“Finding Your Roots” is a fascinating show that allows celebrities to search through their lineage, going back generations to discover who their ancestors were and other previously unknown revelations. The show is hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard Professor, who really knows his stuff. He’s also TV’s original genealogy hunter, and the show is now in its 5th season.
Celebrities on his show have been amazed to find out who they’re related to or what their family’s past held secret. To give you an idea of what’s discovered on this show, we’ll give you a few teasers. For instance, Marissa Tomei and Julianne Moore discovered they were cousins, Tina Fey has a connection to Benjamin Franklin, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestor was condemned as a witch!
From shocking secrets to funny coincidences, we’re going to let you in on some of the most jaw-dropping celebrity revelations exposed on the unique television show that give us an intimate view into the personal lives of celebrities. Not only do we go through celebrity revelations, but Gates also has advice for those who want to find their own lineage.
Marissa Tomei and Julianne Moore – Long Lost Cousins
As it turns out, the two Hollywood starlets have a lot more in common than they thought. On an episode from the 5th season of the show, Marissa Tomei, 54, discovered that she has a famous cousin – Julianne Moore, 58.
The host told Tomei the news and she was visibly thrilled to learn that her longtime friend was now in her bloodline. Her reaction really showed her enthusiasm: “Julianne? Julianne! Julie? You know we went to school together? Jules! Oh, I can’t wait to tell her.”
They Share More Than Just Movies
The two actresses, who both starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) share “an identical stretch of DNA along their X chromosome.”
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
“Ironically, Julianne has no Italian ancestors that we know of. And every ancestor we could name on Marisa’s tree has roots in Italy,” the voiceover in the episode stated. “A powerful demonstration of how DNA can bridge the divide that appears to exist between people of diverse origins.”
They both took to Instagram to share their excitement. Have you seen their posts?
They Took it to Twitter
Tomei shared the video and pics of her with Moore on Instagram. “What an incredible gift to find out about my family’s roots with @HenryLouisGates!” she wrote. “Eternally grateful for this generation and generations to come…. and the big surprise — discovering my friend is my REAL cousin! Hey, cuz @juliannemoore!!!! Love”
Moore was just as excited as Tomei was, also sharing a bit from the show on Instagram: “I KNEW WE WERE ALIKE! @marisatomei is my COUSIN!! OMG I’m so excited, thank you @henrylouisgates for letting us know we have identical segments of DNA – #FindingYourRoots #twinning”
Tina Fey’s Connection to Benjamin Franklin
That’s right, comedian, actress, and writer Tina Fey was also on an episode of Finding Your Roots in the second season, and she too made a rather staggering discovery.
As it turns out, her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Hewson, immigrated to America from England. Why? Well, his good old friend Benjamin Franklin advised him to do so.
See how and why in the next slide!
Benjamin Franklin Helped Him Start His Business
John Hewson, who lived from1744–1821, was a textile manufacturer who immigrated to America with by help of Benjamin Franklin who assisted Hewson when opening a quilting factory in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Just as a refresher, Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Talk about adding a member to the family tree!
Sarah Jessica Parker’s Ancestor Was Condemned As a Salem Witch
Sarah Jessica Parker who funnily enough starred as a witch in Hocus Pocus discovered something quite strange on the show. As it turns out, she has real-life witch ancestry.
She was on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, which is the same premise as Finding Your Roots, only done on NBC. In this episode, Parker discovered that her 10th great-grandma was condemned as a witch at the Salem Witch Trials.
And you can’t imagine what she was known for!
Esther Elwell, aka the Witch
Esther Elwell was the name of the witch (Parker’s ancestor) from the 1600s, and she was rumored to have been spotted with ghostly figures!
In the end, Elwell didn’t go through the whole trial in Salem because prosecution for witchcraft were outlawed right before the accusations against her gained attention.
Jim Parsons’s Ancestor Was a French Master Architect
The beloved actor from The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons, had always heard from his family that he was French on his father’s side. And it proved to be true.
His lineage was traced back to the Trouard family in France. Louis Trouard was a marble supplier to King Louis XV at Versailles. Trouard’s son was the chief architect to Louis XVI.
Next, two political talk show hosts find out they’re cousins!
Bill Maher Is Bill O’Reilly’s Cousin
Both Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly are political talk show hosts who hold many conflicting views, but as it turns out, they’re cousins. Maher discovered this on an episode of Finding Your Roots. The two share a common Y-chromosome (on the male line) ancestor from the Middle Ages and Renaissance Ireland.
Maher said, “It just shows you what a great place America is. Because we’re about as opposite as you can possibly get.” O’Reilly responded, “Oh, geez. You’re going to have to put him on 24-hour medical watch. This ruins his career. This destroys him.” At least they can laugh about it.
Oprah Winfrey’s Ancestor Saved a School For Black Children
Oprah Winfrey needs no introduction. We all know who she is. But what Oprah didn’t know was the story of her extraordinary ancestor named Constantine Winfrey. In 1876, he made a bet with a white man, saying he will pick 5,000 pounds of cotton over 10 years in exchange for 80 acres of land.
Constantine won the bet and indeed got the land. Then in 1906, people were threatening to tear down the local African American school. So Constantine saved it by moving it onto that land. Oprah was so proud to hear of this!
