Genealogy Tips From the “Who Do You Think You Are?” Premiere With Cynthia Nixon

Genealogy Tips From the “Who Do You Think You Are?” Premiere With Cynthia Nixon

Who watched the season premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" last night? (Warning: Spoilers ahead!) The show followed Cynthia Nixon's search along her paternal line and this discovery: Her third-great-grandmother Martha Curnutt killed her abusive husband in 1843. Only the second woman held in the Missouri...

Who watched the season premiere of “Who Do You Think You Are?” last night? (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The show followed Cynthia Nixon’s search along her paternal line and this discovery: Her third-great-grandmother Martha Curnutt killed her abusive husband in 1843. Only the second woman held in the Missouri state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Martha gave birth in prison more than a year after entering, suggesting she was raped. The prison’s mistreatment of Martha and her baby inspired a long list of people, including prominent local politicians, to petition for her pardon. It was granted two years into her sentence.

You can see part of Cynthia Nixon’s visit to the old prison on the site of the building where Martha was held in this clip. Check back on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” website for the full episode.

As is typical for celebrity guests on “Who Do You Think You Are?” Nixon crisscrossed the country to visit archives, and benefited from the extensive legwork and expertise of researchers. Yes, it would be great if we all could get these perks! But the rare, priceless publicity the featured archives and researchers receive is good for those archives and people, which is good for all of us genealogists.

It takes a little longer to do this type of research on your own, but it is possible. Here are a few of the genealogy takeaways I picked up from the show:

  • Use a variety of genealogical records together: Researchers started with censuses and moved back and forth between death certificates, marriage records, military pensions, court records, county and local histories, newspapers and pardon records.
  • Look to military records in the mid-1800s: When Nixon wonders why Martha appears in the 1850 census husbandless and with three children who have her maiden name, a New York state archives researcher says he always considers military records during this time period.

    Martha’s son Noah (who isn’t in Nixon’s direct line—cluster research at work!) was the right age to serve in the Civil War, and a pension record based on his service could be rich in family details. A Civil War pension index on lists a pension Martha filed as a parent dependent upon her son’s support. Civil War pensions aren’t microfilmed or digitized (except for a small number on, so Nixon went to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to get the record. (The rest of us might hire an on-site researcher or order copies for $80.) Sure enough, she learns that Noah died in the war, and his father died in 1842.

  • Use local histories and contemporary accounts: Local history books and newspapers provided several clues. A county history said Martha had killed her husband, and a newspaper article described the circumstances of the husband’s “unnatural” treatment of her and his statement one morning that she’d be dead by sunset. A book by another prisoner at that time describes Martha’s experience.

    Such books and newspapers might be at a state archives (the Missouri State Archives in this case) or historical society, a public or genealogical library, or even online at sites such as Google Books or Chronicling America.

  • Ask for help: You don’t have to be a celebrity or a film crew to get expert advice from librarians and archivists. They probably won’t do extensive research for you, but if you succinctly explain your problem, they can direct you to resources and get you started using them.

What did you think of this episode? Did you pick up any genealogy research tips? You’ll find a ton of help getting your genealogy research started in our new summer 2014 Discover Your Roots guide—learn more about it in Family Tree Shop.

Update: You can find out more about the genealogy research conducted for this episode on’s blog.

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  1. I watched the episode today and what quickly jumped out at me was the research supposedly done that we are not shown or told about. Example, Cynthia Nixon is shown a death certificate that identifies Martha Curnutt as the mother of the deceased. Then we are shown a marriage record for a Martha Curnutt. But how do we know this is the same person. My experience shows that two people with the same name can live in the same area at the same time. Without further proof, it can be dangerous to assume the record you find is the right person. I am left to assume further research was done to verify that the Martha Curnutt we learn about was in fact the right ancestor.

  2. Hi, with regard to prison records–they weren’t always saved, but surviving registers for state institutions are generally with a state archive. Surviving federal prison records would be at the federal level, usually in the National Archives and Records Administration (depending on the date of the records).

    It’s my understanding that the show’s professional researchers do a lot of research behind the scenes that isn’t shown on air, so they may have looked for and even found a prison register listing Martha. I’d also be willing to bet they did additional research to verify that the death certificate and marriage record named the same Martha Curnutt.

  3. Everybody needs to understand that the show is only 1 hr. long.
    (including commercials) Of course, there has to have been a lot of additional research done that wasn’t shown.
    I would be interested to know how the celebrities are chosen for the show. This is just a guess, but I think the celebrities must have an idea that their family tree has some mystery in it and then they approach the producers of Who Do You Think You Are about having their genealogy researched. Does anybody know if this is how it works?

  4. I love this show, not only seeing how/where the info is found, but also the reaction of the searcher. So, #1) is the reaction of news sitting in a library, filmed Live and shown to us, OR, does the star told the news and then filmed for the Show? #2)Do the stars ever do &quot;more&quot; (after the show ends), like donate money to a small cemetery to fix it up, or try to meet local people who may have a connection? 3) WHY don’t you do a &quot;follow up&quot; show. Show movie stars that &quot;cleaned up an old cemetery, bought a headstone, had a small library built, built or had something renamed in their family member’s nam, tried to find/meet family members.&quot;