Who Do You Think You Are: The Drinking Game

(Skip the jibber-jabber, if you like.)

My not-so-idle genealogical diversions have been going well lately. I have this theory that if I upload a public tree to Ancestry.com, I'll (finally) get an invitation to (purchase) their new DNA test ($99! Good for men and women!), so to that end I'm refreshing all of my sources in my database and re-examining loose ends before I upload. Since I like to hunt down all ancestors, not just those of a certain last name, that means new data has been digitized since I last ran some of these traps.

At first I was happy when this refresher led to a new great (x6)-grandmother. Her name is Isabella Poe, and she appeared thanks to the digitized index of pension files from the War of 1812. Of course, there was also the luck of her husband bothering to state his wife's full maiden name and the date they were married.

Alas, the Kentucky Poe trail grows quickly cold beyond Isabella, and with other priorities looming, it may be several more years before I know whether I'm any relation to those Poes.

A few weeks ago, though, I did discover a famous relation. Well, "famous" as in "infamous," and only then if you're versed in venomous Purtianical figures of New Hampshire.

I speak of Hateevil Nutter (pronounced like you think). At first I was all, "Oh hey, New Hampshire ancestors! That's new!" (They should sell a collect-em-all map with stickers.) Then I was, "LOL. His name is Nutter. Teehee!" And then I Googled.

Ye Godz. And all that over Quakers?

I recently made a spreadsheet to discover how many of my (mostly Southern) ancestors owned slaves right before the Civil War. (I know where all but one ancestor is in the 1860 census - a total of around 33 heads of household - so I worked with a sound about of data.)

The answer? Two.

Obviously slavery is a beyond-words awful part of our country's (and a little part of my family's) history, but the next time someone gets in my face about how, since I'm (essentially) white with a bunch of Southern ancestry, I somehow owe restitution to the black community (if you doubt that this happens, try teaching inner city black youth for nearly a decade), I'm going to Urkel-out my spreadsheet.

If we're going to tally up a bill based on things my ancestors did, I assume I'll be credited for all those ancestors who didn't own slaves, with maybe double points for those who went Union despite living in CSA territory? And triple points if they died in battle? Let me know the algorithim because I've got fistfuls of Virginia and Carolina Quakers on standby.

Except now along comes Hateevil Nutter to mess with my Peaceful Quaker Bonus! (Yes, I'm already percolating a politically incorrect board game in my head. "Disowned for marrying out of unity! Move back three spaces. Sherman burned the courthouse with your records. Draw a Boo-Hoo Card.") Thanks to Mr. Nutter - or great-times-eleven-grandpappy, as I call him - I think I just lost three turns.

The slavery spreadsheet idea came to me when I watched Reba McEntire get all twitchy on Who Do You Think You Are? when she discovered an ancestor who owned slaves. Woman, you seem nice, but CAPTAIN HELLO ON LINE ONE. It's the South. It's the 1800s. It's not a shocker. Be sad and regretful, sure, but surprised to the point that the entire show derails so you can process your feelings? No.

Me, I was surprised my people didn't own more slaves. It has been funny over the years, though, when certain branches of my southern cousins are talking about the family tree with me, and they say, "I assume he was Confederate, right?" Nope. Sorry. Union.

Interestingly, exactly half of my ancestors who fought in the Civil War were Union and half were Confederate. And one ended up being both, but that's a story for another day.

But, despite some eye-rolling moments, I do like Who Do You Think You Are? The first episode I saw was the UK version with David Mitchell (pause for angelic choir sound effect - the man is a comic genius) then another UK episode with Kim Cattrall. So, when I finally saw the USA version, I had the standard "UK to USA Television Conversion Reaction." Which is to say that I yelled "ARGH!" a lot and kept asking Mike, "Do they think we're THAT stupid?! Why is it so sensationalized? Why is it dumbed down?"

Of course, every show now seems to suffer from "we're about to go to break, so let's tell you everything coming up, and now here's the break, and now we're back, so let's recap everything you just watched plus hint at what's about to happen" syndrome, which drives me insane. In fact, the aforementioned Mr. Mitchell and his writing/acting partner Robert Webb make great fun of it here:


It seems people have mixed feelings about the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? I do, too, but not so much the things that seem to irk most people. The shameless plugs for Ancestry.com during the show, the slightly misleading Ancestry.com commercials during the breaks, and the way these celebrities jet around the world - none of this really bugs me. Ancestry is a good tool for many people, I'd certainly jet if I could (although not as needlessly as they do on the show), and I understand that everything is pre-researched to make sure the celebrities happen to stumble upon the most entertaining aspects of their heritage.

What I dislike is how the research methods modeled can be inefficient (giving the impression that more travel is required than is always needed) or sloppy (appearing to blindly accept other people's family trees as fact), although I trust that the actual, behind-the-scenes research is solid.

