Posted by Ancestry Team on March 16, 2015 in Who Do You Think You Are?

It’s a frustrating fact that most historical records were never designed to tell us what we want to know nowadays. When created, their purpose was not toJosh Groban_WDYTYA appease curiosities in the 21st century. Instead, genealogists are constantly using their education and experience to coax out answers about people, places and time periods. We also rely on a lot of creativity to put it all in context—as well as a little math now and then. This was frequently the case when working on Josh Groban’s ancestry.

Who Do You Think You Are? tries to spare tedious and difficult aspects of research in order to bring the most fascinating results to your living room or laptop. However, behind the scenes of each episode, including Josh’s, are countless hours of reading wills, deeds, newspapers, tax records, church registers and more, proving and disproving through creativity and developing  theories.  As professional researchers, we turn to one theory more than others: the simplistic understanding that if a=b and b=c, then a=c. You may not find a record that proves a=c. However, if you can prove that a=b and b=c, you have good support for your desired conclusion.

These principles were applied for Josh as his ancestry was linked from one person to another, with an “other” often turning out to support a sought-after connection to a particular direct ancestor. The same was true for locations, as our research zigzagged across the United States for what should have been, in retrospect, a straight line from a to c. Instead, it required a trip through b because c didn’t have the necessary proof.

For each step along a pedigree, it is important to prove the connection between each direct ancestor and their parents to solidify the family tree. As we worked on the Zimmerman line, we found our Zimmermans in Ohio (point a) but needed to connect them to the Zimmermans from the Union/Northumberland area of Pennsylvania (point c). Someone along the way had moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, but we could not find our man for sure in any records in Ohio. We turned to looking at records for all the members of the family and ultimately found the oldest son, who had settled in Illinois (point b). His Civil War pension record provided the exact link we needed.

During the entire research process, a variety of records in the United States and Germany revealed patterns between seemingly unrelated individuals that led to specific families and communities in far-away places. There was rarely a single record that defined a connection between generations. Rather, it was a collaborative effort of persistence and creativity that brought about the evidence needed. Remember, if a=b, and you think a=c, but you lack the evidence, try learning whether b=c.

Incidentally, the scenery while traveling through b was incredibly breathtaking and rewarding, and we wouldn’t have wanted any other route! It’s not exactly E=MC2, but it’s certainly a theory of relativity (for genealogists, anyway).

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists

Don’t just look for your ancestors, live their lives. Who did they associate with? The challenges of proving origins, domestic or international, can frequently be solved by developing a portfolio about those associated with an ancestor and then learning more about those associations.

  • Trace all the children and other family members.
  • Who lived nearby?
  • Who held bordering properties?
  • Court records can reveal links to other families
  • Who belonged to the same church?
  • Tax lists can describe holdings in other counties where you may find other records with new details.
  • Who listed your ancestor as their destination on passenger lists? If you can’t find your own ancestor’s arrival record, the lists for others may yield clues to his/her origin.
  • City directories can show others at the same address.

There are many more examples. Use creativity and logic. If your ancestor needs to get from a to c, sometimes traveling through b is the only option. Take the driver’s seat and go where you need to go!

Learn more about Josh’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.



  1. Cathy

    Sometimes it’s impossible to watch the shows. I love them! Why can’t we watch full episodes on the internet?

    • Kristie Wells

      @Cathy: The decision to not air full episodes online was made by TLC. We unfortunately do not have an answer for that.

  2. Billie

    All you ‘celebrity’ shows make me angry. You spend much time and effort to GIVE them their ancestry, when (in my opinion) you should be selecting some of your hardworking, befuddled customers to receive that very loving interest.

  3. Sarah

    Showing only celebrities can be very frustrating because we all have interesting stories in our family tree. I think I prefer to see the celebrities on “Who Do You Think You Are” because they are so used to acting in front of a camera that if a real “regular” person was to be the subject they might seem awkward simply because they aren’t used to being in front of the camera and that would make my experience watching feel uncomfortable for them. I love the history that the story of each episode is interwoven with, Sometimes I can associate my own family with that part of history and get tips on what to look for to enrich my family story.

  4. Denese

    I’m with Billie. I would much prefer to see ordinary genealogists rather than celebrities researching their roots. Perhaps one Ancestry customer per season at the least. Or maybe next season can be all Ancestry customers. I have a few challenges for your researchers…

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