By Beth Morgan on Nov 29th, 2011
Topics: Beth


Celebs Search for Roots

Q: What do Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie O’Donnell, Ashley Judd, and Emmitt Smith have in common?

A: Yeah, yeah, I know: they’re celebrities. But beyond that, they’re all taking an interest in family history, and they’ve all been featured on the NBC reality TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

Learning about your ancestors can be pretty compelling, as Ms. Judd discovered in a conversation on the program with Boston genealogist Joshua Taylor of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She discovered that her paternal ancestor William Brewster, 13 generations removed, apparently came to the colonies in 1620, on the Mayflower.

Gwyneth Paltrow met a distant relative, Geoffrey Skeete, in Barbados, upon learning that her great-great-grandmother was born there. It turns out the Skeete family was among the first British families to arrive in Barbados, in 1612. Another line of investigation revealed that her great-great grandfather was an orthodox rabbi from the border of Poland with Russia, under the name Paltrowitz or Paltrovich.

Family history seeker Rosie O’Donnell’s journey to see first hand the workhouse where her Irish ancestors labored under squalid conditions was televised on the program. She learned that upon arrival at the workhouse in Birr, Ireland, the men and women were segregated, and children as young as two years old were taken from their parents, never to see them again until they were released from service. Many of the residents slept four to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor, leading to the rapid spread of cholera or typhoid. Sometimes, up to 10 people died each day.

African-American football Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Smith discovered that his ancestor Mariah was the daughter of a slave and her owner. A common practice among slaveholders, Smith was told, was that those whose dalliances resulted in pregnancy sold mother and unborn child, so that their wives would not have a constant reminder of their unfaithfulness. However, this was not the case with Mariah. For Smith, it seems, he came to appreciate his own values over those of his white, slave-holding ancestor’s, just another facet of how pursuing family history can prove life-affirming for those still living.

Genealogy is a fascinating study, and the more we know about it, the better we understand our own and our families’ place in the world. However, genealogy is limited, in that it can only reveal what was recorded in historical documents.  However, it is the details in the stories above that capture our interest. I would argue that the stories are what bring the facts to life. How much greater our knowledge would be, if we had diaries and journals, or better still, if we could go back in time and interview our ancestors, to learn about their challenges and their accomplishments, their joys, and their sorrows!

Some of us may be fortunate enough to unearth more of our family’s story through journals or diaries. Perhaps some of it has been handed down by word of mouth. Write it down now, before you forget. If you can’t do it yourself, get someone to help you. If a family member is not available or willing to help, turn that shoebox full of family photos, letters, and documents over to a personal historian. He or she can assist you in documenting your family history in a way that will be treasured through the generations. If you have living family members whose stories should be preserved, interview them or get someone else to do so.

If you wait, you may be too late. Those who know the story, or even you yourself, may no longer be with us, if you wait too long. I know this from personal experience. I lost my father and my brother before their stories could be recorded. Although it was in my mind before they died, by the time I got around to interviewing my dad, he was apparently experiencing some Alzheimer’s and could no longer remember much. In my brother’s case, he was simply too ill to be interviewed by the time we learned he did not have much time left; he could barely speak. Even if he could have, cancer affects the mind as well as the body and dredging up his life story would have been too difficult for him.

In my brother’s case, he left journals behind. Unfortunately, they are not in my possession, and so far, I have not been able to get them. Will you regret not having your family stories some day down the road? If so, I urge you to start recording them, any way you can.


A postscript . . . my experiment in October, the Family History Month discount, did not result in the collection of any stories to share in this blog.  Therefore, I am extending this offer until the end of December 2011. If you send me a family story of 250 words or less that is selected for publication in the blog, I will give you a 10 percent discount on any family history project you hire me to conduct, if I am engaged for the work by the end of the year, and you mention the discount offered on the blog. I’m looking forward to seeing your stories!

(Author’s note:  Many thanks to NBC for the fascinating program, Who Do You Think You Are? The credit for Paltrow, Judd, O’Donnell and Smith family history inquiries goes to producers of the show.)










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