by Dick Eastman
I am probably the only genealogist in America who did not watch Who Do You Think You Are? when it aired last night. I had a conflict that I could not avoid and wasn’t near a television set at the time the program was broadcast. However, I did “Tivo” it. Actually, I used a different brand of video disk recorder, not a Tivo, but that’s another story for another time. In any case, I did watch the program this morning and came away with several impressions.
In short, I liked the program! I had the “advantage” of having read many comments posted overnight about the program before I had a chance to see it. I already knew some of the important things to look for. I have to say that I found the first episode to be both an entertaining program as well as an excellent example of “how to search your family tree the proper way.”
Although obviously staged and rehearsed in advance, we did see Sarah Jessica Parker start her genealogy journey under the guidance of trained and experienced professional genealogists and historians. The rest of us typically don’t have such good “teachers” but we can do well by emulating the examples shown in this first episode.
I especially like the insight provided into Sarah Jessica Parker’s personal life: she has eight siblings, including one who is an actor. She started with discussions with her actor brother speculating what might be found. That was followed by a visit to their mother to see what their oldest living relative (the mother) knew and to look at old family photographs. Sarah then consulted knowledgeable professionals to push backwards in time and to learn more.
These trained professionals started by going online and by looking at microfilm to see what was available, then sent Sarah to the locations of the original records to look at numerous original documents and to consult with local experts who possess specialized knowledge about the history that Sarah needed to learn. In several cases, Sarah Jessica Parker went to the locations where her ancestors lived and worked. She walked the same ground that her ancestors walked and she tried to imagine what life was like in those days.
I’d suggest that this is an excellent example for all of us to follow: start with whatever records you can find quickly and easily, then follow the leads they provide to go back to the original records to find the details. If possible, travel to the places your ancestors lived to learn what happened to them during their lives. Most of all, consult with the experts who have specialized knowledge. Indeed, the television program did show the methods of “doing genealogy the right way.”
I may be biased, but, to me, the real heros and heroines of the show were Natalie Cottrell, Stephen Aron, Jon McCabe, Josh Taylor, Elaine Grubin, and Mary Beth Norton. They are the professional genealogists and historians who provided on-camera guidance to Sarah Jessica Parker. They were the ones who demonstrated correct genealogy research techniques. I suspect there were many more experts who provided assistance behind the scenes as well but we will probably never learn all their names.
It was nice to see the New England Historic Genealogical Society mentioned prominently. That’s a place where I have spent many hours researching my own ancestry, including one family that lived in Salem during the witch hysteria.
The program aired last night obviously had been scripted and rehearsed in order to look good when the cameras were rolling. Nonetheless, a few million people watched last night and saw an excellent example of how to research your family tree the right way: start by interviewing your oldest living relatives, then go to the books, microfilm, and online resources to learn much more. Finally, if you have the means to do so, go to the locations where your ancestors lived and look at original records, walk in the places where your ancestors walked, and use your imagination to visualize what their lives were like.
The only significant criticism I can think of is that this program displayed the research of one “thread” up the family tree. That is, it showed only one line of descent. In fact, Sarah Jessica Parker has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on and so forth. In other words, she is just like the rest of us.
The program went back 380 years to the 1630s, and yet only mentioned this one line. Thousands of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestors were never mentioned at all. Obviously, the program’s producers could not trace all her ancestry in a 60-minute program but I think some mention should have been made that the program covers only a handful of her many, many ancestors. While we won’t be seeing television programs about each and every family in her tree, I do hope that Sarah Jessica Parker becomes interested enough to trace all her other ancestors and learn the stories and hardships that many of them endured. She has a lot of stories awaiting her.
I am looking forward to next week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I suspect we will again see examples of researching family trees the correct way.