Posted by Jessica Morgan on June 25, 2018 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Hilary Duff knew her father was born into money, but her mother grew up poor. She assumed that, because of the poverty, little could be learned about her mother’s side of the family. But once Hilary embarked on the quest to discover her mother’s ancestors, she soon found secret gems buried in her family history.

Although poor families often leave fewer records, information can still be available to establish relationships and work back on a family tree. Hilary discovered her ancestral Cobb and Smith families were among the earliest settlers in Texas. While they weren’t wealthy, their contributions were historically significant to that state. This resonated with Hilary, who was born in Houston and is proud of her Texan heritage. Prior to Texas the Smith family lived in Virginia, and there Hilary discovered her maternal roots weren’t always poor, but in fact experienced a rise and fall of fortune and social status through the generations. She discovered her 7x great-grandfather was Alexander Spotswood, an illustrious Lieutenant Governor of Virginia in the 18th century. It was not uncommon for children of prominent families to marry a step down in status, and when this pattern is repeated over in successive generations, we see the type of ancestry shown in Hilary’s family: from a Lieutenant Governor to settlers seeking a better life in Texas.

Locating Alexander Spotswood opened a treasure trove of information, but this can be both a blessing and a curse. While poor families often leave too little information, wealthy or famous historical figures oftentimes have too much; there can be an overwhelming amount of information, some of it even erroneous, to evaluate. Key documents for Alexander Spotswood’s life were his personal letters. His correspondence detailed his appointment as Lieutenant Governor and his personal feelings about his position. His papers also describe his role in ending the terrors of Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard. In correspondence with his cousin in Scotland, Alexander spoke of how much the family suffered and lost. Subsequent research showed that Alexander was the grandson of Sir Robert Spottiswoode, the Secretary of Scotland. As the representative of the king, Sir Robert was beheaded during the English Civil War in 1646.

Hilary’s maternal ancestry shows a journey of success and loss. Robert Spottiswoode was a knight and the Secretary of Scotland, but his tragic end led to the family’s loss of status. Alexander Spotswood found prominence in the New World as Lieutenant Governor, but later generations experienced less and less fortune and prosperity. And while Hilary’s mother did not have wealth, the wheel turns again as Hilary— the latest descendant— enjoys a successful career and life.

Does your family have a story to tell about rags and riches? Discover your family history today and see if your ancestors have secrets of untold wealth and success, just waiting to be unlocked.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:

  • Don’t assume that just because a family was poor that status continued from one generation to the next.
  • Look for family letters that help tell the story of your family. Although correspondence of famous ancestors is often easier to locate or has been published, descendants of a common ancestor may have records that tell about the family.
  • When encountering a “famous” ancestor, document as many details as possible. Too often published trees or articles are filled with erroneous information.

Watch Hilary Duff’s full journey, download the TLC GO app or watch on Binge full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? on, and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes Mondays 9|8c on TLC.



Jessica Morgan

Jessica Taylor is an Editorial Researcher at Ancestry. She received a Masters in history at the University of York and has worked as an accredited genealogist for many years. She's presented at genealogy conferences and performed research for the hit TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” Jessica loves history and helping people discover their past.


  1. Cyndye Batchelor

    I was so disappointed that nothing was done with the Duff name. It’s a major line in my maternal line and difficult to trace very far. Too bad my line was not wealthy.

  2. Anthony McCan

    These Duffs seem to have got around. I see a James Duff was British Consul in Cadiz, Spain in 1791.


    I am the 1st migrant to the US in my immediate family back in 79. I would love to know about my ancestors, but the records are in Haiti. Can’t help me.

  4. Wow..Really surprise info about Hillary duff..I ididn’t expect , this would be the background of Hillary..Really motivating and inspiring..Will definitely find some information of ancestors who were successful in their life..

  5. Robert L Kyle

    We have traced our name (tree) back to the year, 1822. The spelling was changed years ago from Kile to Kyle. Through DNA, we have found and talked with the Kile relatives several generations away. My G-G grandfather was Elias Kile from Lancaster, PA. If anyone reading this message can relate to this guy in your tree, please send me an email. We are also related to the Baum, Koch, names.

  6. Rhonda

    I have the same ancestors on my tree as well , while watching that episode my mouth dropped! I have been doing my moms maternal side for a few years and my mom too thought she came from nothing. Her family was the West Family and are related to Dandridge and Spotswood as well.

  7. Katrina Simms

    My father is a Simms and was 22 years old in the 1976 Bicentennial pilgrimage wagon train and he got my mother pregnant with me when she was 16 years old now I’m here writing about it and trying to find him so I can ask him why did he leave me. I just want to meet him he is 64 now . I want to know where I came from as well . the wagon train traveled from Tennessee to valley forge Pennsylvania but stopped in West Virginia and that’s when and where my mother was when my father lied to her and said he couldn’t have kids and he left her pregnant and alone. If anyone knows of a jeffrey A Simms age 64 please let me know. Thanks in advance .

  8. Linda BeaugeZ

    I watched that episode with Hilary Duff. When she discovered her ancestor was Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, I realized I had him in my own tree. I sat in amazement as her ancestors led to Robert de Bruce. Very exciting to learn my own ancestors led to Robert de Bruce as well!!!

  9. Linda Curtis

    I know my paternal grandfather was Lee Kemp but his father’s name was Lee Kemp also. I can’t find a record of my great grandfather. I also know that somewhere in the line the sir name was Kapinski or somewhere close to that spelling. I had a great great grandmother named Sarah Hart also Jewish and from England. I had pictures of my great grandfather which were lost when I moved across the country. Please help me find my great grandfather. Thank you ☺️

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