Posted by on May 4, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Beyond just being entertaining, there were valuable family history lessons to be learned in the first season of Who Do You Think You Are? Here are seven of my favorites:

Lesson #1.           Always verify the information. Sarah Jessica Parker’s search for family proved that not all obituaries are perfectly accurate. Her ancestor’s obituary gave a death date for his father that was a year earlier than the actual date of death – and a lot can happen in a year. The person reporting the obituary facts was likely relying on information told to him or her about the deceased’s life and relatives. Take the information you find in a source like an obituary – one reported after the fact – and use it to help you find additional information in a record that was created at the time an event occurred (like a death certificate).

Lesson #2.           Look for hidden clues. It’s rare you’ll find mention of a slave ancestor in a census record prior to 1870 – but you may find clues in that record that lead to answers. Such was the case for Emmitt Smith. By comparing surnames he found in 1870 for his once-enslaved ancestors to slave-owning families nearby in earlier census records, Emmitt narrowed the possible former owners of his ancestors. Researching the owner’s family rewarded Emmitt with property-related documents that mentioned his ancestors by name.

Lesson #3.           Don’t believe everything you hear. If Lisa Kudrow had accepted the notion that all Eastern European records were destroyed during World War II, she may have never reconnected with her Polish family. By asking questions, however, she found that records associated with her great-grandmother did exist. Those records led Lisa to more answers and ultimately to a once-severed family line. Talk with other researchers and ask professionals what they know. You may discover a little-known source that has just the answers you’re looking for.

Lesson #4.           Family stories are valuable – particularly as a jumping-off point. Matthew Broderick learned early on that his grandfather had been “gassed” during World War I. This story, while not completely accurate, did encourage Matthew to dig into military records, which helped him make a very important discovery: that his grandfather was more than Joe the postman – he was also an American military hero. While the facts in a family story may become diluted over time, thanks to faulty memories and creative recollections, there’s almost always some element of truth worth checking out.

Lesson #5.           Connect to existing family trees, when possible, but always check the research. Brooke Shields used well-documented royal family histories to aid in her search. But she and the researchers she was working with didn’t immediately accept that she was related to royal lines: they conducted the research themselves to prove her connection. It pays to check your sources and to double check all assertions made in a family tree. That way you’ll really know if you’re as connected as Brooke.

Lesson #6.           Leave out a little information when faced with a tough search. Susan Sarandon’s grandmother presented numerous find-and-seek challenges, not the least of which was a frequently changing surname. The key breakthrough for tracing her life forward was searching using just the known information – and leaving some of the other details blank. Susan and her son used only first name and birth date in their search of the SSDI. They were rewarded with two people who matched the description, a manageable number of possibilities to pursue.

Lesson #7.           Branch beyond the ordinary. At times in history, the U.S. federal government opted to record additional census information not directly related to the population. Included were slave schedules and agricultural schedules. Both contain names of property owners but the details focused on businesses, not people. Spike Lee, however, was able to use a slave schedule to help him determine that he was looking at the right slave owner for his ancestor Matilda. And he used the 1880 agricultural schedule to learn that his ancestor Mars became quite successful following emancipation.

By the way, if you missed an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? or if you want to watch one again, you can catch all seven episodes online at Also look for unaired, bonus scenes and more details about the show.


  1. Peter Stuebing

    Great tips; thank you! Not a week, more like every couple of days, go by when I get a invaluable tip from

    What I have learned, just here, makes my subscription far more valuable. Don’t tell marketing! 🙂

  2. Lesson #5 should, imho, be moved to the bottom of the list- if mentioned at all.

    Family trees (and in particular the new electronic trees that infest the online world) should only be consulted as the very last option, even if one is only looking for clues.

    Their role in actual research should be downplayed as much as possible- particularly where newbies are concerned.

  3. Susan

    #5 I continue to have concerns with the family trees. I believe the family trees are important! One person who has my family information wrong did not use my probate information and has my ancestor dying in the wrong state. Also, I have items that are the ONLY source for one family which could have hundreds of descendants. One of these items is 175 years old and gives the names of family members in a place that does not have birth or marriage records for that time period.
    However, I just tried to work on adding some information and the hints tried to give me the brother of the person I was working with …from my own tree. My tree is not in error.
    Then I tried to look at a woman who has two options for parentage. The problem is that the birth source that about ten trees are using gives the other set of parents from the parents they have listed. Many of the sources I found and attached to the woman are now being applied to the opposite family. The woman has about 85 family trees. They also have used the DAR symbol and have a completely different birthdate than numerous DAR listings that I looked at. So I tried to bring her up and got the same blended person on the hints. My trees still do not show up in the search even after two months and yet my stories are applied to the wrong person. People need to view my tree, not just take the stories and apply them to someone else.

