Blog » Who Do You Think You Are? The official blog of Thu, 18 Sep 2014 12:31:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Star of stage and screen Martin Shaw is next on Who Do You Think You Are? (UK) Wed, 17 Sep 2014 09:23:41 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> Actor Martin Shaw is the next celebrity to explore his family history on tomorrow night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

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Born and raised in Birmingham, the eldest of two children, Martin now lives in Norfolk. The star of over 100 films, plays and television shows, Martin is curious to discover the truth about what happened to his grandfather, Edwin.

‘‘As far as I know, at about 1930 or at the beginning of the 1930s Edwin vanished,’’ said Martin.

Keen to unravel the mystery, the Who Do You Think You Are? team arrange for Martin to meet with a military historian who starts him on his journey to explore his grandfather’s military career. They discover that he enlisted in the Royal Marines at age 18. He went on defend Birmingham from the German air assault during the Second World War.

Was there more to Edwin? What will Martin Shaw discover on his journey through his families past?

‘‘Grandparents are usually there in your memory, but I don’t know what kind of man he was. It would be wonderful to find out now who he was, what he did – mysterious Edwin,’’ said Martin.

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

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Mary Berry of the “Great British Bake Off” discovers her family story on the next “Who Do You Think You Are?” (UK) Wed, 10 Sep 2014 09:00:08 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> Star of the Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry is next to delve into her ancestry on tomorrow night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?


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It turns out that baking is in Mary’s genes as she discovers that her ancestor Robert Houghton ran a bakery in Norwich. He ran the bakery for almost 40 years and even supplied the city workhouse. To Mary’s surprise, his bakery was located in an area renowned for prostitution and criminality.

Mrs Berry also learns that her 3rd great-grandfather was a printer and bookseller. Successful for a time, he was hit with bankruptcy and he and his family were sent to the workhouse. Only two of the children were spared that experience, her great-great-grandmother Mary and her brother Chris.

“I know Robert Houghton worked very hard in his bakery, but I think my genes come from Mary, who survived the workhouse and was very family focused, just like me,” said Mary.

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

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BAFTA Award-Winning Actress Sheridan Smith Searches for Her Musical Ancestry on “Who Do You Think You Are?” (UK) Wed, 03 Sep 2014 14:40:29 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> Question mark


BAFTA award-winning actress Sheridan Smith is set to explore her musical roots on tomorrow night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?


The episode traces the rise and fall of her great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Doubleday. A music teacher, he went on to become one of the country’s best-known banjo players of the 1880s. He entertained upper-class audiences in sold-out shows and the future seemed bright for Benjamin Doubleday.

Sadly, his success did not last. Benjamin risked everything to put on his biggest show yet, but lost it all when the show flopped! Having lost all his money, his wife left him taking their four children with her. To compound the misery, he was jailed for arson shortly after-but was he really responsible?

Eventually reunited with two of his children, Harriet and May, they toured the north of England as a banjo trio.

Sheridan left home at sixteen to become an actress in London. She sang alongside her country music-playing parents for years, and is proud of her family’s musical heritage.
“The gene has been passed down through my great-great-grandfather,” said Sheridan. “It’s made me want to learn to play all sorts of instruments.”

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


Image courtesy of Karen Ellot. Flickr/creative commons

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Mrs. Brown’s Boys funnyman Brendan O’Carroll is next on Who Do You Think You Are? ( UK ) Wed, 27 Aug 2014 15:14:51 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> Mrs. Brown’s Boys star, Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll is the next celebrity to get the  Who Do You Think You Are? treatment tomorrow night. Brendan now lives in Florida, but still calls Dublin home.

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Brendan has heard from family members that his grandfather was shot during the Irish War of Independence in 1920. Acutely aware that family stories can be embellished, Brendan is keen to get to the truth of that story. What happened? Why was he shot? Was he fighting for Irish freedom? Who shot him?

“I would like to find out just what happened that night,” said Brendan.

During the show the Who Do You Think You Are? team uncovers a sworn statement from a British spy that identifies the man who shot Brendan’s grandfather. He was shot by a decorated World War One soldier, who was operating as a British intelligence officer in Ireland.

British intelligence had been seeking information on his two sons. When he refused to pass on information about his sons, he was warned that he would be shot if they did not surrender!

Tune in for what promises to be an exciting and emotional episode of Who Do You Think You Are?


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


Image courtesy of Karen Ellot. Flickr/creative commons.

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Who Do You Think You Are? Changes Kelsey Grammer’s Perspective Wed, 20 Aug 2014 21:56:57 +0000 Read more]]> We’ll let you in on a secret. Kelsey Grammer

When we do family history research for Who Do You Think You Are? we find all kinds of stories in each celebrity’s family tree. Our ancestors lived through amazing historical events, made decisions both good and bad, and went through hardships—some they overcame, and some conquered them. But sometimes we find that to tell one person’s story, we have to change perspective and tell it from another person’s point of view.

