Ancestry Blog » Celebrity The official blog of Ancestry Sat, 25 Apr 2015 00:16:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 CNN Roots with John Berman: What’s in a name? Mon, 20 Oct 2014 21:36:51 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> John Berman remembers walking past a wall in the Boston Public Library that listed the names of famous philosophers throughout history. His father would point to Baruch Spinoza’s name and say, “We are related to him!” It was a strong statement given “Spinoza” is the middle name they both share, after John’s grandmother Grace Spinoza. In seeking to learn more about this name, and his possible connection to “the prince of philosophy,” John asked us to investigate.

When you are looking to discover something new in your family tree, the best place to start is with what you already know. We started with John’s 2nd great-grandfather Benjamin Spinoza, who was 17 years old when he, his mother and brother came to America in 1867, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. The family was originally from the Netherlands and had journeyed from Holland to Liverpool, and then sailed into New York. Before Ellis Island, immigrants entered the United States through Castle Garden, which is now part of Battery Park. The family settled in Boston, where John’s family has lived for almost 150 years. But what were their lives like before they came to America?

To make the research jump across the ocean, it’s important to know more than just the country of origin. The key to placing Benjamin in a specific city came from a surprising place: Massachusetts Mason Membership Cards, 1733-1990, which gave us his exact birthdate and birthplace. His Massachusetts Death Record provided the name of his father, Isaac Spinoza.

Benjamin Spinoza’s Massachusetts Mason Membership Card

Benjamin Spinoza’s Massachusetts Mason Membership Card

In many cases, accessing European records requires visiting either a specialized library or the country itself. The Netherlands is an extraordinary exception! The country’s provincial government archives are working to make an index of their civil registration records available online for free. By using birth and death registrations to connect each generation, we traced the Spinoza (or Spionsa or Espionsa) family in Amsterdam back seven generations and 150 years.

They lived in Amsterdam while it blossomed into a major Jewish population center, nicknamed “Jerusalem of the West,” and during the height of the Dutch West India Company.

While Benjamin Spinoza was the last of his family to live in Amsterdam, John’s 7th great-grandfather, Isaac Espinoza, was the first. The earliest piece of documentation we found of the Espinozas in Amsterdam was the marriage certificate of Isaac Espinoza to Lea Alpron on February 22, 1737, which hints at his possible place of birth.


It says:

“Appeared Isaac Espinosa from Zallee [Sale, Morocco], age 26 years, son of Daniel Espinosa who resides in Barbarije [North Africa] – verified by his uncle Issak Espinosa and qualified according to the military duty dated 15 Feb 1737 and Lea Alepron, age 16 years old, with her mother Ester Alepron.

Isaack Espinosa [signature], Lea Alpron [signature]”

While John knew his ancestors were Sephardic Jews from the Netherlands, he was thoroughly surprised to learn they were from Africa! While not originally North African, Isaac and Daniel Espinosa of the Barbary Coast (John’s 7th and 8th great-grandfathers) are the descendants of Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain by the Alhambra Decree mandated by Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon, and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. If you lived in the Iberian Peninsula during this time and were not a Catholic, your choices were a forced conversion or a forced expulsion. As a result, 25,000 Jews fled to the Netherlands, while 20,000 fled to Morocco. As thousands of Jewish refugees fled across the Strait of Gibraltar, they faced the danger of the Barbary Coast’s infamous pirates, who captured slaves to sell in the Middle East.


The newly-independent and tolerant Dutch provinces provided more favorable conditions for observant Jews to establish a community and practice their religion openly. Baruch Spinoza, the famous philosopher, was a descendant of those first refugees in Amsterdam, while John’s ancestors lived in Northern Africa likely for a few generations before moving to the Netherlands.