  4. Pat Secord

    Re: Andy (#2) and Susan (#3) – I agree. I will say, however, that any connections I have made with other tree owners has been positive. I’ve had a couple corrections on my tree, which I appreciated, and I’ve also been in contact with distant family members thru some of the trees. But overall, I totally agree that these trees should be viewed with caution.

  5. Mary

    I loved the series and hope it will continue but has anyone noticed how the download speeds have decreased since the show aired? I thought it might be my computer or my service provider but every other web site I visit is up to speed except Ancestry. I hope they’re looking into the problem because I paid alot of money for this subscription and it is taking me back to my dial-up days of AOL.

  6. BEE

    Slooooooow, isn’t the word! I’m sitting here typing this, and that little round “loading” circle is still circling! Last night, I tried three different times to add a document to my tree, and it didn’t work! I was finally able to do it early this morning, so obviously, something is “happening” or not!

  7. maxine

    Personally I could care less about celebrity ancestory…..I think that for those of us who pay for using it would have meant more to have chosen subscribers who have helped pay for putting the information out there.

  8. tom

    Answer #8
    Be rich and famous and fly all over the world.

    Answer #9
    Pay a $$$ professional to lookup your ancestors for you.

  9. Fatima

    I enjoy the series “Who Do You Think You Are?” I learned so much, especially the episodes with Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee. I’ve been searching slave records and such along with census records and may be able to trace my ancestor’s slave owner. I’ve used professional services as well to help me in putting together my family history and it is well WORTH it! Discovering where I come from takes hours of hard work, searching through records over and over and verifying the information, but it is well worth the time and effort. I am giving something to my children and my grandchildren and future generations to hold on to. It is so important to know where you come from to know where you are going. Thank you!

  10. Jan

    I agree with Lesson #5 and especially Lesson #1 and all the comments here. You HAVE to be careful with what content you add to your Family Tree! If you are going to take the time to do the research, then take the time to verfiy the information independently of what you intend to add. That is why I like the “Shoebox” option of saving records on; that way, you don’t attach or link the wrong information to a relation and then find you have to de-link it. You can review it, and decide what to do with it at a later stage of the game. Someone who is new to genealogy research can easily link up two or three different people and roll that person into one, generating a huge amount of errors, or skip a generation or two. Never good sleuthing!

    As for the series, I really enjoyed them all and I am sorry they came to an end. Each one gave valuable pointers, has you thinking ahead, and I love great, life-altering “Ah-Ha” moments….we’ve all had them! I would love it if they took an average person and did what was done this season next season. We all have a story to tell…!

  11. David R Martinez

    I found lesson #6, utilized by Susan Sarandon and her son, might prove useful in the future in researching more information on my family tree. I was deeply disappointed that no Mexican-American or other Hispanic celebrities were chosen in the series, unlike the PBS series chaired by a black Harvard professor named Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He at least understood that America is a melting pot of many different peoples, and that some of us, including those of Mexican descent, have been here for a very long time. Perhaps that would have influenced Arizona voters not to pass laws discriminating against all people who look “Mexican”. Alas, that opportunity has passed.

  12. Dianne Williams

    Now that we have enjoyed the celebrities and their search for ancestors, could we follow some ordinary researchers – especially the difficulty in searching early Canadian records as my family. I have found several fellow researchers on who are following my own family and we are all stumped by an ancestor born in Canada West in 1821.

  13. Dan Hazard

    What an incredible facinating show! Can’t wait for next season. Hopefully, more people will embrace genealogy to determine what their past holds and how it intertwines with history.
    One very important theme surfaced in this show: a new apppreciaton of the many “challenges” the stars’ ancetors faced. Another lesson from Brooke Shields is the danger of being ‘loyal’ to her mom may have jaded her view of her grandmother. Let’s all try to use lessons learned from the skeltons in the family tree so our children hopefully dont make some of the same mistakes!

  14. Pat Day

    I enjoyed the PBS series more than “Who Do You Think You Are”. It was more professional and showed a better variety of people. I got the feeling the Ancestry series was just a marketing tool to increase membership–which must have worked because the site is SO SLOW now!