Kelsey Grammer is well acquainted with a change of perspective. After nine seasons on the hit television show Cheers, Kelsey’s story changed directions when his character, Frasier Crane, became the focal point of one of the most successful TV spinoffs of all time.

Kelsey Grammer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? features the members of the Dimmick family. We were able to document the families of Joseph Dimmick and his son, also named Joseph, in records from Ohio and Illinois. Then we learned from census records that the family left Illinois shortly after 1850 and moved to Oregon. In fact, if you pay attention to the birthplaces of Joseph Jr.’s family—Illinois, Oregon, and California—a single 1880 census record painted a picture of a family who crossed the American plains more than a decade before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

But, as often happens, we found that Kelsey Grammer’s 2nd and 3rd great-grandparents didn’t leave behind as many records of that journey as we would have liked. So we looked to change our perspective. As family historians, we use this technique all the time, especially when it comes to finding contemporary sources. For example, not all of our ancestors were avid journal keepers or letter writers. But if you can find a written first-hand account by someone else who experienced the same thing your ancestors did, you can gain further insight into your ancestor’s life story.

So we set out to see if there was someone else who left us a record. On a website focused on residents in Schuyler County, Illinois, we found a list of people who traveled the Oregon Trail in the same company as the Dimmicks. One of them happened to be Joseph Dimmick Sr.’s nephew, Joseph Gragg.

When Joseph Gragg died, he left a large collection of papers now located at the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon Library. Among those papers was his personal account of the experience of the Gragg and Dimmick families along the Oregon Trail.

Thomas Dimmick Quote

In his account, Joseph included descriptions of river crossings and the search for food. He also provided a detailed timeline of events affecting the entire party as they crossed the country.

Best of all, Joseph recorded stories about the people who traveled with him. Among these was the description of the tragic death of Joseph Dimmick Sr.’s son Thomas:

He [Thomas Dimmick] and two others had been out on a buffalo hunt … and the weather being very hot, he drank quite freely of poor water … . In the latter part of the night he was taken sick with the cholera and died about six or seven o’clock. … hasty preparations were made with his bedding and clothing and his body buried alone on the plains . . . .In the afternoon the train moved sadly on leaving the grave of this loved one – a grave never again to be looked upon by anyone who had ever seen him.

Thomas Dimmick was Joseph Gragg’s first cousin and was just a few years older than Joseph Jr.. The death of his cousin would have been a huge loss. It would have been hard to leave him behind on the trail. Joseph Gragg’s account serves as a reminder that our ancestors lived not just with their immediate families but among extended families, neighbors, friends, and associates. They were part of a larger community. And that larger group gives us more chances to find a first-hand account of our own ancestors’ lives. All we need to do is change our perspective.

Learn more about Kelsey’s journey or watch the full episode on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.

For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat:

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Tamzin Outhwaite Discovers a Rags to Riches Tale on “Who Do You Think You Are?” (UK) Wed, 20 Aug 2014 11:09:01 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> New Tricks actress Tamzin Outhwaite will be the next celebrity to discover her family history on  Who Do You Think You Are? tomorrow night. Tamzin has gained fame for playing London characters and her parents are from London’s East End. However, she is also aware that she has Italian roots.

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“I do know that there is definitely an Italian influence within the family. I’d like to get much more in touch with my Italian roots”, said Tamzin.

The former EastEnders actress remembers her Grandfather Remo but knows little about his family. The Who Do You Think You Are? team uncovers the genuine rags-to-riches story of her great-grandfather Adelmo. Although he started with nothing, Adelmo went on to become a successful business owner and ice cream maker. There was a time when he could not pay for the funeral of one of his sons. The community came together to pay for the funeral and this kindness was never forgotten by her great-grandfather. Later in life Adelmo bought some land and turned it into a playing field for the community who had been so kind to him in his hour of need.

Tamzin is shocked to learn that during World War Two things were not easy for the Italian community and that they often faced prejudice. Adelmo and his eldest son, Peter, were interned at a camp on the Isle of Man in 1940. Having spent twenty years raising a family in the UK, he found himself labeled as a fascist simply because he was Italian.

“My great-grandfather and great-uncle would have been made to feel like criminals. They made ice cream. Goodness me”, said Tamzin.

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


Image courtesy of Karen Ellot. Flickr/creative commons.

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Postcards from the Past: Who Do You Think You Are? Recap with Valerie Bertinelli Thu, 14 Aug 2014 16:20:00 +0000 Read more]]> Listen.

