Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on March 9, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

I hated history in high school, a fact that seems absurd to me today since now I’m surrounded by it. But back then, history was just a bunch of names and dates and events that had no impact on me whatsoever. Or so I thought.

Age does funny things to you. Gravity aside, it’s also helped me realize just how much I was personally affected by those events we studied in school. For example, I was always told that my great-grandfather left Austria-Hungary to avoid conscription. What I didn’t know until I started checking dates was that World War I was the bigger trigger.

I thought about this again on Friday as I was watching Who Do You Think You Are? I was quick to make the Salem, Massachusetts link – the witch trials were one of the more interesting things I recalled from high school history, although I may have learned more about them from literature and reruns of Bewitched. Still, if I found Salem in my family tree, you bet I’d start searching for links to witches. The Gold Rush, however, threw me off. Although I currently live in the West, I still don’t immediately connect 19th-century trips to California to searching for gold.

Genealogists have a suggestion for people like me who don’t recall all of those names, dates, and events from history. Put everything on a timeline. Start with an ancestor and create notations above the dateline of that person’s life. Include places of residence, dates children were born, education, occupation, and everything else you know. Note historical events below the line. If your history has become a little rusty over the years, you can find fantastic history sources at sites including The History Channel (, Digital History (, and even Wikipedia ( Also read local historic newspapers to add events that may have occurred near your ancestor’s home.

With a timeline in front of me, I would have quickly guessed that Sarah Jessica’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was off to California to strike it rich, and then I could have searched for documents that proved this true. In my own family, I could see which of my relatives might have fought in the Civil War so I can know who might have related pension records. I could determine if there was a political reason for my Italian ancestors to come to America and if the social climate in Italy had changed 15 years or so later when a few of them returned home. And the list goes on and on.

By the way, if you missed the Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, you can catch it here. And be sure to watch this Friday, when it’s football legend Emmitt Smith’s turn.

Jeanie Croasmun

Jeanie Croasmun has been working at 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 ...


  1. Katie

    It would be nice if Ancestry did this for us. I mean, the ancestor-specific events are right there, and just need to be put into a more visual format.

  2. Pat Secord

    Couldn’t agree more! I, too, disliked History in school. I also have already done timelines on many of the ancestors in my tree and added in historical events that happened throughout their lives. It’s MUCH more interesting and personal this way.

  3. Pat Secord

    Re Katie #1
    I have found that looking up these events myself and matching them to my family is much more interesting and informative rather than just having Ancestry add them in. (And do we really want them making more changes!!!)

  4. Elle Litist

    So now it’s World History that can’t escape the plague of being personalized, the “everything must be relevant to me and my experience” to have some resonance in our lives?

    In a nutshell, your ancestors were affected by historical events, as are you. OK?

    So many of the comments about this TV show highlight the “15 minutes of fame” people are desperately seeking for themselves and now their ancestors.

    It’s great people are taking an interest in history, but there’s something sad about it having to be personalized, or connected to a celebrity or historical figure/event, to mean something.

  5. Kaye Mushalik

    To me, HISTORY is about events that impact people. Yes, when you see “Civil War”, you think of a certain time period. However, you then think of what happened to the “people” of that time! Each person involved made that event happen in that time period – no people, no event. As was mentioned, history did not come alive for me until I found MY people involved. What’s wrong with that?

  6. Larry Van Wormer

    Re. comments 3 & 5, absolutely! I’ve been a student of history for a long time, but have recently found a special interest in events that affected relatives and ancestors. For instance, I’ve never been much interested in the American Civil War, until I found records of relatives who fought in various battles. That led to more general studies of that period, leaving me more appreciative of their stories, and how those events shaped subsequent generations in my family.

  7. Betty Brandl

    I have been following the “Who Do You Think You Are” series and the Oprah special on ancestors and I have to say I envy these folks that have their family tree just handed over to them, how fortunate. I have been trying for years just to find out about my grandfather from Puerto Rico and keep hitting a brick wall. Now retired, how I wish I could afford to have someone assist me, I just never realized how hard it is to get anything from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.

  8. Meagan

    I just wanted to say that I was really disappointed in the TV Show of Who Do You Think YOu are? I had to say that I thought (like so many others did) that you, would be allowing the “Celebrities” to do all of the work. I find that discovering “tidbits” and interesting facts and events (historical or not) in my family tree while reasearching to be fun and exciting. I agree with some people that the celebs don’t have to do the work, but does that really make them appreciate it all that much more, I don’t know. I know one thing for sure it wouldn’t make me appreciate it more unless I did all the research myself. And how come they only did one or two of Sarah Jessica Parkers relatives, the ones pertinent to for example the Salem Witch Trials or the Gold Rush? I also don’t understand why you couldn’t have used someone like me for example who after watching that episode, realized that her lineage is traced back to the opposite side of the Salem Witch Trials and that my ancestors could quite possibly have been the “accusers” or the ones who tried and hung innocent people. This does not have a negative affect on who I am or how it may or may not have shaped my lineage. I just think ordinary everyday people should have been used in this special instead of “celebrities.” And i think more benefit would have been given to each celebrity if they had in fact done the work themselves and showed their struggles, instead of like as earlier mentioned in other comments, they got everything handed to them. Just a thought. Not a bad idea, just do it about everyday ordinary people, and make them do the research and find out how fun it is to find out about themselves and everyone else in theri family.

