05 March 2010

Ancestrial Fame: "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Tonight a new series, "Who Do You Think You Are?" aired on NBC. The show follows a celebrity on their ancestral journey back into American history. The series premiered with Sarah Jessica Parker who followed her maternal great great great great, etc. grandfather to the California Gold Rush, and an ancestral grandmother in her involvement in the witch trial hysteria of the 17th century in New England. The show will follow several other celebrities in their search for their historical roots.

The series has sprung up in many countries around the world, beginning in England in 2004. They are currently in their eighth season. Why does BBC have to think of everything though?

This question shouldn't be too hard to answer. If you think of what is being shown on the History Channel these days, you shouldn't be surprised. Reality TV much? Exactly! I have been boycotting the History Channel since December when I watched the documentary "People's History." Although based off of a compelling and controversial book on American people and social revolutions in our history, the documentary was narrated primarily by celebrities and well-known actors. Our contemporary society is so obsessed with fame and celebrity, that we can't be interested in history without listening to one of them. Whatever happened to ordinary people in history? "Who Do You Think You Are?" sounds more like an accusation now than an expository question.

My favorite historical series at the current moment is "History Detectives" on PBS. They are dealing with real people who own pieces of history and employ "history detectives" to find the answers to their little mysteries. Why can't we just be interested in ordinary people like you and I? I think you can easily answer that for yourself.

The positive point to this show that it will get more people interested in genealogy and history. History is not just what we learn in Social Studies class or in our history text books. Far from it! History is our own past. Our ancestors. Our own blood. It is then that history becomes real to us. These are real people, just as real as myself sitting here typing this blog entry. Who breathed, worked, toiled, loved, mourned, and died, just like you and I. My own ancestral history has made this more real to me, and that is why I journal and document my own life for my own children and their children's children, so they can carry on the legacy that is my blood and my country and my history, and it will become theirs.

I will sign off with one of my own "ordinary" ancestor's story's. My great great great great great, etc. maternal grandfather, Ambrose Williams came to America in the mid-1700s from Wales. Him and his first wife bore many sons, several of which were old enough to fight in the American Revolution. Our history books mark the American Revolution from 1774-1783; however, the war began way before 1774. Social unrest spread like a plague through the American colonies just as Ambrose Williams settled his family in North Carolina. The Williams family were patriots, Whigs they were called. One son, John Williams, had a wife and two small children by the outbreak of the war. It was in 1775 that John went out from his home to search for the horses that had gone astray. By late morning, early afternoon, Mrs. Williams went to the creek for water. As she approached the creek, she saw a dark figure hanging from a tree. Her heart was in her throat and she could feel the salt of her tears sting her eyes, but her feet continued moving toward the creek and the figure. I can only imagine how she felt, what she screamed, and what she immediately thought when she recognized the lynched body of her husband hanged by the bridle of one of his missing horses. They are stories like these that make history real for me, because of an "ordinary" ancestor and his story.


  1. Amen.

    Bill ;-)

    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. Jen, I like this entry! Very thought provoking.

    America's obsession with fame is probably not going away anytime soon. And this is why History Detectives is on cable and Who Do You Think You Are is on national prime time television... they obviously needed either 1) a famous face or 2) juicy details in someone's genealogy to write about.

    I mean, take mine, I am really not interested in the the countless generations of farmers in Scandinavia, it is the fact that the princes of the United Kingdom and I share a great (times 24) grandparent that interests me and anyone else most.

    Which brings me to my second point: if it ain't a celeb, it's violence or scandal or woe! Take your story of your great, etc, grandmother finding her husband hanging - this is the stuff that get people's attention. And it is a great story, btw, I would be interested in hearing more.

    But, I do think I get your point: people should be interested in who they are and where they came from. But they really probably do not care about where other people came from unless they are celebrities or have a history filled with drama. I am not quite sure what you hoped to find in the show. But remember you, a bright historian well versed in matters of genealogy, are not WDYTYA's targeted audience.


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