Behind the Ancestry Commercial with Channing Joseph

by Ancestry

Have you seen the Ancestry commercial where Channing Joseph talks about Marianne Gaspard, his 5th-great-grandmother?

If so you no doubt wondered, “Is there more to Channing’s story? Who was Marianne Gaspard?”

It All Began With A College Kid’s Curiosity

Channing studied abroad in South Africa. He watched Roots and read a lot of books about African American history in college. So as a recent college grad he wondered:

What is my place in all of this?

He had heard references to French, Italian, and Native American heritage. But he always wondered if the stories were true.

At the time, he had 3 living great grandparents. But asking them questions was not easy.

One great-grandmother lived right next door. But she could only take him back as far as she knew. Her mother had been quite tight-lipped and her father had died when she was very young.

Running Into History at the Public Library

Channing started doing family history research online, on Ancestry, at his local public library. He was able to access Ancestry for a few months, but when he wanted to keep doing the research on his own, he subscribed himself.

He eventually found his 5th great-grandmother, Marianne Gaspard. There she was, listed in the 1850 US Federal Census, born in Africa around 1780.

1850 Census record.
Marianne Gaspard was born in Africa and was 70 years old at the time of the 1850 US Federal Census.

His additional research revealed she came to Louisiana as a slave from the continent of Africa some time in the late 1700s. By 1850, she had achieved her freedom.

Finding her records bubbled up a mixture of emotions, as Channing later shared in an article in SF Weekly:

“I am haunted by the thought of her harrowing experience chained for months in the stinking belly of a slave ship, enduring endless cruelties and indignities…But I am inspired by the realization that I come from someone with a strong will to survive, whose descendants have gone on to become successful businessmen, musicians, educators, artists, and even journalists. The determination, love, and joy that somehow survived in her — despite the injustices she faced — lives on in me.”

The DNA Test: Which Family Legends Were True?

To supplement his research, Channing decided to take an AncestryDNA test. His results both gave him deeper knowledge of what he already knew and resolved long standing family legends.

One of the things Channing heard all the time from his grandmother Juliette was that they had Italian ancestry. Growing up, she had often heard that they were part Italian. He was very interested to find out if it was true.

So was he Italian, as his grandmother had said?  Well, Channing’s AncestryDNA test results showed an ethnicity estimate for Italy/Greece of less than 5%. In fact, the majority of his European background was in the Iberian Peninsula.

As for his African ancestry, he figured he’d be from Western Africa. But he was amazed by the specificity of the test results.

Map of Channing's Ethnicity Estimate.

He expected to see roots from Senegal, since he had a sense based on research that there were lots of people in Louisiana who had come through that route. And sure enough, his DNA test showed he had about 7% of his ethnic mix from Senegal.

The 18% ethnicity estimate from Benin/Togo, however, was not something he necessarily expected to see.

What Surprises Await You in Your Family Story?

What surprised Channing the most, as he continued his family story quest, was just how deep his Louisiana roots went.

“Initially my goal was, ‘I’ll just log on to Ancestry for a couple weeks and trace my ancestors back to their original countries of origin, and that will be quick.’

I didn’t have a sense for how deeply rooted my family was in Louisiana. I just assumed that people move around. As I was tracing back through the records I was surprised that generation after generation was in Louisiana in the same place.”

What will your family story reveal? Are you as Italian or Irish or Senegalese as you think?

Start with an AncestryDNA test – you might well be surprised!