Valerie Bertinelli

Valerie Bertinelli

And I will tell you a story.

Sitting in a circle and listening to a storyteller recount a well-known and well-loved tale is one of the world’s oldest traditions. We’ve all sat at the feet of a storyteller—maybe even a grandmother or an eccentric uncle—who entertained, frightened, educated, and charmed us with their tales as they passed our collective history to the next generation.

One of the most powerful tools in family history research is reaching out to living relatives—both close and distant—to learn the stories that were passed down in their immediate family. While researching Valerie Bertinelli’s tree, we located a man named Pietro Possio who turned out to be Valerie’s third cousin, once removed. Pietro lives in Italy and had inherited the papers, legends, and legacy of the Possio family.

We had found a passenger list showing that Valerie’s great-grandmother Maria Possio left Genoa, Italy, on the S.S. Dante Alighieri on May 29, 1915, and arrived in New York on June 12. The same passenger list shows that the ship docked at Palermo, Italy, and picked up new passengers before leaving Italy for the open Atlantic Ocean on May 31. The passenger list provides critical clues for tracing Maria’s ancestry, but it gives only basic facts as she emigrated from her home country to an unknown land.

We got some insight into Maria’s experience when Pietro shared some documents that his family has kept over the years. Maria wrote a postcard to her cousin Pietro Possio on the day her ship stopped in Palermo. (Maria’s first cousin Pietro was the grandfather of Valerie’s third cousin Pietro.)

Maria’s postcard explains that she and her children stopped in Palermo and that they were going to be there from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. She says they were doing well, but it was very hot. She asks Pietro to say hello to another cousin and anyone else who was asking about her.

Maria Possio's postcard from Polermo, Italy

Maria Possio’s postcard from Polermo, Italy

Maria’s words were not particularly poetic or inspirational, but they reveal the common humanity that we share with our ancestors. Her postcard from 1915 is something that anyone today might write back home about a long vacation, but for her, it was also her last chance to send a message to loved ones before leaving her country and home. We know from the postcard that she and her children left the ship and spent time in Palermo, a fact that is not revealed in the passenger manifest. We also know a little bit about the weather.

Since Maria sent the postcard to her cousins, none of her own descendants knew it existed. This is one of the most important reasons for finding cousins—they may have documents about your ancestors that were passed down along their branch of descendants but not yours.

Pietro showed Valerie the postcard from Maria, but the sharing was not a one-way street. Valerie had brought a picture of Maria at her gelato cart with a group of family members. One of the people in the photograph was Dominica, Maria’s mother, who was Pietro’s second great-aunt. When you get in touch with cousins, be prepared to share information from your branch that might be interesting to them, too.

Cousins also may have heard an old family story that you were told, only with slightly different details that help you understand the events more clearly. If your branch of the family left an old homeland, like a European country or an eastern state in the United States, descendants of those who remained behind will often have a much stronger tie to the old stories and places.

How do we track down cousins? It begins by picking an ancestor of interest, then tracing their descendants and the descendants of the ancestor’s siblings and cousins. This process is most challenging when we reach the modern era. At that point we switch from using historical documents like censuses and city directories to finding people using online trees, phone books, social networks, and general Internet searches (which are especially useful for finding obituaries). With DNA testing becoming more popular, cousin relationships surface every day through genetic matches as well.

We all hope there is a cousin somewhere out there who has the family Bible with a complete genealogy inked in the end papers, or maybe the handwritten letters, journals, stories, or even creative works penned by our ancestors. Even a simple “wish you were here” postcard in your ancestor’s handwriting can have amazing impact. Finding a cousin can be like finding a voice from the past, one that’s got a story to tell that you’ve been waiting to hear.

 Learn more about Valerie’s journey or watch the full episode on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.

For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat:

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The new season of Who Do You Think You Are? (UK) continues with Brian Blessed Wed, 13 Aug 2014 13:59:49 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]>  

Actor and adventurer Brian Blessed is next up in the new season of  Who Do You Think You Are? tomorrow night. He is not looking for crowns or prizes in his past, but he is looking for humanity.

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“The greatest dramas are about ordinary people, ordinary relationships. That is where you learn so much, that has great meaning and that is what I’m looking for” said Brian.

The legendary actor is hoping to find ancestors from humble backgrounds in his family tree and the show does not disappoint. The Who Do You Think You Are? team uncover a real life Oliver Twist in his ancestry. Jabez Blessed, who was born in 1817, is recorded as making a daring escape at the age of 11, running away from the church to make his own way on the streets.

Jabez was left an orphan when both his parents died in their early forties. As paupers, Jabez and his three siblings entered the workhouse. Martha, aged 14 died a week later and 22 month old Elizabeth shortly afterwards. Jabez’s only surviving sibling, 8 year old Charles, was left alone in the workhouse when Jebez was moved to a different poorhouse.

