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Twists of fate in the family tree on Who Do You Think You Are?

When you start down a road in your family’s history, you never know whose paths may have crossed in the past. Actor Martin Sheen found that out on the first episode of this season of Who Do You Think You Are?. In a mind-bending twist of fate, he learned that a great-great-great-great-grandfather on his grandmother’s side and a great-great-great-great-grandmother on his grandfather’s side had a surprising and unpleasant association 150 years before his grandparents married and connected these two branches into one family. (BTW, you can catch the episode online at

As interesting as it was, if you think about it, it’s shouldn’t be too surprising that branches of your family tree occasionally cross before they connect. In my own files, I have a newspaper clipping about the wedding of a Brooklyn, New York, politician’s daughter. The clipping not only describes the wedding in great detail but also lists all of the guests—and this was no small affair. The guest list was rife with politicians, including ex-president Grover Cleveland and his wife, the governor, a senator, and several congressmen. The father of the bride was no slouch either; he was well-known in political circles as the “Boss” of Brooklyn.

Two of my relatives were also there, and some thirty years later, their grandchildren would marry. While it’s no bombshell like the one dropped on Martin Sheen, it’s a good reminder that your ancestors were part of a community in which their lives intertwined. My two relatives at that wedding were both on the police force, one the ex-commissioner, and the other a patrolman who had worked his way up to become a captain. So they may easily have known each other through their work and shared some mutual friends.

Learning about the people your ancestor interacted with can really bring your family history to life. Start a list of your ancestor’s associates—people whose names appear as sponsors, in-laws, witnesses, business partners, members of a religious community, or even just neighbors. Then hop on and see what you can turn up on them. Check census records, directories, and historical newspapers for mentions.

As you learn more about them, you’ll get to know your ancestor’s community. If that’s not enough inspiration, keep in mind that immigrants and families often traveled and settled with people they knew. Tracing the origins of your ancestor’s friends and neighbors may lead you to your own ancestor’s roots.

And of course, don’t overlook a direct ancestor’s siblings. Martin Sheen uncovered two compelling stories about two different uncles who shared some of the same political passion. You never know what stories are waiting just off your direct line.

So, now you’ve heard my story. What’s yours? Have you found a connection in your family tree that had you raising an eyebrow or shouting for someone to come take a look at this? Or maybe an inspiring story about your ancestor’s sibling? Please share it in the comments, or email it to me at LIVE @ RootsTech 2012: Watch It Live for Free!

Happy Holidays from

With the holidays in full swing, and Christmas only a day away, I’m sure everyone is preparing their home for a festive holiday, or possibly traveling to spend time with friends and family afar. Either way, the holidays are a time when we think of family, how important they are in our to us, and cherish the time we get to spend with everyone.

At, we want to wish you and your family a Happy Holidays, and want to let you know that in 2012, we have some really exciting releases coming, including the countdown to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. Both the images and indexes to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census will be made free to search, browse, and explore in the United States when this important collection commences streaming onto the website in mid-April 2012.

When complete, more than 3.8 million original document images containing 130 million plus records will be available to search by more than 45 fields, including name, gender, race, street address, county and state. It will be’s most comprehensively indexed set of historical records to date. is committing to make the 1940 Census free from release through to the end of 2013, and by doing so hopes to help more people get started exploring their family history.  As this census will be the most recent to be made publicly available, it represents the best chance for those new to family history to make that all-important first discovery.

And we also know that you might have some last minute shopping that needs to get done, and we want to help you give the gift of family this year. You don’t have to be the jolly guy in red to be a master gift giver. Just get someone special an Gift Membership, and you’ll give them something truly magical – a way to discover their family story. They’re easy to give and easy to use. The lucky person who receives a Gift Membership can do all this and more.

  • Start a family tree with a few facts and grow it with help from Hints.
  • Find answers in billions of historical records from the U.S. or the world.
  • Easily add new discoveries to a family tree and share them online.
  • Discover even more in millions of member-submitted family trees, stories and photos.

Get your gift-giving started and click here to send your gift membership. And remember, everyone has a family. Even Santa. Watch our recent interview with Santa to learn more: Behind the Scenes with Santa Claus

Ask Ancestry Anne: Who Are Ethel’s Parents?

Question: For years I was under the assumption that my grandmother, Ethel Hall Burtchell, was the child of Wealthy Hall Burtchell and Walter D. Burtchell. Ethel was born on October 13, 1895, presumably in Brooklyn, but I have not had any luck in finding a birth certificate for her with either the name Hall or Burtchell.  What makes this more complicated is that I found a newspaper announcement of Walter and Wealthy’s wedding, which took place in late October, 1899 - four years after Ethel was born. So was Ethel a child of one of them from a prior relationship? Was she adopted by them? If so, was Ethel a child of another member of the family? Without a last name, I can’t find a proper birth certificate, and there are no elder relatives still around who can help solve this mystery. Can you? 

— Cathy Schaefer

Answer: What I like about this question and some of the conclusions that you have reached is that you are letting the facts drive your assumptions. 


You have Walter and Wealthy’s wedding announcement a date of 1899. There are multiple census records and a Social Security Death Index entry that consistently say that Ethel was born in 1895. Adding these two facts together, it’s not clear that Ethel was the child of Walter and Wealthy.


I couldn’t find this family in the 1900 census. But I did, like I’m sure you did, find them in 1910. Ethel is listed as the daughter of Walter, and Walter and Wealthy are listed as having been married since 1895, not 1899. Wealthy is listed as having three children and all three are living. So if Ethel isn’t Wealthy’s daughter, where is the other child? But it is curious as to why there’s an eight-year gap between Ethel and Gerard …


Walter and Wealthy are living in the same house as the family of Thomas Lyne (not sure if I am reading that last name correctly.)


Fast forward to 1920, we have Walter and Wealthy living with four sons in the same house as Walter Ingram. Ethel is living next door as a boarder in the house of John Hofstad. Are any of these people relatives?


The 1930 census gives us a more tantalizing clue. Walter and Wealthy are living with their four sons. Walter is 57 years old and his age at his first marriage was at age 21. Do a little subtraction and that means he was first married in 1893. Wealthy is 52 years old and her age at her first marriage was also 21. But that means she was first married in 1898. Hmm.

Putting these details together makes me wonder if Walter and Wealthy were married in 1899 as stated in the marriage announcement and if Walter was married previously in 1893, give or take a year.

I dug a little further and found a <a href=>1905 New York Census on</a> that shows Walter and Wealthy living with Peter and Maria Burtchell.

Walter is listed as the son of Peter; Ethel and Gerard as the grandchildren of Peter. Again, there’s an eight year gap between Ethel and Gerard


I could not find Walter in the New York 1892 census.  I found Peter but Walter was not living with him at the time.

If I had to guess, I would guess that Ethel is Walter’s daughter from a previous marriage. But to prove this, I would do the following:

1.     Try to find a marriage certificate from 1892 or 1893 for Walter.

2.     Search for an actual marriage certificate for Walter and Wealthy – something beyond the newspaper announcement. A certificate may give you a clue about whether Walter was previously married.


Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne