Posted by on February 4, 2012 in Who Do You Think You Are?

When you start down a road in your family’s history, you never know whose paths may have crossed in the past. Actor Martin Sheen found that out on the first episode of this season of Who Do You Think You Are?. In a mind-bending twist of fate, he learned that a great-great-great-great-grandfather on his grandmother’s side and a great-great-great-great-grandmother on his grandfather’s side had a surprising and unpleasant association 150 years before his grandparents married and connected these two branches into one family. (BTW, you can catch the episode online at www.nbc.com.)

As interesting as it was, if you think about it, it’s shouldn’t be too surprising that branches of your family tree occasionally cross before they connect. In my own files, I have a newspaper clipping about the wedding of a Brooklyn, New York, politician’s daughter. The clipping not only describes the wedding in great detail but also lists all of the guests—and this was no small affair. The guest list was rife with politicians, including ex-president Grover Cleveland and his wife, the governor, a senator, and several congressmen. The father of the bride was no slouch either; he was well-known in political circles as the “Boss” of Brooklyn.

Two of my relatives were also there, and some thirty years later, their grandchildren would marry. While it’s no bombshell like the one dropped on Martin Sheen, it’s a good reminder that your ancestors were part of a community in which their lives intertwined. My two relatives at that wedding were both on the police force, one the ex-commissioner, and the other a patrolman who had worked his way up to become a captain. So they may easily have known each other through their work and shared some mutual friends.

Learning about the people your ancestor interacted with can really bring your family history to life.
Start a list of your ancestor’s associates—people whose names appear as sponsors, in-laws, witnesses, business partners, members of a religious community, or even just neighbors. Then hop on Ancestry.com and see what you can turn up on them. Check census records, directories, and historical newspapers for mentions.

As you learn more about them, you’ll get to know your ancestor’s community. If that’s not enough inspiration, keep in mind that immigrants and families often traveled and settled with people they knew. Tracing the origins of your ancestor’s friends and neighbors may lead you to your own ancestor’s roots.

And of course, don’t overlook a direct ancestor’s siblings. Martin Sheen uncovered two compelling stories about two different uncles who shared some of the same political passion. You never know what stories are waiting just off your direct line.

So, now you’ve heard my story. What’s yours? Have you found a connection in your family tree that had you raising an eyebrow or shouting for someone to come take a look at this? Or maybe an inspiring story about your ancestor’s sibling? Please share it in the comments, or email it to me at stories@ancestry.com.

About Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

8 Comments

James Wesley Cox 

i have been trying for years to connect with family members still in and around Belfast ireland. all i know ois that my grand mother came to the usa at the age of 12 yrs old her mothers
name was elisabeth married to a John Nelson. grandmothers name was Kathern G. nelson. born around 1900. john was a merchant seaman he died at sea and was buried at sea off the coast of europe grand mother was killed in 1945 in a car accident in knoxvillle iowa. can any body help me?

February 5, 2012 at 11:21 am
swayaminfotech 

nice post….

February 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm
2012OGRHR 

According to physics, the earth is a whole;
We are all Earth’s inhabitants , Earth’s inhabitants are omnipotent 。Brand building business networks in the Earth’s inhabitants. Clear truth;People value!Eating the devil’s long dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party has become of no value to the Earth!!!
Communist Party of China to maintain coordination dictatorship (dark backward) and the civilization of human society on Earth (Advanced OK) hinder the distance of the Earth’s inhabitants! Unscrupulous moral bankruptcy!
A country’s authoritarian rulers (The Chinese Government)= a crime against humanity+ Destroy the earth!

2012 Communist Party of China must be eliminated
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!The Earth’s inhabitants brand business network!!!!!!!

February 6, 2012 at 9:08 am
Donna Bradern 

If I were watching “Who Do You Think You Are” without having searched my own ancestry, I would have been quite sceptical and thought “Sure, they are celebrities and would have an interesting background.” Once I started down the jouney of finding my great grandparents, I would have never dreamed of the “Characters” in my family. I have a 7 great grandfather cousin to President Buchanan’s father, My 5 great grandfather built a fort that Daniel Boone often visited, My 7 great grandfather was executed for being a contributor in a kings death. I have discovered potters who pottery sets in a museum in Kentucky and is very valuable among collectors. My ancestors in Kentucky are not “handsome” as in the advertisment for ancestry, but lean against a barn in dirty overalls and all heavily armed, as they were engaged in moonshining. The celebraties have nothing on my very colorful ancestors!!!

February 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm
Connie Bunte 

My parents are 8th cousins, twice removed. One brother stayed in Connecticut, and another was a founder of Newark, New Jersey. 280+ years later–here I am.

February 7, 2012 at 8:55 am
Virginia Farley 

I am so excited to see Marisa Tomei is going to be on
My great great grandmother Rosolinda Tomei is also from the Lucca Area, hope to find some connection!

February 7, 2012 at 10:18 am
Sarah Alexander 

It is to bad that Ancestry chooses celebs for this as they could well afford to do it on their own.I understand it makes better media….however those of us who have paid to belong to ancestry.com for many years and still hit brick walls over and over…we would like a break.
I do enjoy the show and would enjoy it more if ordinary people got this wonderful experience!

February 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm
Andy Hatchett 

Ordinary folks wouldn’t attract enough of an audience to get advertisers for the show or even cover production costs.

It may seem unfair but it is an economic fact of life.

February 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm