This evening, NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? television series featured actress Ashley Judd. I had a chance to watch the program and was impressed. The show actually presented two separate stories about different men in different branches of Judd's family tree.
The first part of the show described the story of one of her great-great-great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War, was made a prisoner of war twice, and lost a leg at the Battle of Saltville. The operation was described in some gruesome detail, although the historian describing it either neglected to mention the amputation was performed without anesthetic or, if he did mention it, that part may have been cut out of the final version. Whatever the reason, the most gruesome part of all was not mentioned. It was interesting to note that the "man" was 15 years old at the time he enlisted.
The second half of the show explored a "family legend" that Ashley Judd heard when growing up that her family had some New England roots. Indeed, it turns out that her ancestry was traced back to William Brewster, a well-known passenger on the Mayflower. Brewster became the senior elder of the colony, serving as its religious leader and as an adviser to Governor William Bradford.
Some years before traveling to the New World, Brewster had been imprisoned in England for a while and Judd visited the cell where he spent some time.
I felt the program did present genealogy in a positive manner. You never know who you will find in the family tree. I did, however, have one pleasant surprise followed by a disappointment.
At the beginning of the show, it appeared that Ashley Judd was researching her own genealogy in the manner that most of us do. She searched Ancestry.com herself, she cranked the microfilms herself, she took notes, and she followed leads herself. I thought this was a great example of "how genealogy research is done." I am sure that professional researchers had scoured these records months earlier and had mapped out a plan for the television program. However, as portrayed on the screen, it appeared to demonstrate to everyone the best way to research your own family tree: do it yourself.
However, a few minutes later, the exact opposite occurred. She visited the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. While I am sure the program's editors cut out lots of video, the result we all saw on the screen was Ashley Judd arriving at the society and having a scroll presented to her within minutes, showing one line of ancestors back to the late 1500s. It was if everything was presented to her on a silver platter. Sorry folks, but this is not how genealogy research is done unless you are rich or are a movie star or both. I realize that much of the show is planned in advance and also is compressed into less than an hour to keep it interesting to non-genealogists, but the second half of the program struck me as a poor example for non-genealogists.
In effect, it gave the impression of "visit Boston, pick up a copy of your family tree, and then go out shopping on Newbury Street.”
NOTE for anyone not familiar with Boston: Newbury Street is one of the high-end shopping districts in Boston and is also the location of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
The bottom line is that I thought the program was a "mixed bag:" some good, some not so good. However, even with the drawbacks, it was an interesting program and I suspect it will attract many others to research their own family trees, even if they find the tasks to be a bit more challenging than what Ashley Judd encountered.
If you missed tonight's show, you can watch the full episode soon at http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/. Actually, as I write these words a few minutes after the show ended, the video is not yet available at that address but should appear there within the next few hours.
Tonight's program is the season finale for this year's Who Do You Think You Are?
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