The Backstory of the WDYTYA? Emmitt Smith Episode on NBC

The research for a television episode like the one on Emmitt Smith last night doesn’t just fall together in an hour’s time. There’s a tremendous amount of work goes on behind the scenes. As you will note below, the research team at ProGenealogists was involved in the research of Smith’s ancestry, as they were involved in the research for all seven episodes. I can’t imagine the number of hours it took for just seven programs, but I’m sure it was many. Although I didn’t see any ProGenealogists’ researchers in this program, it was exciting to see Marjorie Sholes and Megan Smolenyak featured in the show.

If you missed the episode, you may still view it in its entirety at

The following “backstory” about the Emmitt Smith program was received from Anastasia Tyler at

Seasoned researchers know that discovering the slavery roots in a family tree can be time consuming and difficult – perhaps even seemingly impossible. But, as Emmitt Smith’s story shows on this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, African Americans can discover their heritage. The genealogy team who worked on Emmitt’s tree shares a behind-the-scenes look at how they made the jump from post-1870 records to pre-Civil War records as they documented Emmitt’s enslaved ancestors.

Post-1870 Research Emmitt Smith
Vital records, census records and other primary sources allowed the research team to document Emmitt’s family tree back to great-great-grandparents – William Watson and Victoria Puryear. A 1900 U.S. Federal Census record from Monroe County, Alabama, indicated William and Victoria were both born in Alabama during the Civil War. These facts suggested that William and Victoria could have been born slaves, and perhaps their parents as well.

Since Victoria and William were born in the early 1860s, it was likely that records created post-1870 could shed some light on their parents. Vital records were especially helpful here; Victoria’s death certificate included the names of her parents, Prince Puryear and Annie McMillian.

The 1870 U.S. Federal Census added clues: Prince Puryear and his family (including young Victoria) were listed in Monroe County, Alabama. Additional Puryear households were also found on the same census page. The ages for the heads of the Puryear households made them potential brothers of Prince. These heads of households also had the same racial designation as Prince – Mulatto. Finally, one of the households listed a 55-year-old Mulatto woman born in Virginia named Mariah Puryear. “Our first thought was ‘Could Mariah be Prince’s mother?’” says genealogist Joseph Shumway, AG, of ProGenealogists. If the answer was yes, if Mariah was Prince’s mother, then Mariah would be Emmitt’s 4th great-grandmother.

Pre-Civil War Documentation
The research team needed to establish whether Mariah Puryear from the 1870 census was Prince Puryear’s mother. Slave research involves looking at records pertaining to the slave-holding families. Vital records were not kept for slaves, however slaves may be mentioned in records created when the slave owner dies and in records pertaining to deeded transactions. So the research team first had to determine the identity of the slave-holding family. Once found, the family’s records could reveal further information about Prince Puryear’s family and his potential connection to the woman named Mariah.

Emancipated slaves, in general, didn’t stray too far from their most recent owner’s property. In addition, many former slaves retained the surname of the former slave holders. So the researchers turned back to the 1870 census, looking for white families in the same vicinity as Emmitt’s Puryear ancestors. Interestingly enough, there was a white Puryear family living in Monroe County, Alabama. This family, potentially, could have been the slave-holding family.

The Puryears, like many slave owners, had extensive real estate, so the team looked for the family’s land records, deeds, and probate records. In the Monroe County probate records (on microfilm at the Family History Library), the researchers found probate records pertaining to the 1850-51 estate of Mary Puryear. The inventory of Mary’s property was a key document. In it she listed Mariah and her children, by name: “Mariah and children Henry, Mary, McTom, Victoria and Prince Albert.” Henry and Thomas were the names of two potential Puryear brothers who appeared on the same 1870 census page with Prince and Mariah. The inventory “matched the information we’d found in the census,” says Joseph. “With the combination of names and location, there was no doubt.”

Further records showed that Mary Puryear was the widow of slave owner Alexander Puryear and helped to solidify the connection between Prince, Mariah and the Puryear slave-holding family. “There are records out there,” Joseph concludes. “Just be persistent.”

You won’t want to miss next week’s episode. Lisa Kudrow sets out to learn the hard truth about what really happened to her Jewish ancestors during World War II. Despite the cold details of how the Holocaust impacted her family, Lisa’s episode ends with a silver lining. You can view a preview featuring Lisa Kudrow, and tune into NBC for the full episode on Friday, March 19, at 8/7c. [that’s 7 pm in Utah, folks!].

Author: Leland Meitzler

Leland K. Meitzler founded Heritage Quest in 1985, and has worked as Managing Editor of both Heritage Quest Magazine and The Genealogical Helper. He currently operates Family Roots Publishing Company (, writes daily at, writes the weekly Genealogy Newsline, conducts the annual Salt Lake Christmas Tour to the Family History Library, and speaks nationally, having given over 2000 lectures since 1983.

