Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blair Underwood's African Roots on WDYTYA?

"I am loving this ride"  That's what Blair Underwood exclaimed while he was learning the story of his family history during the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?.  That same sentiment pretty much sums up why so many people are delving into their own family trees and are actually finding it fun.

The professional genealogists on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?  talked about the difficulty of African-American genealogy because a "Wall" is reached once the African-American family traces its family tree back to the time of slavery.  Since the US census is one of the foundations in building a family tree, many times the African-American genealogy trail stops in 1860 during the time of slavery.  While the census of the free population lists every family member by name in the 1860 census, the slave population is only listed by their owner's name plus the slave's gender, age and race (black or mulatto).  The slaves are not listed by name.  Because of this, many African- Americans hit  "the Wall" in 1860 when the paper trail stops.

DNA testing was able to help Blair Underwood go beyond the paper trail to find his roots in Africa.   Through DNA testing, they were able to find Blair Underwood's 10th cousin (or so) living in Africa today.  A 10th cousin  means they had a common ancestor about 250 years ago - assuming 25 years per generation -  which would mean they had a common ancestor sometime around 1700 - 1750 during the time of the slave trade.

His 10th cousin,  Eric Sonjowoh, is a college student in the African nation of Cameroon.  In last night’s episode, Blair Underwood flies to the village of Babungo in Cameroon with his father.  They are met by Eric and his father and all take part in the celebration and watch the tribal dances.

I wondered how it came to be that his cousin had submitted his DNA to the Ancestry DNA database, but Eric explained that "a guy" told him that many African-Americans are looking for their African roots, so many in Africa are contributing their DNA to help them.   Because of this, there is the possibility that other African-Americans could find also find a distant cousin in Africa. 

Dr. Kenneth Chahine, general manager of Ancestry DNA, walked Blair through his DNA analysis.  DNA analysis determines ethnicity and found  Blair is 26% European and 74% African which Dr. Chahine said is typical of African-Americans today.

Not only can the DNA test tell African-Americans the country in which their ancestors originated, but also the tribe.  Blair's ancestors are associated with tribes found in the western part of Africa: 27% Bamoun, 22% Brong, 13% Yoruba and 12% Igbo.

What the TV show didn't mention is that the DNA test performed on Blair Underwood has not yet been released. The new autosomal DNA test was announced at RootsTech in early February and will launch in late March or thereabouts. You can put your name on the contact list at DNA, and they will notify you when the new DNA testing is released.

At the end of the episode while he is standing in the African town of Babungo, an obviously moved Blair Underwood said, "We have come full circle to reunite our family.  When we started this odyssey, who I thought I was,  is different than I know I am today."

Want to know more about your family? Start your FREE family tree online to enter what you already know about yourself and have help you find your family story.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Martin Sheen on WDYTYA?

Last night's (Feb 3, 2012) episode of Who Do You Think You Are  followed the family history quest of Martin Sheen, American actor and the child of immigrants from Ireland and Spain.  I found it interesting that Martin Sheen,  also a political activist,  has ancestors on both sides of his family who also had a passion for social justice.

Martin Sheen has always been interested in his maternal uncle who was involved in the Irish Civil War, so that is where he began searching for his family history.  I had to chuckle to myself when Martin Sheen began by searching on for his mother's brother, Michael Phelan,  found his death certificate showing he died in County Tipperary, and then said,  "Looks like I'm going to have to go to Ireland myself to find out more about Michael Phelan.  I'm going to go the Military Archives in Dublin (Cathal Brugha Barracks)."

Well, heading off to Ireland at the beginning of a family history search makes for interesting television, but the TV show makes it seem as traveling to your ancestral homeland is the only way to research your family tree.  If that were true, that would make genealogy a hobby out of reach for most of us.   You do not have to travel around the world to start your family history search.  Instead, if interested in an uncle's involvement in the Irish Civil War, most of us would just do additional search on the Internet.  I poked around a bit and it didn't take long to find the Irish Military Archives, which is the repository for  the Military Service Pensions Collection where Martin Sheen found his uncle's pension:

I read in the Archives FAQ and found out how to do the same research by mail that Martin Sheen traveled to Ireland to do.  And note the pension records are only available to next of kin and only available by mail - definitely the type of thing to double check in advance before booking a trip to the homeland.

Your ancestors who served during the 1916 Rising or during the War of Independence may have made application for a medal or pension in respect of their service during that time. Pensions were awarded under the 1924 and subsequent Pension Acts. Due to data protection requirements, these pension records are currently available to direct next of kin only. Direct next of kin should write to the following address for information in respect of their relatives’ service during 1916 and the War of Independence:
Veterans Administration Section,
Department of Defence,
Renmore, Galway, Ireland
Please provide Veterans Administration Section with as many personal details as possible to include full name (and any variations in spelling), date of birth, the address/s resided at during the period in which they may have made the application (1924 to 1949 most likely) and the name of any next of kin at that time.

Here are some additional websites that can help you find out more about Irish Ancestors:

I think people are fascinated by family history because it helps them understand themselves.  We see our own selves reflected in those who came before us.  In Martin Sheen's case, the same passion for political activism was present in both his maternal and paternal ancestors.    Martin Sheen described his involvement in political activism:  "You do it because you cannot NOT do it".    He discovered his ancestors felt the same way.  It's in his DNA.  As the TV show says, "To know who you are, you have to know where your story began."

You can see the entire Martin Sheen WDYTYA episode online

Want to get started in your own family history?  You don't have to travel the globe.
 Get started in genealogy.