Saturday, March 13, 2010

Behind the Scenes: WDYTYA? Emmitt Smith

NOTE from DearMYRTLE: This is just in from our friends over at, one of the sponsors of Who Do You Think You Are? currently broadcasting on Friday nights 8pm Eastern, 7 Central.

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.

Post-1870 Research

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 U.S. Federal Census record from Monroe County, Alabama, indicated William and Victoria were both born in Alabama during the Civil War. These facts suggested that William and Victoria could have been born slaves, and perhaps their parents as well.

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; Victoria’s death certificate included the names of her parents, Prince Puryear and Annie McMillian.

The 1870 U.S. Federal Census added clues: Prince Puryear and his family (including young Victoria) were listed in Monroe County, Alabama. Additional Puryear households were also found on the same census page. The ages for the heads of the Puryear households made them potential brothers of Prince. These heads of households also had the same racial designation as Prince – Mulatto. Finally, one of the households listed a 55-year-old Mulatto woman born in Virginia named Mariah Puryear. “Our first thought was ‘Could Mariah be Prince’s mother?’” says genealogist Joseph Shumway, AG, of ProGenealogists. If the answer was yes, if Mariah was Prince’s mother, then Mariah would be Emmitt’s 4th great-grandmother.

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 Monroe County, Alabama. This family, potentially, could have been the slave-holding family.

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 Monroe County probate records (on microfilm at the Family History Library), the researchers found probate records pertaining to the 1850-51 estate of Mary Puryear. The inventory of Mary’s property was a key document. In it she listed Mariah and her children, by name: “Mariah and children Henry, Mary, McTom, Victoria and Prince Albert.” Henry and Thomas were the names of two potential Puryear brothers who appeared on the same 1870 census page with Prince and Mariah. The inventory “matched the information we’d found in the census,” says Joseph. “With the combination of names and location, there was no doubt.”

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.

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