What’s in a name? Definitely more than meets the eye. While John is not a direct descendant of the famed philosopher who he shares a name with, their families’ shared similar experiences, challenges, and prejudices, and eventually settled in the same community. His ancestors’ decisions to first leave Africa, then later leave Amsterdam for Boston, changed the course of history for generations to come.  And while their individual experiences are being relearned, their name has not been forgotten centuries later.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Christine Romans: Bedstemor’s Tickets Sun, 19 Oct 2014 20:28:03 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> We all have legends among our family stories. Some are linked to historical celebrities (my 3x great-grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt); some to historic events (my ancestors lived through the Great Chicago Fire); and some are inspiringly personal (my 4x great grandmother raised 12 kids on her own).

Many family history adventures start when someone wants to learn the truth behind one of the family legends. And, as professional researchers, we’ve learned time and again that many of these legends do have a kernel of truth in them.

Christine Romans has long been a collector of the family stories in her tree. One of her favorites is the inspirational story about her 2x great-grandmother, Anna Pedersen. Christine’s family often talks about Anna who left Denmark at 20 years old, came to America, and then saved her money to buy tickets to America for family members she had left behind. Christine’s family calls the tickets she paid for “Bedstemor’s Tickets.” (Bedstemor is grandmother in Danish.) Christine was hoping to learn if we could prove that this legend was true.

We started by learning what we could about Anna Pedersen’s life in America. She settled in Council Bluffs, Iowa and one year after her arrival, she married a fellow Danish immigrant, Hans Olsen. Her obituary told of her 72-year service to her local Lutheran church in Council Bluffs, which helped us estimate her birth year, and mentioned her arrival in the United States in 1886.

We found Anna and Hans listed in all the U.S. Federal Census Records from 1900 to 1930 (along with some state census records in 1925 and 1935). They lived at 917 Avenue B, in Council Bluffs Iowa. As we looked at all the people listed in their household over the years, we learned that Anna and Hans often took in boarders, and some of those boarders were related to Anna.

We identified one of Anna’s nephews, Karl Petersen, who came to America in 1922. His passenger list told us his age, occupation, father’s name and address in Denmark, and his eventual destination in America: Council Bluffs. The passenger list went on to list who paid for his passage. There, in black and white, was the proof that his passage was paid by his aunt: Anna Olsen, 917 Avenue B, Council Bluffs. There really were Bedstemor’s tickets!

A detail from the 1922 Passenger list for Karl Peterson on listing Anna Olsen, 917 Ave. B, Council Bluffs as the individual who paid for Karl’s ticket to America.

A detail from the 1922 Passenger list for Karl Peterson on listing Anna Olsen, 917 Ave. B, Council Bluffs as the individual who paid for Karl’s ticket to America.

It seems Anna was so pleased with her decision to immigrate that she wanted to give that chance to other members of her family. We wanted to learn about her own journey.

Eventually, we located Anna on a passenger list arriving in the United States and a departure list leaving Denmark in 1886. That part of the family legend is true too: Anna left her family at age 20 and journeyed alone to make a new life in the United States.

It took Anna Pedersen two weeks to cross the Atlantic on the steamship, Thingvalla in 1886.

It took Anna Pedersen two weeks to cross the Atlantic on the steamship, Thingvalla in 1886.

As part of her journey, Christine crossed the Atlantic herself to visit Anna’s Danish hometown and the Church Anna’s parents were married in. She toured the countryside of Denmark and walked the docks of Copenhagen were Anna would have departed her homeland forever.

Anna’s inspiring story is one that Christine will pass down to her descendants. In Christine’s own words, “I’m finding out it’s not a legend. It’s not myth. It’s history.”




They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Fareed Zakaria: From Bombay, India to Bombings in London Sun, 19 Oct 2014 12:40:17 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Many decisions made by our ancestors have had a direct impact on what and where we are today. Sometimes these influential ancestors are not generations away from our memory, but have lived in our recent history, still leaving us a legacy of choices made and stories to share.

Fareed Zakara, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” immediately knew the story behind the 1944 UK Incoming Passenger List we found for his father, Rafiq Zakaria. Rafiq had won a scholarship and first-class passage to the University of London during the 1940s in the throes of World War II. People said he was crazy for going to London in the middle of the war, but Rafiq saw it as an amazing opportunity to earn his Ph.D. The young man arrived in London as a ‘research student’ on 7 July 1944 on the ship Strathmore via First Class, as promised. What kind of environment did he willingly enter? What was the scene in London on 7 July 1944?

UK, Incoming Passenger List, 7 July 1944 (

UK, Incoming Passenger List, 7 July 1944 (

In June of 1944, the Germans began blasting London with “flying bombs” known as V1s and V2s. This time of the war was so devastating, it was later known as the ‘second Blitz.’ With wartime censorship, it was unlikely that Rafiq knew the devastation that had begun that June. The news was made public by Winston Churchill only a few days before Rafiq arrived in London. The very day that Rafiq finally arrived, the word was out. The New York Times had a headline that read, “London Is Flying Bomb Target, 2,752 Killed, Churchill Reveals.”  Rafiq had truly entered a warzone.

The New York Times, 7 Jul 1944

The New York Times, 7 Jul 1944

The howling sound of World War II air raid sirens would signal the approach of the V1 flying bombs. The V1 bomb was one of the first pilotless, weapon-carrying aircraft and was designed by the Germans as a “vengeance weapon.” Thousands of these bombs were targeted on London. The Royal Air Force was able to deter some of them, but too many found their mark and wreaked havoc in the streets of London. The haunting sound of the flying V1 engine cost a psychological price to those on the ground, just waiting for the engine to stop and the bomb to dive to its random target. An eyewitness wrote of this experience:

“The drone of the flying bomb grew ever closer, and I crouched low in this dark cramped spaced…. I waited, heart in my mouth, hoping that the engine would not cut out, but fearing that the bomb was about to drop. As the engine sound increased I grew really scared, until it suddenly stopped, and all was quiet for a few moments, with a silence that could almost be felt. Then there was a tremendous crash.”

– Mrs. S. Gaylor

Her written account has been joined by hundreds of others, gathered together by the BBC in an online archive of wartime memories.

Life in London during the war. View of a V-1 in flight. c. 1944. (

Life in London during the war. View of a V-1 in flight. c. 1944. (

Once these flying bombs found their target, entire streets were decimated. Thousands of lives were lost during these last months of the war. Less than a month after Rafiq arrived in London, a bomb only five miles from the University killed more than 70 people. The opportunity for an education had come at a trying time for Rafiq, but it would shape his future and the future of those who came after him.

A British flag lies among the rubble of homes smashed by the Camberwell Road rocket explosion. c. 1944  (

A British flag lies among the rubble of homes smashed by the Camberwell Road rocket explosion. c. 1944 (

After four years in England, two during the war and two following, Rafiq completed his studies with a Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His 1948 UK Outward Passenger List revealed his latest occupation. Rafiq Zakaria was no longer a “research student” as he was when he had arrived to London’s bleak backdrop four years prior, but had returned to India a press correspondent.


More than 60 years later, Rafiq’s legacy continues with his son, CNN News Correspondent Fareed Zakaria. The stories Fareed heard as a child are not only a part of his own family history, but contribute to a much greater history of the world.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Erin Burnett: Think of Ireland, and Think of Skye Fri, 17 Oct 2014 15:48:08 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Why do our ancestors move around so much or why do they stay put for generations? What was happening in the world around them where they lived and what kind of toils may they have faced? Understanding the historical context of the time in which your ancestors lived can shed light on these kinds of questions and create a clearer picture of their life and legacy.

CNN Anchor Erin Burnett knew she had Irish and Scottish roots but had always wondered about her point of origin across the Atlantic. Her mother’s side of the family came from Boston and was part of the strong and determined working class of the early 1900s. Her great-grandfather, John Charles Stewart, had immigrated to Boston from Prince Edward Island, Canada and owned his own grocery store near his home on Elmwood Street in the Roxbury/Boston area. He was the first American in the Stewart family–a family whose Scottish roots stretched deep into the mystic highlands on the Isle of Skye.


The Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland to North America and even Australia. With the height of recorded Irish emigration happening during this time it is not as well known that hundreds of thousands of people also emigrated from the Scottish Highlands, many assisted by landlords and the government. Even during the ten years following the height of the Great Famine, the emigration continued, specifically to Canada.

