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Tracing Hollywood’s Family Trees

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December 12, 2012
Carol Wilson has never met Blair Underwood. Nor has her colleague Kenneth Miller ever talked to Rob Lowe. But both history professors helped researchers track down these actors’ ancestries for Who Do You Think You Are?, the popular NBC series that traces the lineage of celebrities.

In researching Underwood’s family background, the show’s research staff found a female ancestor who was a free African American living in Virginia around 1800—which is where Wilson’s expertise came in. As a specialist in early and antebellum African-American history and author of Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, Wilson was able to help flesh out the skeletal history of the ancestor.

“When you are creating the story of someone who was not famous, you don’t have much besides basic things like birth, marriage, death and census records,” she says. “We don’t have much to tell us what that particular person’s life was really like. But we can create a picture of what life was like for, in this example, most free African Americans who lived in Virginia during the early nineteenth century.”

Wilson, the Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History
 and the chair of her department, says the show’s researchers did not reveal the identity of the celebrity subject. She found out only months later. And although she had never watched the show, she did tune in to see the segment on Underwood, which aired February 24, 2012, and found it surprisingly compelling. The episode is posted on the network website: www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are.)

Professor Miller had recently completed a fellowship at the David Library of the American Revolution in Bucks County, PA, researching a manuscript on how Revolutionary America treated its enemy captives, when Who do You Think You Are? came calling. They had discovered that Rob Lowe is descended from a Hessian prisoner of war named Cristoph Oeste, “and they were looking for expertise in the captives detained by the new United States,” says Miller, whose book, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.

General Washington’s forces captured Oeste and more than 800 of his comrades at the Battle of Trenton in late December 1776 and took them to Lancaster, PA, the chief detention site for British and German prisoners.

The Lancaster detention site and its German prisoners feature prominently in Miller’s book project, so he was well equipped to answer the show’s questions about the Hessians’ experiences in captivity and their interactions with their American captors. He even translated a prisoner list found in German archives.

 “It’s a funny coincidence that Carol and I were contacted separately by the same series, for the same season,” he says. “It’s cool, though, to be sought out as an authority in your specific field by a national media outlet.”

Wilson agrees. “Although the show makes the research look a little easier (and faster!) than it actually is, it does help viewers realize that everyone, famous or not, has a history, and that your own history can be pretty interesting and important.”


Last modified on Dec. 12th, 2012 at 1:07pm by Marcia Landskroener.