Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Ashley Judd

The season finale for Who Do You Think You Are? followed actress Ashley Judd as she learned about her father's side of the family.  Judd and her half-sister singer Wynonna Judd are the children of singer Naomi Judd.  Naomi was close to her family and Ashley knew that the Judds are eight-generation Kentuckians.  Ashley grew up knowing her paternal grandparents and her great-grandmother but nothing beyond that.

The opening monologue from Judd was a little disingenuous.  She talked about the important role that faith plays in her life and how it would be gratifying to learn if she had an ancestor for whom religion was important.  She also talked about her role as an activist and wondered if anyone in her family had agitated for reform.  Considering that we know all the research is done beforehand, these statements were obvious foreshadowing of what was to come in the episode.

Judd began her search with a trip to visit her father, Michael Ciminella.  The two of them paged through a photo album and talked about Judd's grandmother and great-grandmother.  They discussed how family information said that they had one line that went back to New England, and that Judd's great-great-grandfather Elijah Hensley had fought in the Civil War, been a prisoner, and lost his leg to a war injury.  Then we had another disingenuous comment:  "Would you imagine some of that information is online?"  Cue the screen, though I will admit that it was a little more downplayed than in other episodes.  (And it looked like a laptop with a WDYTYA logo, but I wasn't sure.)

Unsurprisingly, they got a hit for an Elijah Hensley, who was in the 39th Kentucky Infantry, Company I.  Judd decided to go to the Kentucky State Archives in Frankfort to look for Hensley's service record.  She scrolled through microfilm and found his muster roll pages.  She said she wanted not just the records but also the stories behind them, so talked to Prof. Brian McKnight, a Civil War historian (and an assistant professor of history at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas).  They looked at the muster roll pages and discussed the fact that Hensley was captured about a month after he enlisted and had probably been held in Virginia, then returned back to the Union in a prisoner exchange.  Hensley was captured again later in the war, at Saltville, and was discharged due to disability.  His discharge showed his age as 18, which was also his stated age when he enlisted.  He had lied about his age when he joined up, but by the time he was being discharged apparently felt he could tell the truth.

I found it amusing that the archives segment (and the segment after it) showed microfilm and paper copies, considering that Hensley's service file is available online -- but at  Taking into account average production schedules, this episode was probably filmed before Ancestry bought Footnote's parent company, and they certainly weren't going to advertise another company's online holdings, were they?  I looked through the 26 pages available on Footnote.  Hensley's file does not give specifics on his first capture, which explains why McKnight couldn't state exactly how long he had been a prisoner.  I was disappointed they didn't talk about the Certificate of Disability, which I found interesting.  Perhaps it was edited out of the final cut.

Judd next visited Saltville, Virginia, where she met George Wunderlich, the director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.  They met at the Madam Russell cabin, which appeared to be merely window dressing, because it wasn't mentioned at all in the segment.  The main topic of discussion was the amputation of Hensley's leg, in a fair amount of detail.  Apparently Dick Eastman missed it when Wunderlich answered Judd's question and confirmed that no anesthesia would have been used during the operation, but I heard it.

Judd returned to her hotel, where an envelope from McKnight was waiting for her.  He had sent a copy of Hensley's pension file, which included a photograph and what seemed to be a testimonial about the man.  It said that Hensley was doing the Master's work in the Methodist church and that he was a farmer in Inez, Kentucky.  She then talked about how she has deep roots in eastern Kentucky, but her people had to have come from somewhere before that, and since there was this family story about New England roots, she was going to go there and "poke around" to see what she could find.  Yeah, that's a great way to approach research; goes right along with the Ancestry ads that say you don't need to know what you're looking for.

Imaginary likeness of
William Brewster
(from Wikipedia)
Judd went to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts.  There she met D. Joshua Taylor and said that she was supposed to have "some sort of a New England line."  From this point on there was no pretense that Judd was doing any of her own research, and records were waiting at each of her stops.  Taylor had prepared a beautiful ancestor scroll which showed that Judd is descended from William Brewster, who came over on the Mayflower.  This is the biggest leap I've seen on this program; they went back seven generations for which they didn't show any documentation.  This also went beyond the normal procedure for WDYTYA and the sham that the celebrities are doing the research.  You aren't going to go to a repository and find a scroll like that with your name on it.

