Posted by Juliana Szucs on February 25, 2012 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Just when I think Who Do You Think You Are? can’t get any better, they blow me away with last night’s episode. The show, sponsored by Ancestry.com, had so many fantastic twists and turns it was almost breathtaking. When they hit a wall, they turned to alternatives like DNA testing to discover distant relatives and genetic ethnicity. When they had newspaper articles that appeared on the surface to tell the story, they kept looking—going to other types of records for additional historical context. And Blair Underwood’s family story continued to grow. If you missed last night’s episode, you can catch it on NBC.com.

Family history is like that. There are often multiple ways to find an answer or uncover a story. When you run into the void caused by the loss of the 1890 U.S. Census, you can sidestep to other records. (Click here to read about some resources to help bridge the 1890 gap.)

Sometimes the obstacle is the lack of (or inability to find) a record for a direct ancestor. In those situations, you can sidestep to another family member whose record may include the information you’re looking for. Or take advantage of advancements in technology with new DNA testing to help fill the gap. An AncestryDNA™ test could connect you with a distant cousin that has just the treasure you’re looking for.

In other cases, the key to understanding the records and stories you uncover lies in historical context. Historical newspapers, local histories, and geographical tools can put your discoveries into perspective and give you a more accurate view of the times—and of your ancestors’ lives.

Researchers today are fortunate to have so many tools available and easy access to a wide variety of records. Everyone runs into challenges when researching family history, but if you take a cue from this episode and use all the tools at hand, you can overcome some pretty big obstacles. And when you put all your resources together and use them creatively, you also get a well-rounded view of family history that goes beyond names and dates to create a more complete and vibrant story.

P.S. Want a few more ideas? Join experts from Ancestry.com and ProGenealogists for a live Q&A on Tuesday, February 28 at 2 p.m. Eastern, when they’ll answer questions and share some of their favorite research tips. Learn more here.

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.

17 Comments

  1. Kate Thompson

    Last night I was excited when I saw a break down of Blair Underwood’s ethnicity chart. I’m curious if this is a preview of what we will be seeing with the new update for DNA test.

  2. Mary Schaper

    I just ordered one book and it forced 16 more, costing me over $774 and I thought I was going to pay about $64. I need the forced order removed.

  3. Terry

    I loved the episode on Blair Underwood for a couple of reasons. As a woman who thought she descended completely from European stock, I was surprised to find that I have a mixed race line in my own family tree.

    They came from Virginia and they were listed as Free Colored in the Federal Census. Like Mr. Underwood, I was astounded at the time to learn the numbers of free colored living in slave states. (My family was among the 36,899 free colored listed in the 1820 Federal census for the State of Virginia. This particular branch of the family and their descendants were one of the 200 groups that Calvin Beale listed in his 1957 paper on tri-racial isolates. More famous groups identified by Mr. Beale included Melungeons, Carmel Indians and Lumbees.)

    I was also excited to see the results of Mr. Underwood’s DNA test. I was one of the lucky participants who was invited to take part in the initial ethnic tests. Because my mixed race ancestry is so far in the distant past, I’m not hopeful that the mixed race ethnicity will show up, but wouldn’t it be great if it did! I can’t wait for the results.

  4. I, too, enjoyed the episode on Blair Underwood. Last week I mentioned in my blog that Who Do You Think You Are does not address the subject of brick walls. I was pleasantly surprised to see this as a major point in Blair’s search for his ancestors on Friday.

  5. Doris Jaeger

    You have some misinformation on Susan Jan Van Cott…..Daughter of Tunis Van Cott….
    She was born on October 20,1801..Married George Weeks …there is a record of George marrying Susan on Oct 11, 1832 in the Presbyterian church of Smithtown LI, NY
    He died in 1879.

  6. Re: DNA testing

    Keep in mind, DNA will only match you with a relative if that SPECIFIC relative has also had his DNA tested and posted the results in a searchable database. It can give an idea of a general area where your ancestors likely can from hundreds of years ago. But it will NOT magically generate a list of unknown relations.
    In reality, the chances of it finding a match are pretty slim, since so few people have had it done.

  7. scwbcm

    DNA is indeed still in its infancy even though it seems like it has been around for a long time now. It has changed so much since my first class college class on this. It is difficult for people to grasp that there is a new frontier for something related to history. Looking forward to more on this.

  8. Sharon

    As for DNA testing, I am disappointed. I have not been able to find anyone who would share with me. Since I had my maternal DNA tested, and a woman’s name usually changes with marriage, there are many family names involved, and I have not traced every woman in my maternal line. I have provided a list of family names I do have to fellow “DNA relatives,” but no one has taken the leap and shared. (I have been generous with invitations to my tree with members who message me about relatives we share.)

  9. Karen

    I have taken part in the Ancestry DNA tests also. My mother was raised by her aunt because her birth mother had gotten pregnant in an affair with a married man circa 1917. My mother was told that she was born in Dayton, OH on 24 Mar 1918. To this date after 3 years of working on my family tree…I have not located a birth certificate for my own mother. She was told that a certain name was given as the father’s name…made up…but so far..no luck. I have made my tree public and happily share any and all records, photos and information. It may take years..or maybe never…but the fun is in the hunt as much as it is in the results. I have met close and distant cousins …some of them related to more than of my family lines. Keep the faith, keep looking and never give up!

  10. this was a great post. thank you. i just wanted to ceommnt about the poc/white relationships as well. I’m not under any illusions about the nature of the power dynamics in most of these relationships, but I think Andrea does have a point wrt poor whites/indentured servants/Irish intermingling w/ poc which was happening enough that codes had to be put in place to keep them separate and the poor whites identifying w/ the power structure and not their neighbors in solidarity. The great documentary Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters talks about how that intermingling really threatened Southern plantation owners. And up in the north, i know that there was far more intermarriage particularly around the Cape and Islands and Rhode Island. But besides this, I just wanted to say thank you for the original post, because its a springboard for me to talk about the bigger picture behind these self-identification issues with my family. Things like blood quantum/one drop rule, what white privilege is etc because even now despite what the percentages are, in the end, it can still be about how you look, and what privileges you have depending on the shade of your skin.Which brings up something else that annoys me, that percentages somehow holds all of what identity is. Like people who are white, but claim 1/3 Scottishness or Cherokee or something and there’s nothing in their family or life that has any connection to an actively Scottish or Indian identity except as some kind of exotic cool whiteness. Anyway, I had more to add, but it’s late and I’m tired now but it was a great read.

  11. Hi,
    Nice summary. We (International Society Of Genetic Genealogy) have been working with this type of DNA analysis for two and a half years. I am excited that AncestryDNA is going to help it get the much needed attention that it deserves. It is a very promising avenue of discovery for genealogists and can sometimes reveal great surprises. @Terry – I think there is a good chance that your biogeographical ancestry analysis will show your African ancestry because it really isn’t that far back. It, of course, will depend on how admixed your “ancestors of color” were. They may have already had significant European DNA, in which case it is less likely to show up.
    I have posted a “First Look” of the AncestryDNA BETA product on my blog here: http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/2012/03/ancestrycoms-autsomal-dna-launch-first.html
    Best of luck to those of you who are using DNA to learn more about your ancestry!

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