I like that the show doesn't promote the old-style sexism of researching father-to-father-to-father (and so on), dismissing the womenfolk as mere wives, or staying really fixated on just one name when our family trees are ready to explode with so many names. That said, I often wish we could get a glimpse at the end how many new ancestors without a TV-ready story were found in the course of the professional research. (Nobody really believes they make these discoveries out of nowhere as they film, right? I've even heard of celebrities not getting a show because the research didn't turn up enough excitement.)

Anyway, I think it would do more for the hobby (obsession) if people had an idea of how many stories we all have. Maybe show a before-and-after chart at the end of the show? As in, this is what I knew before, and this is what I know now. When I look at my first proper family tree, it's just beyond belief how many gaps I've filled in. I can't believe there was a time when I didn't have such a strong sense of the history and culture that has led to my existence.

After I watched the Paula Deen finale, I realized there's a fine drinking game buried in this series. I'm not the person to make it since 1) no way am I going to re-watch the episodes for recurring events and 2) I don't really drink, but if someone did make a drinking game, I think the following would have to be included:

Take one drink when:

  • The celebrity is told to "go to Ancestry.com." Take a second drink if it happens in the first five minutes of the show.
  • "Coming up..."
  • The celebrity searches for an ancestor and that ancestor happens to be the first search result.
  • The celebrity excitedly says, "There s/he is!" without decisively ruling out the search result being someone else with the same name.
  • The ancestor's maiden name is clearly available but the family tree graphic shows her with her married name.
  • A living relative is revealed for a meet-and-greet.
  • A living relative appears to simply hand over the original copies of photos or documents to the celebrity.
  • The celebrity is directed toward a more fiddly resource (state archives, newspapers, etc.) without first quickly checking the census.
  • The census is checked, but it's not the most recent census that would be available for that ancestor. (Thus not modeling the standard method of working steadily backwards.)
  • The celebrity opens an envelope containing important documents, as if filming has been on hiatus while we wait for this mail to arrive.
  • The professional in the segment suddenly presents a typed transcript of the record. Take a second drink if first they made the celebrity find the information themselves on the original record.
  • The celebrity flies somewhere for a record that could be easily ordered online or via the mail. Take a second drink if that record is already available somewhere online. Take yet another drink if you know that record is available on the LDS website (FamilySearch.org) or somewhere else for free. I love Ancestry's current business model, interface, and offerings, but it's really silly to pretend that the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in The Vault don't exist.
  • You start singing along with the theme music before and/or after the commercial breaks. "Aaa-aa! Aaa-aa!"
  • You find yourself looking up the celebrity's ancestors yourself on Ancestry.com or other sites. Take an additional drink for every generation further back you take the celebrity's family tree before that information is revealed on the show (if it is even revealed).
  • The research suddenly swerves up a new branch of the tree, completely dropping what appeared to be an interesting line of research.
  • The celebrity uses a card catalog.
  • You think you can almost see the user name on the Ancestry.com account.
  • We go to a narrated voice-over of a mini-history lesson. (I like those.)

Take two drinks when:

  • You learn something. I don't know if I've ever learned new techniques from the show (only because I've been at this for almost 20 years), but I do appreciate the reminder that, as much as we can do online, good stuff still lurks in dusty archives, both un-digitized and un-microfilmed.
  • The celebrity's talking totally steps all over the carefully inserted Ancestry.com reference.
  • The celebrity projects emotional characteristics and motivations onto the ancestor beyond what the records suggest.
  • The celebrity "knows" something is or isn't true without any documentation. (If Paula Deen didn't already know her entire ancestry, then why has she spent "her whole life" telling people that her family wasn't involved in slavery?)
  • A potential ancestor is dismissed only because the middle initial is different.
  • The show focuses on an aunt, uncle, or cousin instead of direct ancestor. (I'm not saying that's not interesting, but it's not as interesting, especially if you've not exhausted most of your research leads.)
  • The celebrity seems astounded by something the more jaded researcher doesn't dwell upon in an emotional way. (Rob Lowe was really amazed to have a Revolutionary patriot in his family tree. Don't get me wrong: amazement is always the better path.)

Take three drinks when:

  • The celebrity questions how the researcher is making a connection between two people or a person and a record. (Too rare. Again, I'm sure the research is solidly vetted off-camera, but the casual at-home viewer is sometimes led to believe that, hey, if this guy has the same name, it must be our guy!)
  • You like the celebrity more as a result of the show.
  • The entire show is devoted to one ancestor. Meh.

Down the bottle if:

  • You discover though the show that the celebrity is a cousin. (In your drunken stupor, tweet said celeb with the good news.)

28 May 2012 |






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