In direct response to the growing needs in the Highlands, the Scottish government created a map in 1848 of the “Distressed Districts” on the Isle of Skye, to better locate and assist them. The Parish of Portree was right in the center of an area most destitute on the Isle of Skye.

Highland Destitution Board Records on the Isle of Skye, National Archives of Scotland

Highland Destitution Board Records on the Isle of Skye, National Archives of Scotland

The distinctive landscape of the Portree area is a result of crofting, a type of farming prevalent to the highlands of Scotland and used largely as a means to sustain populations. Usually a small and arable enclosed area of land, a croft allows a common working community to grow crops when surrounded by a rocky and highland-hill terrain. Having a potato-dependent structure much like Ireland, the potato blight destroyed their crops and Isle of Skye residents had no employment and no food to sustain them. Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather, John Stewart, was a crofter of eight acres in Sconser, Portree Parish at the height of this poverty.


A crofter’s cottage in Sconser, Scotland c. 1912 (

In an excerpt from an 1851 letter to the Association for Protection of the Poor, Mr. Donald Ross, secretary of the association wrote of this small village on the Isle of Skye:

“…Sconser is the most desperate case. There are about 400 persons this night without 400 ounces of meal among them all. Many of them are actually starving.

“…At Sconser there are no less than eighteen families without land, without food, and without labour.”

At the time this letter was written, Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather John Stewart was 60 years old living with his wife and seven children, ranging in ages 14 to 28. Most of John’s extended Stewart family had already left Scotland and relocated to Prince Edward Island in Canada. Though he was one of the last of the Stewart cousins to remain in Portree Parish, there were nine mouths to feed in his Stewart household and John’s thoughts may have been far across the Atlantic, hoping for even greener pastures than the breathtaking but deadly backdrop that surrounded him.

In 1858, on one of the last organized emigration campaigns from Portree, John and most of his family left the Isle of Skye on the ship James Gibb, never to return. John joined his extended family in the Caledonia area of Prince Edward Island, Canada and farmed the rest of his days there.


Passenger’s Contract Ticket from Isle of Skye


When thinking of the effects of the “Irish Potato Famine” in areas outside of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands may not come to mind. But, as a haunting reminder of how a grave time in history reached the most remote of places, Mr. Donald Ross said it best when he closed his letter, “Think of Ireland, and think of Skye.”




NEW EPISODES ALL THIS WEEK ON CNN They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. All week, starting October 13th on CNN.  


They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Jake Tapper: Obituary Gold Thu, 16 Oct 2014 22:10:25 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> For a family historian, finding a story-rich obituary can be like receiving long lost money from an unknown great-aunt!  We knew that with CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper’s tree, we needed to find some of that “bank roll” to fill in the blanks within his ancestors’ Colonial story.

One of the first obituaries we found gave insight on the life of Jake’s 5th great-grandfather, Solomon Huff, and why he may have been a founder of the Hay Bay Church, the first and now oldest Methodist building in Canada.



Published the day Solomon died in 1828, an excerpt from his obituary reads:

“…In 1788 he moved from the United States to this Province, and settled on Hay Bay. He was the first person in the wilds of Fredericksburgh and Adolphustown that devoted the Lord’s Day to religious purposes. On Sunday Morning he would call in his neighbors and sing and pray with them. He was appointed a Methodist class leader at an early day and remained such as long as he was able to get to the house of worship, in which situation he was useful and much esteemed.”

Information written by Solomon’s contemporaries, those who knew him and interacted with him on a regular basis, was invaluable to the story of who Solomon really was. His religious fervor directed not only his life, but even in death. The obituary continues:

“…A few moments before the breath left his body, he raised both his hands, and clasping them together, with his eyes lifted towards heaven, and a cheerful countenance, delivered up his spirit to that God which gave it.”

Through the lens of this almost 200 year-old obituary, it was not difficult to see why Solomon was a founder of the Hay Bay Church and was honored as an important and valued member of his community.

