pm
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March 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm