Thursday, August 29, 2013

Some Thoughts about Cindy Crawford on "Who Do You Think You Are?"

On 27 August 2013, TLC aired an episode of WDYTYA? starring  supermodel Cindy Crawford as the featured celebrity.  She discovered that she had a colonial lineage that traced back to Thomas Trowbridge, her 10th great grandfather.  He was involved with the Siege of Taunton, England during their civil war in 1645.  She met with professional genealogists who presented her with impressive scrolls that outlined her lineage to Trowbridge, and ultimately a very fancy scroll that traced back about 30 generations to Charlemagne and early kings of Europe.

According to Matthew Deighton of, the research team at WDYTYA? spent more than 1000 hours of research on Cindy Crawford’s story.  Imagine how many hours this would take amateur genealogists to research?  Most viewers watching this show have never done any family history research.  Do they believe that they can walk into a repository or archive and be handed generations of genealogy? Does this support the myth that you can connect online at and immediately find an impressive lineage back to someone famous?

I’ve been at the Nashua Family History center and witnessed folks walking in off the street demanding to see their family history.  At the reading room at the NEHGS library in Boston I overheard a man requesting to see specifically “The last six generations of my family tree in book form, not microfilm, please”.  The ensuing discussion with the genealogist behind the desk was quite humorous. 

Although I am descended of too many farmers, paupers and simple laborers to count, I have found links between several colonial ancestors and royal lineages.  It took me hundreds of hours to reach that colonial immigrant ancestor, and then I relied on books such as Gary Boyd Roberts’ book The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies, or websites such as  William Addams Reitwiesner’s databases of European royalty and nobility.  Using these resources is the closest thing I know to being handed an impressive lineage scroll.   Someone else has done the work, and you need to verify your connection.   Just go to the NEHGS website at and try the library catalog search using the subject “families of royal descent” and you will find over 150 books and manuscripts. 

Never forget the hundreds, or thousands of hours it took to get to this point. And take this gift with a grain of salt.  I’ve pored over these genealogies and found many semi-mythical ancestors such as the Scandinavian descents from Odin, or ancient British king like Arthur or Beli Mawr, who also connect to biblical descents according to some genealogies (including Adam and Eve).  You must remember that historically the royalty maintained these written genealogies to prove they had “the blood of the gods” or inherited privilege.  Google the “Stone of Scone” to see how this tradition and myth is still perpetuated in the British Monarchy.

This episode seemed be about name collecting, which is something and other websites are blamed for promoting.  There was no mention of the 1000 hours I learned from Matthew Deighton.  As a spokesperson for, it would have been nice if the viewers knew that the verification of those many, many generations of Cindy Crawford's lineage took a long, long time and an entire team of researchers.Someone had to spend hours verifying this documentation. You can read all about this process at the ProGenealogist blog post here:

Some resources for working with royal and noble descents


The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies, by Gary Boyd Roberts, Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2008

Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700, by Frederick Lewis Weis, Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2004.

American Ancestors and Cousins of the Princess of Wales by Gary Boyd Roberts, Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1984

Ancestral Roots of Sixty Colonists Who Came to New England between 1623 and 1650: The lineage of Alfred the Great, Charlemagne, Malcolm of Scotland, Robert the Strong, and some of their descendants, by Frederick Lewis Weis, Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1982.

Ancestry of Catherine Middleton: Who Will Marry Prince William of Wales 29 April 2011, compiled by William Addams Reitwiesner,  edited by Christopher Challender Child  and Scott Campbell Steward, NEHGS, 2011.

The Magna Charta Sureties, 1215, The Barons Named in the Magna Charta, and some of their Descendants, by Arthur Adams, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1964.

Medieval English Ancestors of Certain Americans: Many of the English Ancestral Lines Prior to 1300, by Carl Boyer, Santa Clarita, CA, 2001.

Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families, Douglas Richardson, Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2011

Royal Families: Americans of Royal and Noble Ancestry, by Marston Watson, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2004

William Addams Reitwiesner

Directory of Royal Genealogical Data by Brian Tompsett, University of Hull, UK

The Official Website of the British Monarchy


Native Hawaiian Genealogy Society website

Royal Lineages of Hawaii

See the Brian Tompsett website above for other places in Oceania

Other places in the world:

Islamic Dynasties by Brian Tompsett , see above

Genealogical Gleanings (includes Africa, Asia, Oceania, Near and Far East, including India)

The Royal Ark website for the Royal and Ruling Houses of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas

Of special interest:

Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes by George L. Williams, 2004


Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Bravo Heather! I think I have watched two WDYTYA episodes and have decided not to waste my time since. Granted, the show might be entertaining and at the very least puts genealogy on the radar screen of the great number of people who watch a lot of television, but my overwhelming reaction is that these episodes are illusory and convey a false impression of what genealogy research is and what it costs real people in time, effort and treasure to accomplish (even in this golden age of on-line resources). Few people can afford to jet off around the country or the world to investigate their family roots. And for sure very, very few people are going to get the kind of seemingly immediate and personal attention of experts that (based on my two samples of WDYTYA) appears to be routine for the subjects of WDYTYA episodes. I suppose this is what happens when a show is really just another showcase for the rich, famous and celebrated and does not depict ordinary people and the struggles they encounter in trying to do genealogy research with limited time, money and expert advice and guidance. I am glad to see someone has finally touched on this perhaps uncomfortable little truth about the entertainment show known as WDYTYA. I had contemplated a piece on this myself, but never seemed to get to it. Thank you for addressing this!