Another amazing obituary we found was for Jake’s 7th great-grandfather, Englebert Huff. Englebert was quite the character, with a life lived so large that it made the news all the way to London. Even a local paper, The New Hampshire Gazette of 1765, printed a lengthy obituary for him just a month after his death:

The New Hampshire Gazette, 1765

The New Hampshire Gazette, 1765

In this article, Jake learned that his ancestor died from a fall. Other articles expounded that the fall was from a horse and stated that Englebert was described as “a man of considerable local celebrity for his scholarship and dashing horsemanship.” At the time of his death, Englebert had excellent health, was of “honest principle” and was reported to have lived until the ripe old age of 128!

Whether truth or tale, this “obituary gold” gives us a peek into the colorful life of Jake’s ancestors and sheds light on the kind of man he was—a popular and enigmatic storyteller.  One could say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, even nine generations later with his grandson, Jake Tapper.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Don Lemon: An Étouffée of Stories Thu, 16 Oct 2014 15:58:39 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Don’s roots are not unlike the hot plate of étouffée carefully prepared for his return by his mother, Katherine: both Cajun and Creole, a spicy, savory blend of seafood and rice that is decidedly Louisianan. The instigator of the entire Roots series, Don wanted to better understand his deep Louisiana roots and wanted his mom with him every step of the way. The surprise family lunch and impromptu family reunion that welcomed Don home foreshadowed what he would later discover in his past: tight-knit families in small communities stick together, and while you don’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them.

Don grew up not just hearing stories about his grandmother Mary H. Bouligney; she was a part of his life until she passed when Don was in his thirties. She was born in a small town called Brusly (pronounced Brew-ly) or Brusly Landing, and was raised by her grandmother Henrietta Jackson (Don’s 2nd great-grandmother.) Mary H.’s death certificate states her parents were Catherine Jackson and Harry Rivault. Family legend states Catherine died in childbirth; census records tell us Harry Rivault was a married white man.

As an orphan of mixed heritage in Louisiana born in the year 1915, life could have been bleak for Mary H., but Henrietta raised her as her own. Henrietta was the glue that held several generations of the family together. She owned her own home, ran a farm, and had three sons, two grandchildren including Mary H., and later a great-granddaughter all living with her. What might have been the motivation behind this maternal influence to several generations? Don’s mom Katherine was surprised to learn that as a young girl, Henrietta was an orphan too. This explains her open and accepting attitude towards caring for children without parents and taking them in.

Curious about the circumstances where Mary H.’s parents met, we looked into the life of Harry Rivault. Four years before Mary H. was born, her father Harry Rivault was newly-married to Odille Bossier, and living in West Baton Rouge, according to the 1910 United States Census. He stated his occupation was as an “overseer” at a plantation. Two of his white neighbors listed their occupations as “assistant engineer at Sugar Factory” and a “Hostler at Plantation.” The remaining families, all African American, worked as farm laborers. The sugar factory and plantation refer to the only place it could in West Baton Rouge: Cinclaire Sugar Mill. It is possible Mary’s mother Catherine worked at the Sugar Mill—anyone who worked for Cinclaire lived “on campus.” The field laborers lived in the former slave housing; overseers and management lived in a row of houses on a different street. He and his wife Odille never had children, and he tragically ended his life in 1941 after several months of poor health.


Cinclaire Sugar Mill




















Harry’s grandfather and Don’s 2nd great-grandfather, Charles Bertrand Rivault, was a French carpenter who immigrated to Louisiana in 1848. He settled in West Baton Rouge and married into the Furbos-Landry family, who were one of the largest land and slave-owning families in the county. By 1860, Charles was the owner of two slaves, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. By September 1862, a year and a half after the start of the Civil War, Charles enlisted as a private in Company H, Regiment 4, of the Louisiana Infantry for the Confederacy. During Reconstruction in the 1870 United States Census, Charles managed to maintain $1,000 in personal property, worth approximately $18,000 today.

Living near Charles Rivault in 1870 were Moses and Catherine Jackson, Don’s 3rd great-grandparents. Moses and Catherine spent the first twenty years of their lives enslaved, and their children would become the first generation of African Americans born free after emancipation. The 1870 Census is significant because it’s the first time previously enslaved African Americans were listed by name in the federal census as citizens of the United States. Moses’ occupation is listed as a farm laborer. They did not have any real or personal estate values listed.

