Behind the Scenes of Who Do You Think You Are? - Emmitt Smith
Seasoned researchers know that discovering the slavery roots in a family tree can be time consuming and difficult – perhaps even seemingly impossible. But, as Emmitt Smith’s story shows on this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, African Americans can discover their heritage. The genealogy team who worked on Emmitt’s tree shares a behind-the-scenes look at how they made the jump from post-1870 records to pre-Civil War records as they documented Emmitt’s enslaved ancestors.
Vital records, census records and other primary sources allowed the research team to document Emmitt’s family tree back to great-great-grandparents – William Watson and Victoria Puryear. A 1900
Since Victoria and William were born in the early 1860s, it was likely that records created post-1870 could shed some light on their parents. Vital records were especially helpful here;
Pre-Civil War Documentation
The research team needed to establish whether Mariah Puryear from the 1870 census was Prince Puryear’s mother. Slave research involves looking at records pertaining to the slave-holding families. Vital records were not kept for slaves, however slaves may be mentioned in records created when the slave owner dies and in records pertaining to deeded transactions. So the research team first had to determine the identity of the slave-holding family. Once found, the family’s records could reveal further information about Prince Puryear’s family and his potential connection to the woman named Mariah.
Emancipated slaves, in general, didn’t stray too far from their most recent owner’s property. In addition, many former slaves retained the surname of the former slave holders. So the researchers turned back to the 1870 census, looking for white families in the same vicinity as Emmitt’s Puryear ancestors. Interestingly enough, there was a white Puryear family living in
The Puryears, like many slave owners, had extensive real estate, so the team looked for the family’s land records, deeds, and probate records. In the
Further records showed that Mary Puryear was the widow of slave owner Alexander Puryear and helped to solidify the connection between Prince, Mariah and the Puryear slave-holding family. “There are records out there,” Joseph concludes. “Just be persistent.”
You won’t want to miss next week’s episode. Lisa Kudrow sets out to learn the hard truth about what really happened to her Jewish ancestors during World War II. Despite the cold details of how the Holocaust impacted her family, Lisa’s episode ends with a silver lining. You can view a preview featuring Lisa Kudrow, and tune into NBC for the full episode on Friday, March 19, at 8/7c.