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 TLC.com/WDYTYA. Binge full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? on TLC.com, and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes Mondays 9|8c on TLC.