11 thoughts on “The Backstory of the WDYTYA? Emmitt Smith Episode on NBC”

  1. I saw the program last night and found it just a little too smooth. The time and effort needed to find those records was just not evident and gave the impression those things happen easily. For the novice researcher, saying “just be persistent” isn’t enough. Where do you concentrate your persistence – how do you start – how do you know where to look???? It seemed shallow from a genealogical research process point of view.

  2. Yes it was smooth – but it’s only an hour program. It’s not aimed at the professional or long-time amateur researcher. If it tweaked the interest in just a few watchers – good on it. I found both it and the prior program interesting. As a researcher myself, I knew it wasn’t just the two principals driving and jetting from place to place alone. Most of us don’t have the resources to jump around the country finding the connections. I thought it was interesting and just kept wishing I had the resources to do first hand research as was done on their behalf. So remember – it’s a show – it’s fun, and maybe unrealistic. But entertaining nevertheless.

  3. I enjoyed the show, as well as the last one. Being an amateur researcher for my own family (been working with sisters for 30 years) I know the work behind it. It seemed one sided, would like to see more. Guess next time you will have to be 2 hours long. Really liked the show.

  4. I found the episode of Emmitt’s search for his roots fascinating. I am a descendent of the Puryears from Mecklenburg Co, Va. My grandparents are Thomas Lindsey Puryear and Victoris Langhorn Puryear. We have a Puryear, Watkins, Llewelyn family reunion in Claksville, VA in August at the home of my cousin Mabel Mullins. I am sure that Mabel would welcome Emmitt as well as provide additional information regarding the local VA family.

  5. i thought the episode of Emmitt Smith was really fasinating. I am also a descendent of the Puryears. my grandparents are Freddie Derose Puryear Sr. and Mary Ann Puryear and my father is Freddie Derose Puryear Jr. My family is well aquainted with the Mullins and we are going to the reunion this summer. Hopefully Emmit will come. Our family has been trying to reach him.

  6. @Linda Puryear, The Puryear Watkins & Llewelyn family reunion was a success this weekend. Were you there? I am Mabel’s granddaughter. There were so many people, I didn’t get to meet everybody. I wish Emmitt could have attended. We’ll have another one in 2012. See you there?

  7. @Emmitt – Brother you should have been there. There was nothing but love. And I mean a lot of it. This was the first time attending any Puryear reunions. It was a blessing to share a beautiful and wondering day. Portsia thanx again my dear for the warmth that you displayed to my family when we got there. After fifteen minutes I just knew I was family. And last but not least a BIG BIG BIG hug and kiss to Mabel Mullins for all she did in inviting and showing us all with Heavenly Love. I will definitely be back in 2012 and then some. Love to you all.

  8. I am novice at this sort of research and I new very little information in a couple cases on my fathers side. Based on a couple names and the state they lived in, I concentrated on censes, names of people in the family and ages listed on the census. I spent maybe 4 full days and basically solved everything I wanted to know back to my great great grand parents on my fathers side for both his parents. Its possible, and you find a rythem how to research once you start. Stick to the and… I only bought the min. package to access censor info.. Its amazing how fast you can retrieve information. It seems impossible until you start researching… It all comes together. I want to encourage those who are not experts, being I am no expert either…

  9. My name is Ashley Smith. Myfather and granfather are Charlie rufus Smith Sr. And Jr. i have been told Emmett is our cousin and I am trying to trace my roots. Anyone who can help please email me.

    Thank you with love.
    We are family.

  10. Just wanted to put the info out there, my grandfather was Frank Watson born in Monroe co. Ala. lived in Flamaton, Ala. his 1st wife my grandmother was Ann Watson, they had as far as I know on her side 2 sons Robert Watson who lived in california and my father Anthony James Watson who was in the US Army at the time my sister and I was born, he was marriwd to my mother Olivia Brown from Natchez, now Beatrice, Ala. My grand father Frank had several brothes and sister, some was in New York as I remember one brother was named Joseph Watson and I saw on the show a Joseph Watson wondering if that was his son in Pensacola, he a siblings also living in Pensacola, Fla. We have information on William and Victoria that I did not know my sister had many many years ago that our step grandmother Revie[Frank 2nd wife had given her. When I say the show Who DO You Think You Are my blood pressure went higher because the same info we have on those paper. The paper is pretty old but well to read. I can go on but if any one have any info on this please email me as i want to know my fathers people. Thanks

  11. I live in Charlotte County, Virginia and am also a Puryear descendent, my great-great-grandmother’s being Mary Eliza Whittle Puryear (wife of Thomas Taylor Pettus), daughter of Richard Clausel Puryear and Mary Agnes Pettus, grand-daughter of Samuel Puryear and Frances Clausel, etc. Alexander Puryear was my great-grandmother’s uncle. How do I contact my Puryear family?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *