Friday, March 5, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

Watched NBC's "Who do you think you are" show about the genealogy of popular stars in the entertainment industry. Tonight, they featured Sarah Jessica Parker. Sarah knew that she was of German Jewish stock, and because she knew her own background in that area, they didn't focus on that AT ALL!

Instead, they focused on an American with the last name of Lodge, who turns out to be important in Colonial History.

NBC's show is different from PBS' series "Faces of America" in this way. "Faces..." has Professor Gates coming to a well-known celebrity and presenting them with a book about their ancestors. He has done all the research, and visited all the places, showing them on a video - and then getting the stars' reaction. It's thoughtful, interesting, and presents history in a relevant fashion for all.

NBC's show is backed with a lot more money than PBS, so they can afford to fly these stars back and forth across the nation (later around the world), so that they can meet with genealogical experts and historians. They take Sarah to her mother's home in Ohio, where she finds out about an ancestor named Lodge. Then they go to Ohio and find out that her great grandfather Lodge had an father that died when he went to California in 1849. They show her a census showing that the man did not die in 1949 and appears on a census in 1850.

Sarah then flies to El Dorado, California where she is shown rubble in the fields that still remains from those '49er goldmining days. A historian shows her a letter from her great great grandfather's partner saying that Mr. Lodge and another partner were ill and had died in 1951.

When she returns to the East, Sarah goes to another genealogy expert who shows her that the great great grandfather's ancestor was someone who is named in a Salem Witch trial. She is shown the actual handwritten records from the 1600s!

Sarah goes to Salem and talks with another historian, who says that the year that her ancestress was accused of being a witch was the last year that witch trials were held. While 20 women had been executed in the years before her ancestress was accused, her ancestress was not executed and lived into her 80s. Sarah then visits the woman's grave.

For Sarah, the fun was in looking at census records, written histories and preserved letters and court records. These are the kinds of things that people looked at in the past, painstakingly going to the places of their ancestors, and later ordering microfiche and viewing them in local libraries or Mormon genealogy centers. Now most of this can be done online.

The show captures Sarah at each moment of discovery. It is the kind of thing that anyone researching their ancestry can enjoy. You don't have to be descended from a king or queen (though they will show stars that are). You can be descended from ordinary people, who because of the times, had a bit of their life recorded in census, history, and other public records.

When I began my search, all I knew was that my father's family were Quakers, Native Americans, and that there once was someone hung as a horse thief. Well, the Copelands were most certainly descended from "Earless" John Copeland, a Quaker martyr who had his ear ripped from his head for refusing to give up his Quaker beliefs. My father's grandmother Samantha Jane Finney's grandmother was Polly Long - a Cherokee who lost her parents during the infamous "Trail of Tears March." As for that horse thief, I never found him. Although, I did find a very, very distant Copeland cousin of my father's grandfather Abner Copeland. James Copeland had the same name as my father. He was an outlaw in the Alabama and Louisiana area, and most certainly was hung for his crimes.

Sarah asks "why didn't anyone write this down" when she thinks about her family history. Until my grandfather's generation, most certainly all the family history was passed down through the oral story telling generation. My grandfather's generation moved so quickly from a horse'n'buggy time, where family was the core of one's life, to a fast paced one that encompassed two World Wars, electricity, and all the 'modern' conveniences. During that time, the oral tradition was lost.

Progress isn't all bad, as I found in my research. The internet was my best friend and the source of most of my research, as well as the tool that allowed me to connect with the descendants of my Grandfather's siblings.

Watching "Who Do You Think You Are?" reinforced my enjoyment in genealogy and all that researching my own family tree has brought me!

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