Friday, March 05, 2010

Who Does He Think He Is?

Neil Genzlinger's New York Times column on tonight's premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" warns potential family historians not to get their hopes up.

Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves.
My own tree, for instance, shows that, on my father’s side, Great-Grandpa Fred and Great-Grandma Elisa came to the United States from Germany on the same ship, the Noordland, in June 1889, apparently meeting onboard, down in steerage. That’s nice, but more legacy-conscious ancestors would have instead survived the Johnstown flood, smashed a Champagne bottle at the opening of the Eiffel Tower or refereed the legendary 75-round bare-knuckle fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, all of which took place that same year. [Link, via]
I can't tell which premise the writer bases his argument on: Does he believe that celebrities have more "interesting" ancestries than the rest of us? Or does he think that the celebrities featured on WDYTYA were chosen because their ancestors were not "ordinary"?

I've researched a few celebrities' genealogies over the years, and the conclusion I've drawn is that they are fairly representative of the population at large. Sure, there are some whose careers were founded on the careers of their ancestors (I'm looking at you, Drew Barrymore), but most sprang from stock as "ordinary and uninteresting" as that which gave rise to Neil Genzlinger. If the celebrities appearing on the show have interesting ancestors, it's only because every celebrity has interesting ancestors.

Of course, judgments of "interestingness" are subjective, and snobbery has had a place in genealogy from the start. But the vast majority of committed genealogists—the genealogists I know and whose writing and company I enjoy—are as pleased to find a turnip farmer in their tree as to find a king. If information on the turnip farmer's life is scanty, it's because it was never recorded. It's not because that information was not worth recording.

In place of Genzlinger's warning, I'll offer my own: If you intend to become a genealogist, leave your snobbishness behind. It will only get in the way of appreciating the lives of your dead ancestors and your living cousins.

Dana Huff

One thing he shared in his article was that his great-grandparents met as they were crossing over, emigrating to the US, down in steerage. I found that to be quite interesting. Strange he didn't. My great-great-grandmother Stella recorded minute details about what she did and how much she paid for everything she bought. The death of her grandmother rates one sentence. Yet, I find her diary fascinating. I don't get why "ordinary" history isn't interesting.


Oh, I agree. I have a diary that my grandfather kept during the depression, and even the shortest entry can include a world of information. I think the writer subscribes to a different view of history than we do. It wasn't all gunfights and tragic floods.


Well said, Chris. You too, Dana. How very elitist of the writer himself. He may not have intended it, but it certainly came off that way.

Zoe -

Yvette Hoitink

I actually love having the occasional king in my family tree. I guess you could say that's out of a form of genealogical snobism. I don't prefer kings to turnip farmers, I prefer the wealth of sources on kings to the often scarce sources on turnip farmers :-) They allow you to go back so much further, discovering so many more stories.

After 20 years of genealogical research, it's great to go through a whole different set of sources and overcome the great challenges that medieval royal lines bring.

Yvette Hoitink

For the same reason I love royalty, I also love the occasional black sheep. I've found some great stories from witness reports in judicial archives!


Sure, Yvette, I've made that same point on this blog before. I love that two of my ancestors were hanged as witches, because I know more about them than any of my other female ancestors of that era. The humble 17th-century housewife is faceless to the researcher, but find an accusation of sorcery and suddenly she comes alive.

My concern is with people who consider their "ordinary" ancestors just stepping stones for finding extraordinary ancestors. Those are the snobs, and from what you've written, I can tell that you're not one of them. :-)


I love every word you write and am so thrilled when there is an entry.

I have a distant cousin who has hounded me for 20 years for information. But she only wants the "proof" that she needs that we can join the DAR or the Daughters of the Republic of Texas or some such. She never seems to care that our common grandfather died in Oklahoma Territory when he went to help with his son's cotton crop and was buried there, far from home.

Thanks for your insight Chris.


Thanks so much for your kind words, Janice. I'll try to get back in the habit of posting regularly, but can make no promises.


You made some great points, I would like to add that Sarah Jessica Parker is an ordinary girl who makes her living acting,that's it. She is no more special then you or I other then her fame has afforded her this opportunity. Their are plenty of ordinary people out their doing mundane jobs with exciting histories. I thought the show did a good job at stripping away her celebrityness. Love your humour, keep it coming.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo

According to Thomas MacEntee, who attended a press conference via telephone with the producers of WDYTYA, over twenty celebrities were turned away because their ancestors weren't interesting enough. This included one who came from 500 years of sheep herders. I thought that long line of shepherds was pretty interesting and they must have had some tales of fighting off wolves with their bare hands, border disputes, etc. Pretty snobby for a bunch of producers who are trained to make the mundane interesting on TV.

Miz J

I love your funny posts, Chris, but I appreciated this one at least as much. I sometimes have trouble communicating to family & friends my enjoyment of genealogy, because they have the same mindset as this guy. They don't understand why I care (and even feel emotions) about finding the rural Kentucky family who lost 6 members in a flood, or the baby who died of flu in Michigan, and most likely gave it to my great-great-grandmother, as she died not long after. To me, these are real people, not words on a page. I don't care if anyone would be impressed with their lives. I want to learn as much about them as I can because their lives *do* matter, to me.


Thanks, Heather. Just read in Thomas' run-down of the conference call about the celebrities who "did not produce stories compelling enough for television." I guess that's not surprising. The genealogists behind the scenes had limited time to research the participants' ancestries, and most "ordinary" people left behind little evidence with which to construct a narrative fit for U.S. television. But that's not to say that their stories were not compelling (though perhaps not compelling enough for a network that broadcast Fear Factor for five years).

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