  2. I have seen basically the same thing, people looking for their folder. Some people were surprised that the volunteer wasn't going to do their research.

    On a brighter note, if your ancestors was from Western Europe we might all have a royal ancestor. It is also a waste of time for me because they were vague what resources they used to find the elusive ancestors.

  3. It's true that they should do a little front piece before each episode explaining the countless hours and credit the researchers involved, but I don't believe there are that many people who are naive enough to think they can just have their family history handed to them.

    When I found out the other day that my brother watches this show and said to my mom, 'I wonder if we have any interesting ancestors', it meant everything to me.

    This show is invaluable to me because it awakens the desire in others to learn about their family history whether they do their own research or not.

    And you got to have that entertainment value; it's like curling up with a good romance novel. Am I right ladies?

    1. There is nothing more romantic than looking for a few noble Sir Knights or Princes in the family tree!They left good records. It's the paupers and working people who make the chase fun because we have to work so hard to dig up the evidence.

  4. I so agree! Like everything else, TV makes it all look simple and easy to do quickly. I have heard it said that most people who have colonial ancestors most likely have a link to Royalty. The caveat here is that there were many illegitimate children of the Royal sons and some daughters. Back in the day it was considered an honor to receive attention and favors from a Prince. So links there may be but some are hard to prove because of the illegitimate factor. Still it's worth trying to follow through with it, but be prepared for many road blocks and wrong turns.

    1. Bette, there is actually a society called "Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain", and probably other similar groups. I love the URL

  5. After many, many hours of research I still can't find out what happened to my great-grandmother in St Louis, Mo in the early 1900s!!!!!!

  6. I think the value of WDYTYA is that it awakens a yearning to know where we came from. I can't imagine anyone thinking that this information is simple to gather. This is a one hour show and it must be obvious to all viewers that much work is done behind the scenes. That isn't the point. The point for me is that the information is out there. Sure, I don't have the money to have a team of genealogists doing the searching for me. But, after watching the show, I know that the past is accessible. The search will be the fun part. I watch the show each week and it is a powerful motivator for me to do more research on my own family.

  7. Rene makes a very good and legitimate point about how the show raises the profile of genealogy, but I still think it also leaves a false impression for anyone who is coming to the subject of genealogy first through this show. For all of us who have been involved with genealogy as a hobby or a profession, the show does not represent in any way what we know to be the true time, effort and cost of doing genealogy research. I grant it can serve as additional motivation and, as I said, it can be entertaining. In fact, I think it is designed to be entertaining using only celebrities, high production values, and the usual techniques to grab and keep a viewer's attention (e.g., "cliff hangers" over commercial breaks, etc.). I prefer to use the time that would be spent watching celebrities jet around in search of their family roots working on my family roots and my blog. As they say, "different strokes for different folks." :-)

  8. I appreciate WDYTYA for what it is - entertaining show that highlights the ancestry of celebrity families. I think it would be refreshing if they created an episode on the process that they go through to create one episode where they talk about those 1,000 hours you mentioned Heather. This would give people a realistic idea of the process. Sometimes I am envious of the guest who gets private time with the University Professor, the Royal Archivist, and is then presented with the wonderful scroll with everything laid out but I still like watching the show and am glad it is on.

  9. I was a baby genealogy librarian when Roots first came out. I had a man at the ref desk one day who was irate because his name wasn't in the card catalog. I tried to explain but he interrupted me and said, "You don't understand! I'm here to do my roots and I parked at 20-minute meter!" We still laugh about that one.

  10. Great post. And thanks for the links. Every once in awhile I am re-motivated to track down my (supposed) Mary Queen of Scots connection.

    Apparently, people ARE naive enough to believe they can have their family history handed to them, and for free.

  11. I finally saw this episode. Nicely done. Looking forward to the next two.

    My interest may be that the start of the series somewhat corresponds with my first ventures into historic genealogy and the first episode was loaded with names that I had run across earlier.

    I would hope, at some point, that these personalities would allow us (the researchers) to see what was left on the cutting floor.

  12. I too have a probable descent from Edward I, but I'm not willing to put in the time to thoroughly verify the connection. As you say, many of the old royal genealogies were written to "prove" royal blood and are not necessarily credible. There is a wonderful newsgroup at GEN-MEDIEVAL where scholars debate these topics.