  15. Lynn

    Re: #13 Dianne

    I have actually found some great information about Canadian ancestors on Based upon family knowledge and records, I know some of my ancestors were early settlers of “New France” or Canada’s Quebec area (e.g., immigration in 1618.) I was very happy to find many birth, marriage and death records as well as some useful books that helped me validate the family knowledge and add some additional facts.

    Although some of the information was more challenging and time consuming to leverage (i.e., due to the limited indexing, I scrolled through many, many, many copies of original records looking for the correct individuals, my French is very very rusty, so it took a bit of effort to pull-out useful information from the handwritten documents – but I actually found these documents to be more useful than those in the US – you are seeing the original, it includes parent’s names, witnesses, etc.) Some of the interesting information that I identified through these documents was that my great-great-grandmother’s second husband was a witness to her first marriage. Additionally, her second husband’s first wife was my g-g-grandmother’s sister. When my g-g-grandmother married her second husband, his third marriage, they were both widows which also illustrated the mortality of the times. All interesting details, at least to me.

    Although you state Canada West, if your ancestors came from France or potentially lived in the Quebec area, you may want to look at the following collections on Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967 and Recueil de généalogies des comtés de Beauce, Dorchester, Frontenac, 1625-1946. Although I found records in other collections, these two were particularly useful for my research and validation of ancestors in the Quebec area.

  16. Larry

    I agree with Maxine. It would be very nice if would randomly pick one of their customers as a winner of the same research the celebs received. Many of us have brick walls we could use help with. This would make for an interesting show.

  17. Hope Kateman

    I enjoyed the series, it was nice to see these well know people discover their ancestor’s. I would like to know if Susan Sarandon put a grave marker on her Great-Great Grandparents grave?

  18. JW

    The series was worthwhile in that it probably got more people interested in researching their ancestry. However, I did not find the ‘celebrities’ at all interesting…sometimes they seemed phony and not very bright. Ordinary people would have been more engaging, in my opinion.

  19. Selenai

    I’ve been researching Puerto Rico and Spain now since 2004 and it’s really hard. It would be nice if they just picked a regular person and helped them go back as far as they can. Hispanic are not just Mexicans. In the Louis Gates he used Eva Langoria who happened to be from a very prominent family. Finding her roots weren’t that hard. Try some other Hispanic and see how many brick walls you get. Spain doesn’t allow the circulation of some films that have been copied by LDS. Names are so common that it’s difficult to find where they originated. Ancestry is limited to certain locations in Europe whereas Spain is not part of their locations.

    Doing research on Ancestry sounds great but they need to impliment more filters when searching. If I am looking in Puerto Rico, I get records for California and other States that I know are of no use to me in my search.

  20. Bob Ellis

    I thought the series was more of a markiting tool. The work was done for the people by professionals did not show the houres spent runing down dead ends or looking threw faded documents. Did not realy show a lot of resources used by the real searchers.

  21. Marie Thompson

    I propose that do a lottery of their members in each of the 50 states, have a random drawing of these names, and reward one member in each state with the research like that done for the “famous” folks, and devote a tv program to them. I volunteer to be the one from Iowa!

    I did enjoy the show. However, it did not answer my question. In the Society of Friends or Quakers did they participate in the U.S. Federal Census? Does their birth, marriage and death records appear in the county and state records?

    Any body?

  22. I was so excited that someone has put a show on tv that will actually encourage the population to do something worthwhile and rewarding. I would like to see someone who is a subscriber being helped to trace their roots as well.

  23. G. Marie Boice

    The comment “like a death certificate” in lesson #1 should have been more qualified. The only correct info on a death certificate may be death date, cause of death and name of the deceased. The informant may not have known many details about the deceased person. I’ve seen many “don’t know”, one informant gave the father-in-laws first name for the name of the deceased’s father and if I hadn’t already known the correct father – I would have had a more difficult time researching.

  24. J. Rucker

    I enjoyed the show and appreciate this blog. I, too, have found trees with errors about my family, like a wrong family connected to my husbands grandmother. My f-i-l gave me all the correct info and I contacted the person but they never changed it. Now there may be that many more trees with the same errors. Frustrating. Hopefully the next season of Who Do You Think You Are? will use some of us regular people that can’t fly to Europe or Africa or wherever. That would make it even better! But I will watch it anyway – fascinating.