Next door, Valerie Landry was a white farmer with $2,000 in real estate and $400 in personal estate (combined values around $43,000 in 2014). He had several domestic servants in his home. All his immediate neighbors were African American. Because of proximity, it’s a fairly safe assumption that Moses worked for Valerie, and possible—if not likely—that Valerie could have been his former owner. Valerie Landry was a cousin-in-law of Charles Rivault, making him Don’s 3rd great uncle.

Don’s reaction to learning about the white and black sides of his family tree was profound— there was no angry condemnation, just a touch of sadness and an acceptance of the past that cannot be changed. The present and future, however, are bright, because while you can’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them, and that’s exactly what Don is doing.




They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Chris Cuomo: Discovering a New Branch on the Old Family Tree Wed, 15 Oct 2014 21:16:01 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Sometimes the smallest details can add up to the greatest helping of new information in a family tree. “Connecting the dots” within multiple documents was one way we were able to add a new branch to the Cuomo family tree.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo already knew a lot about his proud Italian heritage. Our challenge was to try and find something completely new to him. We started with the branch of his family tree that had the least amount of information which was on his paternal side. His line stopped with his great-grandmother, Germana Castaldo.

More than half our research for Germana was conducted in Salerno, Italy where we found her original birth and death records. It was on her birth record that we discovered Germana was a “foundling child,” which was completely new information for Chris. He had no idea that his great-grandmother had so troubling a start in the world as a newborn babe.

Civil Birth Record for Germana Castaldo

Civil Birth Record for Germana Castaldo

In the search for Germana’s parentage, we located her civil death record which listed her status as “married to Donato Cuomo” at the time of her death. On this record, we found that Germana was also known as Maria DeLia. Where did the additional name come from? Was it the surname of her adopted family or did her birth family come forward? We needed more information.

Civil Death Record for Germana Castaldo

Civil Death Record for Germana Castaldo

We combed through records we had previously found, such as federal census records, passengers lists, state census records, etc., making sure to note the smallest detail and leaving no stone unturned. When looking at a 1907 New York Passenger List for Germana’s husband, Donato Cuomo, we looked more closely at the person he was going to meet in America—Anthony DeLia, his brother-in-law.

1907 New York Passenger List for Donato Cuomo

1907 New York Passenger List for Donato Cuomo

The presence of the DeLia name on the passenger list combined with the DeLia name on Germana’s death record strongly suggested that she was connected somehow to the DeLia family. Where was this elusive DeLia family and what is their relationship to Germana?

We turned to the 60 million member trees on to see if there were any descendants of the DeLia family that could connect to Germana. Through some fantastic member tree information, we were able to gain a jumping off point in our research focusing on the Francesco D’Elia family from Sant’Arsenio, Salerno, Italy about 50 miles where Germana was born. Fortune favored our progress, for out of the entire province of Salerno, the only locally-accessible digitized records for that region just happened to include Sant’Arsenio. Within a day, we were able to find Germana’s marriage record.

The record states that Germana is “a daughter of unknown parents.”  With this corroborating information, it is clear that the D’Elia family of Sant’Arsenio were the adoptive parents of Germana.

Marriage Record of Germana Castaldo and Donato Cuomo

Marriage Record of Germana Castaldo and Donato Cuomo

With a lot of research, a little detective work, and a pinch of luck, the information aligned with the stars and Chris discovered his great-grandmother’s humble beginnings and a new branch of his proud Italian-American family tree.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Anderson Cooper: Seeing Both Sides Mon, 13 Oct 2014 22:19:39 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> At Ancestry, we truly believe that there is a story in every family tree—you just have to find it. Anderson Cooper is one of the rare individuals whose storied ancestors aren’t just known by him, they are known by everyone. As the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, her history is just a Wikipedia article away, so he wanted to learn more about his father’s family in the South.