One thing that bothered me in this segment was when Taylor brought out the book from the 1700's and told Judd to page through it to get to the passage he had marked.  If they're going to the trouble of wearing conservator's gloves to protect the items (the use of which for handling paper is generally a deprecated practice nowadays), why page through the book and subject more of the pages to stress?

After the revelation of Mayflower ancestry and mentioning that Brewster had been the bailiff for the Archibishop of York, Taylor recommended that Judd go to York, England, to continue her research.  As I've mentioned before, this is great if you have an unlimited budget, but most people would probably settle for writing a letter.  Judd's first visit was with Prof. Bill Shiels of the University of York.  He told her background information on the religious turmoil of the time and why Brewster would have wanted to leave England.  He had court records showing that Brewster was ordered to appear but did not do so.  Judd called Brewster a religious refugee, which Shiels agreed with.  He told her she should go next to Boston, Lincolnshire, to see what she could find.

In Boston Judd went to the Guild Hall and found the jail cells in which Brewster and William Bradford were imprisoned in 1607.  She spoke with author Nick Bunker, an expert on the Pilgrims, who explained more about the conditions of the time, including the facts that one needed a license to leave England and that Bradford and Brewster had been trying to leave without that permission.  The captain of the ship they had hired betrayed them, which is how they ended up in jail.  Bunker had a copy of Bradford's History of the Plimoth Plantation, and Judd read a short passage.  (History of the Plimoth Plantation is available as a free download from the Internet Archive, by the way.)  Bunker said that Brewster had spent many years in exile in Holland (I think he actually meant The Netherlands) but that Judd didn't have to go to Holland to find more information; instead he recommended she go to Cambridge University.

At the end of this segment Judd returned to the cell in which Brewster had been held and talked about how religious tolerance had been so important to the Pilgrims.  Unfortunately, history shows that Pilgrims considered that tolerance important only for themselves; they were remarkably intolerant and unaccepting of anyone not following their dictates when they set up the Plymouth Colony.  This of course was not addressed in the program.

In Cambridge Judd met with Anthony Milton, a professor of early English history at the University of Sheffield.  He showed Judd letters that referred to Brewster during the time he was in The Netherlands.  While in Leyden he printed and distributed the Perth Assembly in 1619, and then was being pursued by the English government.  Somehow he made it back to England without being caught, and he sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.  During this segment Judd was seen writing in a notebook.  She and Milton talked about the lack of freedom of speech and religion, and separation of church and state, which existed at the time.

For the last segment Judd went to Plymouth, England, where she reunited with her father and told him about her discoveries, including that his ninth great-grandfater was on the Mayflower.  I was thrilled to hear Ciminella tell her that he was "excited to pursue [the research] further with" her.  This is the first time I recall a mention on the program of continued research.  (Paltrow's episode even ended with a comment about the "final leg of her journey.")  Maybe Judd and Ciminella were the only ones who actually had an interest in learning more.


  1. Wonderful review. Thank you for the information included. A small quibble: The episode said that Elijah was doing "The Master's work" i.e. God's work. He was sometimes a preacher in his town. He was not studying for a Master's degree.

    I got the feeling Ashley's father had already done a tree, and had an interest in genealogy.

  2. Thank you for your comments! Sorry about leaving out the word "the." I did not think Hensley was studying for a degree.

    I'm curious what gave you the impression that Ciminella had already done a family tree. Other than his comment about continuing to pursue the research, I didn't see that in the episode.

  3. Since William H. Dalton is my great uncle, I would like to have heard a little about the Dalton Family in her genealogy. There is a lot of great history in the Dalton Family and no mention of it.

  4. Wanda, there's always more we want to see on these programs. For all we know, they may have talked about the Daltons and it didn't make the final edit. I wish NBC would put "extras" online of stuff that was cut. Maybe they're on the DVD's.

