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 NBC.com. Also look for unaired, bonus scenes and more details about the show.