“Finding Your Roots” Focuses on Ancestry in the British Empire

By Diane Haddad

British roots was the theme for last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” That includes roots from all over the British Empire: As it revealed the family histories of guests Deepak Chopra, Sally Field and Sting, the show touched on research in England, Ireland, Canada, India, the American colonies and Australia.

  • Deepak Chopra: This alternative medicine guru and author came to America in 1970, where he eventually became chief of staff in a busy Boston hospital.

    Chopra’s family had managed to avoid the desperate poverty rampant in India, Gates said, by aligning themselves with the British rulers. His father, a medic for the British Indian Army during World War II, served in the bloody Battle of Kohima. He later became an aide to Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of British India, who helped him secure a scholarship to study cardiology in Scotland.  

When Britain left India in 1947, the partition of India displaced  millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.  Chopra’s grandparents managed to escape their hometown in the newly created Pakistan.

One of the most interesting parts of this segment was a record of visitors to the sacred city of Haridwar that allowed the show’s researchers to document a branch of Chopra’s tree back to his sixth-great-grandfather. You can find information about the Hindu Pilgrimage Records at FamilySearch, which has digitized versions available for the public to view at a FamilySearch Center, or for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints to view from home when logged into their FamilySearch accounts.

  • Sally Field: Actor Field was cut off from her father’s family history after her parents divorced when she was 4. Gates’ research team documented the family in Ontario, Canada, to her fifth-great-grandparents. How did they end up there? Ralph and Anne Morden lived in Pennsylvania in the 1770s. According to a letter written at the time, Ralph, a Loyalist, was taken prisoner and executed for treason. To protect her eight children, Anne moved her family to Ontario, where Britain granted her land as compensation for her loss. You can read more on Canadian land grant records here.

Fields’ DNA test revealed a small amount of American Indian ancestry, which Gates suggested means her colonial American family had children with their Indian neighbors.

On her father’s maternal side, researchers traced Field’s ancestor back to William Bradford, a Mayflower pilgrim and governor of the Plymouth colony. Probably in the interest of time, Gates skipped over the Pilgrims’ years in Leiden, Holland, when telling their story; you’ll find those details here.

  • Sting: Sting was born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner in Wallsend, England (the show didn’t mention this, but he got his name because he once performed in a black-and-yellow-striped sweater). A newspaper article reported how his great-grandfather, whose shipmate father had died at sea, was injured while working in the town shipyards at age 13.

    Another set of third-great-grandparents, laceworkers in Nottingham, England, moved to France to find work after steam-powered machines automated their jobs. An unidentified book referred to “the lace hands of Nottingham extraction” and the “great distress” caused by the French Revolution of 1848, which eliminated laceworkers’ main clientele and prompted the family to move to Australia.

In Sting’s paternal grandmother’s line, a baptismal record of a great-great-grandfather in Ireland showed that the parents were too poor to make the customary donation to the church—a common occurrence during the Great Famine.  The family moved to England, among the roughly 1.5 million to emigrate between 1845 and 1855.

Our Empire Emigrants guide helps you research British ancestors in India, Australia and South Africa.

Ready to research ancestors in England? Family Tree University’s English Genealogy 201 course will show you what old records to look for and how to find them. The next session starts Dec. 8.

Watch this episode of “Finding Your Roots” on the show’s website.

Next week’s episode will focus on the Greek roots of Tina Fey, George Stephanopoulos and David Sedaris.