  5. William Brewster's descendants are available. What is the bets way to locate HIS ancestors--1500s, 1400s, etc.

  6. I have not done English research in that time period, but my best guess is church and court records.

  7. I'll have to go back to the text of the show, but judging from Ashley Judd's Brewster descent, I am a not-too-distant cousin of hers. Like her I have only discovered this descent in researching other ancestry which was heavily documented in the nineteenth century. I began with census data in the US on a great grandmother who still remained in living memory of an elderly aunt (she just died at 97, but was so sharp I could go back and ask more questions). This great grandmother, whose maiden name was Ladd, she called "a real Bostonian".

    Fortunately for me I found her living in a flat above my father's in Brooklyn when he was a boy. I then followed "Nana" up to her father's family in New Hampshire. There is also a Ladd genealogy to trace back her father's line, published in the late 19th century and giving her married name as that which I remember was her first husband (later at ancestry I was to be contacted by a descendant of her son from that marriage and to get the gory details of the scandalous divorce, which I had also heard about previously from my elderly aunt). So it was she. But now I sort of "rested on my oars" and drifted with the text of the Ladd family genealogy book. There was no mention of Mayflower that I recall at the ancestor who became the jumping off point for standard ancestries such as the line I share with Ms. Judd. I know him only as Nana's eccentric grandfather who wrote a lot of letters which someone named Hathaway who lives in Milton, Mass. seemed to have wound up with. But he's the son of a woman who actually is in the verfied Mayflower descent lines. So that's how I'm a descendant of Elder Brewster. And the line winds through Maine too, with some roots in a lot of islands like Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and others. Brewster's holdings included islands in Boston Harbor, so maybe some of his descendants took up fishing or even ships' carpentry.

    Anyway, even though I did not go over the work of prior genealogist's, I feel I am well enough grounded through ancestry's census materials and through the genealogy I once checked out from the New England Historic and Genealogical Society. I certainly am not fixated on Mayflower ancestry per se, but it is interesting how a successful "bottleneck" population spreads out so that a significant proportion of the population can trace back to it.

    In my studies I came to realize that my family history is the nation's history, including later immigration. There were some remarkable stories, many from the period between the Mayflower (and countless other arrivals of that migration period) and the American Revolution.

    An astonishing percentage of my male ancestors from my dad's side of the family died with their boots on in endless Indian wars, some surrogates for larger conflicts between European powers - Holland, France and England. My family was hit very hard by the Deerfield Massacre as well, and the nice farm country that I drove through to see my husband's relatives in Montreal was a bloody page in their history, since settled by people after whose abduction adopted Frenchified names (Stebbins to Stebigne). Unknowingly, I have passed through this association with my own family, imagining it to be completely foreign and without connection to me. There's a lesson there.

    The Neverending Story gets bigger and better all the time....

  8. You have a very interesting family history. I must say, however, that I would not rely on only census materials (no matter where I had found them; does not hold a monopoly on the U.S. census, though it might wish to) and one published genealogy book for my research.

  9. I want to say that indeed I do not rely on such a sparse collection of data. My father is the fourth of his name. I always assumed the middle name was a surname, and indeed it proved to be. There are no other men anywhere with that combination of names, so it was a key.

    I also relied on the memories of a woman I know very well, formerly a high energy realtor and the mother of a famous man, my aunt who just died at 97. She placed Nana in New England. She also inherited all the family tintypes and they are carefully labelled by my obsessive grandmother. I went well beyond the Ladd genealogy, and the deeply informative censuses (whoever had recorded them, I am capable of looking at the material itself and deciphering the 19th century handwriting). So I know I am on good ground. The relatives keep drifting in to tell me little things - so-and-so died suddenly of diabetes during her second pregnancy, and then her husband, two years later, committed suicide. This is something that goes well beyond the census. AND I have my own memories of what my parents told me, and though my father died a few years ago, he was not a fabulist. My mother is, but she is Irish and I take everything she tells me with the grain of salt because glory is what she is after in ancestry. Fortunately, her first cousin, a physician, met me on ancestry and we hashed out the much simpler data on that side of the family. For my troubles with him, he sent me a trove of family photos which exactly correspond both with census and everything I personally know.