  9. Bromaelor

    More spam! Try following the hyperlink on #8 and it leads to a commercial site. This is one of several attempts from this user.

  10. Carole Peterson

    I was so taken with Emmett Smith’s search for his kin as I watched him on Oprah. He found out about his people being slaves.
    I have been researching my Native American ancestrey and find that many were not considered American Citizens, although they were born here in America. Notice the NATIVE AMERICAN? My grandfather was given his papers when he was a teenager. This broke my heart. What we find when we start searching! It’s not just names on a page.

  11. I just got notice that family is now going to charge us to use the site. I am so upset, as I was so encouraged that I would be getting more response to my many files and photos That I have provided, even joining ancestory this year, to put the cencus records on my web site, although I have them printed off in the past, but I wanted to share with families out there, my many records and they are hugh, many people would have to do traveling to counties I did many years ago to get original documents, not available only with a note on ancestory. So now I am payint ancestory for getting these notes into my files, and family search now wants me to pay to give families my notes for a charge. I am so upset with this, as with the new show on the web site, I knew that I could do this for so many other people. So why should I be charged now to give families their history. Its so upsetting, that if there was a way other than a ged com, to download my photos and files, I would no longer want to be on this site. But the years of putting on photos, etc… not available unless I print it off, a hugh expense to do this, when one could put it off onto a CD. I have spent hundreds of hours to help others, they don’t realize the cost to do this free for a first time researcher, who in the past would have had to pay hundreds of dollars to get this free……….as the show don’t always show the expense that these movie stars are getting for free for the TV show. I just hope hundreds of people express their desire to not have to pay to give others help……..and a way to document their files through a program ancestory can develop for they geneology program, familytreemaker ……that would than provide money to many that are researching to get the whole histories that so many others are doing on their site for their families……..eilene

  12. Anna Kay (Musick) Brown

    Hey folks,
    I enjoyed Friday’s show on Ms. Parker, understanding that she did not have the time to research her family. I know that condensing the research I have done on my tree into an enjoyable TV show would be very hard to do, I was pleased with the over all show.
    I was hoping to see more of the how to find…., where to look for… type information. But then I was not able to watch the entire show. I look forward to seeing this Friday’s show.
    Thanks again,

  13. FHC Librarian

    #11 Eileen:

    Where did you get your information that was going to charge for use of the site? As far as I know, the only things we charge money for are film orders, paper copies and other materials. Not for use of the books, computers or access to websites. And certainly not for the librarians time. We are all volunteers. We still provide PAF software free of charge. I will get back to you via this blog if the time doesn’t run out.

  14. Loline Sammons

    I enjoyed this first episode because it is thrilling to see people make the discoveries about their ancestors. I was curious and a little disappointed that we didn’t know where her ancestor of the Salem times is buried. We saw the other two, and I was anticipating how Sarah would look when she stood in front of “her” ancestors tombstone. Can’t wait for the next one. Keep up the good work, Ancestry. This may have the same impact that “Roots” (Alex Haley) had on the wonderful pursuit of family history. For me to get to just one of my immigrant ancestors has been such a thrill, and I can’t wait to go to England.

  15. Chris

    Unfortunately, I am English and Live in England and it would appear that we cannot watch the NBC version of WDYTYA. The NBC player on the internet gives us a ‘null’ notice and nothing downloads and no, I am not on satellite.

  16. M.E. Halbrooks

    I think it is a great idea of putting what you have into a timeline (even if you do not include “well known” historical events). I have been doing this for lines of my family in England and it has helped put into perspective which streets in London they lived on when, when each child was born and at which parishes, and how their situations were affected over time and by deaths in the family. This has definitely helped bring the story of these families to life and can be more interesting to other family members who think bmd and census records are boring until put into context.

  17. Being the member of the history team of college, I like to read history and I wonder why some people have problems with it, we need to have an eye on history and learn from it.

  18. M. Chandler

    I enjoyed Who Do You Think You Are. And, few people would watch a program about an unknown. Keep up the good work. Like many, I have recently begun to want to know about my ancestors and to do research. I find it very interesting to see from the census records where they were born and where they travelled to.

  19. FHC Librarian

    OK, #11, Eilene:

    I posted #14 on Wednesday, 10 March. (It shows the time as CST on Thursday, 11 March)

    I have checked with some others. There are NO charges for using the site and no plans to charge in the future. Where did you get your infromation?

    FHC Librarian

  20. Bromaelor

    Chris #16:

    Access to the NBC site is restricted outside the USA! Some of the programmes are viewable, but not all, and WDYTYA is one of those that does not (all I see is the peacock!).
    The March edition of WDYTYA Magazine claims that the US series will be shown in the UK, but on one of the UKTV channels which are only available on Sky and Virgin!
    Until then the only way to view them is to spoof your IP address via a Proxy Server site and access the NBC site that way?

  21. Bromaelor

    More nonsense on post #18. The link leads to a blog which translates into irrelevant information on fitting car tyres!!!

    When you delete these spam messages you need to delete the message reporting it also, otherwise it makes no sense?

    Deleted messages are also causing problems when other people have mentioned a specific message number.

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