Recently my husband and I have been trying not to miss “Who Do You Think You Are” on our local NBC station on Friday nights. It’s an import from Britain (like many good things – ha!). The premise of the show is that we the viewers join celebrities as they trace back their family trees and search for the stories behind the bare bones of their ancestors’ lives. Because each search invariably leads through libraries and record offices, the show is able to highlight the essential work done by archivists across the land, from the smallest town hall all the way up to the Library of Congress. It also makes it clear just how much raw historical material is now available online, particularly through Ancestry.com, with a few clicks of a mouse.
Above all, what the program shows vividly every week is that there are millions of stories to be discovered in the past and that every apparently simple family has had its monumental dramas and startling secrets. Some of the programs go back far back into the celebrity’s family tree whereas and others are more recent, but all are equally affecting, not just to the celebrity in question but vicariously to us – the viewers - as well. Sarah Jessica Parker learned that her 10th great-grandmother was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. Steve Buscemi found out that his great-great grandfather, as an impoverished young man, had contemplated suicide but thought better of it and went on to marry and have children. Kim Cattrall set out to find out what had become of her grandfather after he had walked out on his family and was able to tell her mother and aunts that she’d discovered that they had several half-siblings alive and well in Australia.
Each celebrity to one degree or another seems to feel like they’ve discovered something not only about themselves in the course of the search but also about the currents of history. Events that may have seemed impersonal and distant to them came through their search to have an immediacy and a relevance for them that they had never had before.
This capacity to bring history into focus is why I have always been a huge fan of genealogy – that and the fact that it is as addictive as any other kind of puzzle-solving can be. As you gradually gather together the clues – the birth certificates and parish records and newspaper cuttings – the person’s story starts to reveal itself in the interstices of the material.
I have done a certain amount of work on my own family tree, building on the work of others before me for whom it was a much more arduous and time-consuming task in those pre-Internet days. But the most intensive genealogical sleuthing I’ve done has been for Children of Eden.
I made two big discoveries. Quite by accident, I found that Alexander Salmon was not in fact descended from a family of prosperous Jewish bankers as his children had believed. After consulting the English censuses online at Ancestry.com, the birth, marriage and death records at the National Archives in London , and the business advertisements in the London Gazette, I found that Alexander’s origins were rather more humble than those he had claimed. His father was a perfectly respectable “fruiterer” or greengrocer with a shop on Piccadilly. Although the family lived check by jowl with the nobility, they were firmly consigned to the merchant class, and their Jewishness put them further beyond the pale of the English middle class of the time.
So who could blame Alexander for gussying up his background a little once he got to Tahiti, especially given the way he was treated by some of the established European settlers and visiting naval captains. To give one example, Captain Henry Byam Martin, commander of HMS Grampus, which called in at Tahiti in 1847, described Salmon in his ship’s log as, “... a low swindling bankrupt Jew from London.” It’s gratifying to imagine how galling it must have been for such people when the upstart Jew married the sister of the Queen of Tahiti.
My second discovery was that, on his mother’s side, Alexander was a grandson of a renowned Jewish miniaturist artist, Solomon Polack, who was a friend of William Thackeray (the author of Vanity Fair) and was famous for having been one of the few people considered devout enough to be admitted to the prison cell of the Jewish convert, Lord Gordon, and allowed to sketch his likeness.
Polack’s daughter Catherine was Alexander’s mother, but I also discovered that Polack had one son who was sent as a convict to Australia but was freed and became one of the biggest landowners in the Sydney area and another son who was one of the earliest settlers in New Zealand and wrote two books on his experiences working with the Maoris. Talk about unearthing a totally unexpected set of larger-than-life characters! So I’m thinking, after I finish Children of Eden, maybe writing the story of the Polack family may just have to be next on my list… till the next great story comes along.