  25. Mary J. Donelson

    I agree with #20, Selenai, for I am also a native of Puerto Rico as was my father; on my mother’s side a descendant of Edward Doty of Mayflower fame. We all know plenty about the Mayflower’s passengers but I could use help with the Spanish ancestors as the earliest records available on begin with the 1910 census. Baptism records, when they are legible, are wonderful because both sets of grandparents are listed but many other records were retrieved by Spain upon their departure from the island. I agree with the many who would like to watch genealogists working with non-celebrity members of Ancestry. I don’t have the means to travel so this would be wonderful!

  26. Selenia (Selenai was a typo)

    I have found that many records have been damaged or destroyed from lack of keeping in climate control areas or safe from storms. There are many towns in Puerto Rico, especially the West Coast that don’t have church records. The East Coast of Puerto Rico has more. The earliest records you can find are 1885. Spain isn’t helpful in providing the info or answering letters that are sent. Anything before 1870 must be followed up at the parrish of the towns where your ancestors come from. They don’t have Computers, they don’t answer letters and in some areas they have no phones. The Basques have digitized their records and other parts of Spain but not everyone. Unfortuneately I need Galicia and they aren’t digitizing at this point. Most of the books that were copied in Spain are not allowed to be circulated to Family History Centers, so you have to go to Salt Lake City to see the films. If you have the info on your ancestors they will send you the info but it’s not free.
    Ancestry, get info on Latin American countries and Spain cause you have a HUGE market that is untapped if you can provide the info for us.

  27. kathy price

    I agree with those who stated why not do a show using “us commoners” as stated we are the ones paying for it!!! I also thought the PBS series was just as good and it was all about those like us….not the rich and famous who can afford to do the kind of research needed when you reach a brick wall. I’ve been looking for an ancestor for over 30 years so maybe if I was rich and famous I could find her, too.

  28. ccm

    I enjoyed the series. I understand why you chose to use the celebrities–to spark interest. They had some interesting stories and situations. Anyone who has done research, however, knows that it is not as easy as was portrayed. Most of us are not greeted at the door and provided the information that we would be searching for, but wouldn’t that be nice? We will look forward to seeing what next season brings.

  29. danielle

    TG for the internet! Never thought I’d say that, but this has expedited everything I started back in the 70’s!!! Thank you “”! Finding an ancester always gives me goose bumps!

    I loved the shows on BOTH networks (including the best,PBS) but thought 7:00 was a little early and missed more than a couple!! Now, trying to watch them on-line is like “Mary” and “BEE” said. Watching the little circle spin and trying to make out sentences is so not worth the agony!

    Nonetheless, thanks!

  30. Brian

    Thanks to Maxine. Total agreement. The moment the series was advertised, I was disgusted. Most subscribers can’t hire a pro and won’t be on TV since we’re not famous. Instead, the annual subscription fee goes to wasteful spending. These Hollywood people can afford the luxuries. I can’t and do my own research. Please, Ancestry…no more.

  31. Was it wasteful?

    In the first quarter of this year Ancestry averaged over 1,000 memberships a day above what they gained in the same period a year ago. Seems to me it did exactly what it was supposed to do.

    As to the subscription fees… they are a bargain; can you name anything else that costs today the same as it did in 2007?

    Oh- and I didn’t like the shows, not nearly enough solid how-to genealogy stuff and way too touchy-feely for my taste. I can get TV soap operas anytime.

  32. Mickey

    Absolutely love the show. I’m sorry it’s over. I don’t care who’s history it is, I’m interested. Sure the stars have the money to get it done for them, but what a thrill it is to find something no else has knows about. After Sarah’s search in Salem I did more research and found several ancestors who weren’t as lucky as hers. Oh, and I just bought the 2010 FTM and love it! Merging is so easy. I have so much more to learn about it. It’s been quite a trip. Thank your techies so much!

  33. Benny

    SPECIAL EFFECTS – The show was good. My daughter would now like to have her own Who Do You Think You Are “show”. I have plenty of interesting information, pictures, videos, etc. of our family, and am wondering what software (freeware preferred) I might use to create something like the show for her? I also liked the cool, simple “trees” they made on the show showing, for the most part, one family line back in time. Anyone know of software (free preferred) that could do that fairly easily and as nicely?
    Appreciate any good info.
    All the best.