In looking at his tree, we realized his paternal Cooper line had ties to the Confederacy, and his maternal Kilpatrick line traced back to the infamous Union General “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick. Did these men ever cross paths? Having a clear objective and a manageable scope of research kept us on target.

A humble farmer from Alabama, Cooper’s 2nd great-grandfather Burrell C. Cooper enlisted as a private in company D of the 40th Alabama Infantry, leaving a wife and child back home. He was almost the same age as Captain Kilpatrick when he enlisted with his brother-in-law Appleton Bull. Civil War Muster Rolls, coupled with a regiment specific history, were key in learning about Burrell’s military service and movements.

While we don’t know a lot about Burrell’s early life (as it appears he was an orphan), Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s life left us lots to uncover. His West Point Academy Application shows he was well connected and highly recommended. (His papers were addressed to then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis soon to be President of the Confederate States of America).


Kilpatrick was commissioned as a Captain at the outbreak of the war in 1861, in the 5th New York Infantry. In 1863, Kilpatrick’s leadership at Brandy Station during Gettysburg earned him a brigadier general’s star. During the Atlanta Campaign in 1864, General Sherman described Kilpatrick summarily by saying, “I know that Kilpatrick is a hell of a damned fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition.”


In creating timelines for both men, and comparing them side by side, a point of contact emerged: the Battle of Resaca. On May 12th and 13th 1864, Kilpatrick’s cavalry scouted the area of Resaca, Georgia, before leading the advance charge. Kilpatrick lead an initial cavalry charge against the Rebels. This initial charge protected and informed the main army by testing out the boundaries, size, and position of their opponent. They were better suited for the task because they could travel faster. Their information helped those higher in command decide where they would line up the infantry. The cavalry’s job generally was also to fight anywhere and everywhere, and be as surprising and disruptive to the enemy as possible.


Having a map of the area and the company’s movements is helpful.

During that first exploratory charge of his cavalry, Kilpatrick was positioned on the right of the army, likely entering on Snake Creek Gap Road.

A lucky shot fired at him “ripped through the neck of Kilpatrick’s mount, entered the inner side of the rider’s left thigh, and bored through his hip.

Thrown from the saddle by the slug’s impact, he writhed on the ground, bleeding heavily, and cried out, ‘Shot in the ass, by God! That will be a … pretty story to go back to New Jersey!’” The severe injury forced him to recuperate for two months.

The day after Kilpatrick was carried off the Resaca battlefield, Burrell and Appleton entered it with their Confederate company.

Anderson did not realize his ancestors had fought on opposite sides of the same battlefield. Burrell’s regiment attacked at 5:00 pm on May 14, and held the line until midnight, when they fell back to the main Confederate line. The Battle of Resaca has since been deemed “inconclusive” as to who won the engagement, though it is widely considered the first battle of what is now referred to as the Atlanta Campaign or Sherman’s march to the sea. Close to six thousand men were killed at Resaca.

After Resaca, the 40th Alabama Infantry’s next engagement was ten days later, at the Battle of New Hope Church. Burrell’s pension record states that during New Hope, “he was wounded in the right hand, losing the finger next to the little finger [ring finger] on the right hand and partially paralyzing the right arm.” Less than a month after Burrell’s injury, Appleton Bull was captured at Big Shanty, Georgia, and send to federal prison at Rock Island, Illinois.  Burrell was sent home after his injury, and suffered the effects of it the rest of his life. He struggled to provide for his family of six children as a farmer with a lame arm, and died at the age of 54.

Sometimes it is easy to focus on the famous or flashy names and characters in our family history. However it’s important to give equal time to the lesser known, and to see both sides of every conflict and story.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Michaela Pereira: Hold on to a Brother Mon, 13 Oct 2014 17:01:37 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> “You have your mother’s eyes,” or “Like father like son,” are phrases we commonly compliment or tease family with, yet we take for granted that we know those details—not everyone does.

In February of this year in an interview with Essence magazine, Michaela Pereira said, “Like many adopted kids I wondered about my birth parents. I was especially curious about my father. So much of who I am on the outside—my skin color, eye color, and hair—is because of him. My identity is inextricably tied to a man I do not know.”