    Ancestry has been a catalyst, a good one for me. However one personally feels about its corporate identity and its self-promotion, I see it as a window or a door, not as a perfect mirror.

    1. I live near Orlando Florida and grew up with a few kids who share the Ladd last name. There were multiple families with that name. They were also closely related to the Lugo family as well.

    2. The world is a very small place, isn't it?

  10. What I see in the NEHGS unrolling of the scroll for Ashley Judd showing her Brewster ancestry: it's down to numbers. If you have a really small New England population and lots of cousin marriages, there are not too many lines back to the ancestor. In fact with big families that they had then too, you are going to have a few well-beaten and well-researched paths that do not require you to reinvent the wheel every time you encounter someone who fits on that chart at that point, that common ancestor. The Mayflower Society may or may not have vetted all the lines a long time ago. It is actually their work that I probably relied on through They have a line, the same way the Virginians do about some of their FFV's. And the question for most people is probably: Do I or do I not credibly plug into the line at the point where my known ancestry intersects?

    The easiest census material to read and compare with other decades starts in 1850, though for some communities it too is rudimentary. However my father's immediate family remained on the Eastern seaboard almost exclusively, and in the periphery of Boston and New York City, for more than 300 years. I have not only looked at one census entry for the decade, but that of near relatives in the area.

    Of course the tragic loss of the 1890 census due to a fire in Washington DC in the 1920's is a hindrance to many people who must rely on other data, particularly a hindrance to immigrants. Since I have many such ancestors too, and a mystery about one family where only one of five children made it to middle age, I am eager to find out more, but that will take original research.

    But even with sketchier census material for New England ancestors going back to the first 1790 census (of which I must be quite wary) and forward to 1840, I still know a lot about the one man who plugs into the well-worn Mayflower line.

    There are many "bugs" with It is very hard to correct things, and they never get back to you. My mother is not only listed as dead by some relative, but people will persist in copying that she is (she isn't dead at all, just divorced from my dad). So now it's my word against several bogus genealogies which might one day have the force of "majority rule". For the record, she never lived in New Jersey and she did not die in 1988! But no one ever corrects their mistakes...

    The other weakness in ancestry. com is that they do not know from the Julian/Gregorian calendar changes. Therefore, according to them, William Brewster is his own brother - they have the same name and were born one year apart (of course in real life, there are after-born children named after a dead prior-born sibling). In the case of Brewster, it's just a dumb mistake which they have not corrected.

    The great weakness in my view is the lack of corrections, the inability to keep polishing the information (not changing it willy-nilly, but making well-annotated corrections in the interpretation of the record - not the record itself).

    1. This NEHGS unrolling of the scroll for Ashley Judd you mentioned...where can I find it?

    2. Taylor unrolled the preprepared scroll for Judd at the NEHGS library. If you mean where can you find the scene, it will appear in the recording of the episode. If you mean where can you find the scroll, I'm sure it was given to Judd during filming of the episode. I would hope she has kept it.

    3. During the playing of the episode I paused it to get her lineage to William knowing that was from my line.

    4. Cool! Isn't it nice when you can enjoy the benefits of celebrities having their family history done for them?

  11. Apparently you have a well researched and well placed family. This can be a blessing indeed.

    There are indeed many weaknesses in I believe the lack of quality control is one of the worst, but they have no financial incentive to put any effort into quality or corrections. They obviously sell many, many subscriptions without having to budget for that expense.

  12. janice,
    are you related to William Brewster?

  13. As far as I know, I am not related to Brewster. Are you?

  14. I am of Hensley descent from England. Makes me wonder if Ashley and I are very distant cousins. Also Patsy Cline, Virginia Hensley, wondering about a connection there as well? Would be nice to have time to trace all this.

    1. Oh, if we had the time to pursue every line to its completion, wouldn't that be wonderful! I don't know how common of a name Hensley is, but since people often research famous individuals, maybe you can find a tree for Patsy Cline and see if it converges with Ashley Judd's and/or yours?


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