  34. Nancy

    I enjoyed watching this show and also the PBS show with Louis Gates. The one thing I liked better about WDYTYA was that the celebrities actually went to the places where their ancestors lived and died and they actually did some of the research themselves. Mr. Gates simply did all the research and presented it to the celebrites. I agree totally with the comments regarding using everyday people instead of celebrites and have made this comment to a lot of people during this shows run. However, there are a few celebrities that I would be interested in knowing about. I also reminded people constantly to watch the show. Some came to me after the series ended and thanked me for telling them about it. And from personal experience, it HAS inspired quite a few people I know to start researching.

    For those of us wishing that we could go to various places and get info….the LDS church needs volunteers to transcribe records! The project they are undertaking is mammoth – they are transcribing the millions of records that are stored in the Granite Mountain outside Salt Lake City that the church holds. These records are being transcribed and digitized so that the world can view them ONLINE FOR FREEE. The one point I want to make is that volunteers are given choices as to what record they would like to work on. One of those records may be just what you need. So go to the website and sign up. it only takes about a half hour to transcribe a census page. And just to tickle your fancey about all this, they just released 300 million names for births, baptisms, marriages and deaths from many different countries. Go to home page and click on the link.

    And to the person who asked about FREE software… go to FamilySearch and download the PAF (Personal Ancestral File) program. It only takes a couple minutes to download. And just in case you’re wondering….no missionaries will contact you in any way, shape or form.

    I also believe that Ancestry has used this series as a marketing tool. But on the other hand, it has generated more interest in Genealogy and don’t we all want that? More people working on their Family History….some which may be related to us, that may have information that we don’t have, information that may break down that brick wall we may have been working on for years? let’s not look this gift horse – or any others – in the mouth.

    I look forward to the next season with great anticipation.

  35. Janet Emig

    This series was interesting, but lacked some of the more mundane problems many of us routinely face in our research.

    My biggest disappointment lay with Ancestry’s failure to take this opportunity to share one of the biggest mistakes many “newbies” make: to merge someone elses tree into yours and consider it a legitimate “source” is dangerous. I saw a tree yesterday that has 29,325 people in the tree. I have been working since 1997 on mine and have 848…I also have birth, marriage, death certificates, censuses, newpaper clippings, etc. that are included as sources to back up my research.

    I use others’ trees to get clues, many times leading to a correct county, etc. for my research. This should be explained when recruiting so many new customers. Thanks for letting me vent.

  36. BEE

    Each program was a chance to learn something about a celebrity’s personal history, how information was found, and what it meant to that person to learn about their past, so I found each program very interesting.
    I have a family member with a connection to Salem, MA – the brother of his direct ancestor was involved in the trials on what some would consider the “wrong” side. He’s related to both “Patriots” and “Tories”, has a few drops of Native American blood, and a relative buried in Arlington. Other family members have roots in the Midwest that started in the colonies and went through all the southern states, and also have some Native American blood, and family members fighting on both sides of the Civil War.
    I’ve spent many hours pouring over documents in the past 10+ years – first at a National Archives, Family History Center, etc, but now mainly from the comfort of my home on, and it’s always exciting to find something new to add to my own family history.
    I especially enjoyed{for lack of a better word} Lisa Kudrow’s journey. My heart ached for the village lady when she had to relive the horrors of war. I never knew that I had living relatives in Poland, but a second cousin traveling in the country found a family living in the very village our grandmothers had left almost 90 years earlier. Thanks to the internet, after 60+ years of no contact, I have “met” these relatives, and learned first-hand of their hardship and suffering during those years. Catholic Poles sent to Siberia, their land taken from them, some never to return or heard from again; women raped by soldiers; young girls conscripted to work in German factories, their health ruined, and many who suffered the same fate as the Jewish population at the hands of both Germany and Russia.
    I long to see more information from Poland on, and I’m sure that “Who Do You Think You Are” can find a “celebrity” with Polish roots to follow. A genealogist was able to find many records for one branch of my family in what was the German sector, while the relative living in the Russian sector can’t find records for certain years, although he directed me to microfilm for the same area for an earlier period that I was able to view at a FHC. There are documents in local churches in what was the Austrian sector, and we were very lucky to know the name of the church to write for records for this branch of our family. Unfortunately, so many of these records in all areas of the country have never been microfilmed, and for those of us who can’t travel or afford the cost of a genealogist, this information will be unavailable to us.

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