Several years ago Michaela had an emotional first meeting of her birth sister on her biological mother’s side, and since then the two have forged a strong relationship. Sadly, their mother lost a long battle with cancer before she and Michaela could be reunited.

When Michaela reached out to us, she let us know that she had been unsuccessful in learning about her birth father. But she was intensely curious about her ancestry on his side and wanted to know if there was a way to learn about her paternal ancestors without having the benefit of information provided by him. She felt that the focus for her should not be on locating a person but instead exploring the roots of her birth father’s family.

Because the focus was no longer on identifying information, we turned to Plan B: take an AncestryDNA test. The AncestryDNA test results have two parts: defining your ethnic roots and connecting you with cousin matches. When her results came in a few weeks later, they confirmed what she suspected: she is African and European, but was surprised to learn that there were trace amounts of DNA from all over the world. While the AncestryDNA test does not call out Caribbean roots specifically, the traits are there: Jamaicans typically have African, Native American (which includes the original inhabitants of Jamaica, the Taino), and European roots, which Michaela has. She is largely Nigerian and Irish. Her trace regions of Italy/Greece, Europe West, and Iberian Peninsula suggest she has Mediterranean roots as well.

The surprise came when we reviewed her cousin matches, which compares your DNA with the 500,000 other people who have taken the test, and based on the amount of DNA you share, gives a relationship range. Michaela had several 2nd and 3rd cousin matches, which is very close! Because one of these suggested cousins had linked their DNA results to their public family tree, we could look at the deceased members of their family to see where they lived and died. Carefully reviewing cousin matches is important, because the results don’t show if they are cousins from your mother’s or father’s side of the family.

Picture of Montego Bay, Jamaica, circa 1900, the same time Michaela’s ancestors lived. The picture is from the Library of Congress Photo Collection on

Picture of Montego Bay, Jamaica, circa 1900, the same time Michaela’s ancestors lived. The picture is from the Library of Congress Photo Collection on

 Amazingly, the public family tree was full of people from Jamaica, with pictures of them to boot! Because of the sensitive nature of Michaela’s adoption, she respectfully decided to not contact them.

However the birth and death places in the matching cousin tree helped her learn specific locations in Jamaica that she would never have known otherwise: St. James Parish, Jamaica.

The name of that little parish in Jamaica became the catalyst for Michaela discovering for the first time the culture and legacy she yearned to connect with for so long.



During her trip to a Rastafarian village, her guide said, “Hold on to a brother.”

There is something powerful in having a tangible, physical connection to not just the places of your heritage, but the people who you share that heritage with.











They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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’60s icon Twiggy is next to explore her roots on Who Do You Think You Are? (UK) Wed, 08 Oct 2014 15:37:17 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> It’s the 100th episode of Who Do You Think You Are? tomorrow night at 9pm on BBC1. Next to explore her family history is 1960s icon Twiggy.


Raymond Bryson


Twiggy, born Lesley Hornby, is a famous model, actor, and designer. Growing up in London, Twiggy had a happy childhood but knew very little about her relatives. Her parents told her nothing about their families.

‘We were a very ordinary, happy family, and I had a happy childhood’, said Twiggy.

Everything changed when Twiggy was sixteen-years old. A photographer spotted her photo on the wall of a Mayfair hairdresser and went on to write a story describing Twiggy as the ‘face of the sixties’. She went on to be known as the world’s first supermodel.

‘It was madness. I was suddenly in the newspapers and being flown all around the world’, recalls Twiggy.

Having been born and raised in London, Twiggy feels she is a Londoner through and through. Will she discover that her roots lie elsewhere?

‘What am I going to find out? I’m off on an awfully big adventure and I’m very excited’, said Twiggy.

The Who Do You Think You Are? team discovered that Twiggy has more than one strong woman in her family tree, and just a touch of crime, too.

Tune in to see what happens on Twiggy’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? airs on  BBC1 tomorrow at 9pm. Join us on Twitter and Facebook to share your thoughts or questions.

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