On the 12th October 2004 the BBC first aired the programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” Each week a celebrity would be shadowed traveling the globe in search of answers to holes in their family tree. Various archivists and experts would guide them along the way. When this insignificant documentary aired on BB2 twelve years ago I doubt many could have predicted it would spawn a worldwide franchise and reach its thirteenth series to be aired on BBC1 this autumn.
Alongside the public’s interest in watching these celebrities uncover their ancestral heritage has been a rapid growth in armchair genealogy. Gone are the days when one had to traipse around country churches to peruse barely legible script in fading sepia ink, or through overgrown churchyards in search of weatherworn headstones. Now all you need is an account with Ancestry, a few basic pieces of information about yourself and your immediate family, and away you go. Genealogy has gone digital. It’s possible to access everything from births, marriages and deaths, to immigration records, newspaper articles and even school yearbook photos; all at the touch of a button. Everyone is asking themselves the question, “Who Do I Think I Am?”
I joined Ancestry back in 2009. Being adopted, and back in contact with my birth family since I turned eighteen, I have always had a strong curiosity about where I came from and who came before me. Thankfully my American family shared this interest and my grandfather and uncle created volumes of patriarchal papers on our family tree. With this information inputted into Ancestry I have been able to flesh this out further and go all the way back to Zeno, an emperor based in Constantinople when the Roman Empire was split in two.
I am also descended from Charlemagne, Robert “The Admiral” Le Blount who was in charge of William the Conqueror’s fleet of ships during the 1066 invasion of England, and my great x5 uncle was William Blount, signer of the US Constitution and first man to face impeachment from the US Senate for conspiring with the British to take Louisiana from the Spanish.
But it’s the women who interest me most. Berta de Franken, daughter of Charlemagne, had an affair with a secretary in her father’s court. Together they had five children. Charlemagne opposed the union and eventually banished them both – Berta to a convent where she became Abbess, and Angilbert to the monastery at Saint Riquier where he was made Abbot. Berta must have been a strong woman to stand up to her father all that time.
Her’s isn’t the only tale I’d one day like to tell. My great x 4 grandmother burned letters from Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to her late husband. He was Jackson’s pastor and she thought they were too personal to ever be read by others. Considering they were written largely during the US Civil War this could have been a gold mine of information to historians today. If only she hadn’t been quite so conscientious!
I also recently took the plunge and did the DNA test that Ancestry offer. I found out that I am 48% Western European, 25% Irish, 20% British, 3% Italian, 2% Scandinavian and 2% Spanish. Not only this, I have been able to connect with cousins from around the world and have discovered that nearly 800 4th cousins or closer have done the DNA test and are a match with mine. That should keep me busy for a while!
So who do I think I am? I am whoever I want to be, but it is perhaps not surprising that in 2005 I was the eighth generation of my family to be ordained, nor that my second church in Virginia had been founded by my Great x 3 grandfather and that he preached his last sermon, a week before he died, from its very pulpit. I’ll leave you with the words of my grandfather, who sadly passed away himself in 2013.
“If you consider all the myriads of others it has taken for you to draw breath you realise that your personal history very quickly dims into the impenetrable mist of the past. However, it does not fade away before you see that you are descended from kings as well as those many saints who proclaimed the power of the gospel as you are now called to this hour to do. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; your feet stand on holy ground; and, you have a goodly heritage; in which stand fast!
Who do you think you are? Have you become an armchair genealogist? What are your stories?