Eventually Jabez escapes and tries to survive on the streets, possibly making a living from running errands or as part of a group of boys performing street entertainment.

Wiping away a tear at Jabez’s graveside, Brian said: “I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. Never cried, not even as a baby.”


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


Image courtesy of Karen Ellot. Flickr/creative commons.

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Who Do You Think You Are? Recap: Rachel and Kayleen McAdams Discover Land Grant for a Loyalist Thu, 07 Aug 2014 17:50:00 +0000 Read more]]> Rachel and Kayleen McAdams

Rachel and Kayleen McAdams


One of the best parts of creating a story is getting to pick where your story takes place. Is it on Seabrook Island, in 1800s London, or jumping throughout time? But when it comes to the stories in your family tree, you don’t get to pick the setting. You have to discover where your ancestors lived, and when you do, you may learn that where they lived adds another dimension to their story and leads you to possibilities you hadn’t considered. One way to leverage that setting is through land records.

Land Grant Petition for Charlotte McDonald July 1824

Land Grant Petition for Charlotte McDonald July 1824


In the episode featuring Rachel and Kayleen McAdams, two of the ancestors highlighted were the sisters’ 4x great-grandmother Charlotte McDonald and Charlotte’s father, James Gray.

We made good progress tracing Rachel and Kayleen’s maternal ancestry through vital records and Canadian censuses, but the earliest census was taken in 1851, and Charlotte was born much earlier, probably in the late 1700s. We were not able to find any birth, baptismal, or marriage records for Charlotte, so we turned to land records for the area where she had lived. At the Ontario Archives, we located a land grant petition that Charlotte McDonald had filed in July of 1824. She was requesting 200 acres of land in Ontario as the daughter of James Gray, a Loyalist who had fought for the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War. It was only through this record that we were able to conclusively connect Charlotte to her father, James Gray.

Land records are sometimes your only option to help prove family relationships—especially in the days before census records and compulsory vital registrations. Examining land grant petitions, plotting where pieces of land sit in proximity to each other, and tracking the selling and buying of specific parcels of land can give surprising insights into a family’s structure.

With the knowledge that James Gray was a Loyalist who had fought against the American Patriots we were able to delve more deeply into the records of the Loyalists and their families to learn about the Grays’ experiences during that turbulent time. When we found James Gray in a list of volunteers that gave his residence as Machiche—a refugee camp in Québec not too far from Montréal—an emotional and touching story really took shape. There were more than 1,000 refugees at Machiche—and about 600 of them were children. The camp was occupied from 1779 through 1783, which means the residents lived through several harsh Québec winters in primitive and unhealthy conditions.


List of volunteers for the Queen’s Loyal Rangers

Knowing that James and his family spent time in the refugee camp, we pieced together a story that specifically highlighted the hardships the Grays faced at Machiche, including the absence of James while he was fighting, the loss of a young son, and the birth of a daughter (possibly Charlotte). These facts gave depth to the story of Charlotte McDonald and her birth family during a highly disruptive time in Canadian and U.S. history and helped show the suffering they endured after leaving their home in New York.

Focusing on land records gave us insights that led us in an unexpected direction and made for a more interesting and emotionally compelling episode for Rachel and Kayleen. Taking the time to learn everything you can about the setting of your story can do the same for you. Land records can add amazing details—or even lead you to the story itself.

Learn more about Rachel and Kayleen’s journey on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.

For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat:

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The White Glove Debate Continued: What’s Up With the Purple Gloves? Thu, 07 Aug 2014 17:43:27 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more]]> If you saw the recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Rachel and Kayleen McAdams, you might have noticed them wearing some special accessories. When they visited the Archives of Ontario, they had to don purple gloves when handling a map of land grants in Ontario. So, what’s up with the those?

Dr. Jane Errington with Rachel and Kayleen McAdams at the Archives of Ontario

Dr. Jane Errington with Rachel and Kayleen McAdams at the Archives of Ontario

The purple gloves weren’t intended as a fashion statement. Some archives use nitrile gloves instead of white cotton gloves for handling materials that could be harmed by the oil on your fingers. Nitrile gloves allow for better feeling and often fit better than cotton gloves. This helps reduce the chance of inadvertently tearing or creasing the document when you’re handling it. Nitrile gloves are also disposable, which means that they aren’t holding the dirt and grime from previous research sessions.

You might be wondering about latex gloves. Some people have allergic reactions to latex. Nitrile gloves have gained popularity over latex for that reason.

White gloves, nitrile gloves, bare hands – which is it?! As researchers, it comes down to this: Always have clean hands (even with gloves), use common sense, and follow the rules of whatever archive you are in.

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