Wanna know which famous singer is related to a civil rights pioneer?
Lionel Richie Is Related To a Civil Rights Pioneer
Lionel Richie was let in on the fact that his great-grandfather was born into slavery. But the man, John Louis Brown, later became a civil rights leader.
Brown was involved in an organization called the Knights of the Wise Men. They assisted black communities across the country.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Are Related
The two are best buddies from childhood and even wrote and directed the famous movie Good Will Hunting together, and won the Oscar by the way. They were overjoyed to hear that they’re also related.
The two are actually 10th cousins once removed. Both guys descended from William Knowlton Jr., a bricklayer who came to the U.S. from England in the 1630s and settled in Ipswich. Go figure!
Kevin Bacon and Wife Kyra Sedgwick Are Long Lost Cousins
Funnily enough, there is a trivia game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which claims that anyone on earth is just six connections away from the actor. And here is discovering his own connections.
The actor discovered that he and his wife are related, but very distantly. They’re ninth cousins, once removed. Luckily, that’s a safe margin.
But there’s more where that came from! Bacon has a lot more in his family tree that he was unaware of!
Kevin Bacon Has Many Famous Connections!
On the show, Gates told Bacon he is about to play his own version of trivia game. Bacon found out that King Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots” who fought William Wallace, is his 22nd great grandfather.
And then the host tells him: “You and Brad Pitt are 13th cousins twice removed.” And then: “You and President Obama share a common ancestor named Anthony Woolhouse. You are 12th cousins, three times removed.”
He Once Hated the Trivia Game
Bacon admitted that he hated the “Six Degrees” game when it first began spreading on the internet. “I wasn’t in the headspace to take it as flattery,” he said. “I kind of felt like it was a joke at my expense, you know.”
But he changed his mind, saying, “It’s a beautiful concept that we are connected. That we all, essentially, kind of climbed out of the same swamp. It’s fun to be at the forefront of that idea.”
Next, a Friends star finds out some family lineage that surprised her!
Courteney Cox’s Ancestor Was a Notorious Nobleman
Courteney Cox, our dear Monica from Friends, is descended from an intriguing historical figure. Her eighteenth great-grandfather was revealed to her on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
His name was Thomas de Berkeley, Baron de Berkeley, a medieval English nobleman. He was known for holding King Edward II captive in his castle after the monarch was forced off his throne. Edward died as a prisoner, and Berkeley was acquitted of any crime.
Martha Stewart, of Islamic Lineage
Martha Stewart was also on the show. Genetic testing revealed that she likely descended from Islamic people through her mother’s side.
She also discovered that her roots can be traced back to the Tatars, the group of people Genghis Khan conquered way back in the day, around the 1200s.
Andy Samberg’s Long-Lost Grandmother
Andy Samberg, a former SNL cast member, and actor, wanted to know who his mother’s parents were. She was adopted and they had no information on who her parents were.
Finding Your Roots
Even private investigators couldn’t find the biological parents of his mother, Marjorie. But on Finding Your Roots, host Gates surprised both Andy and Marjorie with a photo of her long-lost mother.
And her reaction was beyond words. Literally.
A Book of Life
Each celebrity on the show is presented with a “book of life” that contains all the information about their lineage. Gates presented Samberg with his book and said, “You are looking at your mother’s biological mother.”
Frances Dinkelspie/ Finding Your Roots
It was then that Samberg’s mother, who was in the room, but off-camera, burst into tears. Gates later said, “I swear, it’s one of the most haunting and deeply emotional moments of my life. There was a wail. It was like a wail of agony mixed with sublime exhilaration.”
A Case of Mistaken identity
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said: “The hardest thing I ever had to do was to call Joe Madison (his friend, the radio talk-show host and activist) and tell him, ‘The man you call your father is not your biological father — your biological father is someone else.”
Gates was sensitive to Madison’s privacy and well-being, letting him know that he could pull out of the show if he wanted.
But he wanted to know who it was…
Madison Was Shocked
“Without missing a beat, he said, ‘I want to know who it is and I want to stay in the show.” Madison was then shocked to hear that his biological grandfather was one of the victims of the government’s infamous Tuskegee experiment.
They intentionally deprived treatment to syphilis patients to observe their symptoms. When he discovered this, “Joe broke down and cried,” Gates says.
Tig Notaro’s Great Great Grandfather Was Assassinated
Gates also broke some rough news to comedian Tig Notaro. She found out that her great-great-grandfather, who used to be mayor of New Orleans, was assassinated in a bar in the French Quarter.
Tig is known for the shows “One in Mississippi” and “Walk of Shame”.
Questlove’s Quest for Answers
Musician and producer Questlove, whose real name is Amir Thompson, got to uncover his family’s earliest days in the United States. Questlove’s family descended from enslaved people who came to the U.S. on the schooner Clotilda
That essentially means that they were part of the last known group of Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves, More than 50 years after the international slave trade was officially banned.
Wanna know how the show gets its information? See how next…
The Book of Life
As we mentioned earlier, each guest on Finding Your Roots in given a book of life. The book has all of the information discovered about their genealogy which is done by researchers. There are genetic results, a family tree, copies of historical records used to make the family trees, and photos of newly found family members.
Sometimes, guests are reunited with their long-lost relatives. But in most episodes, the guest is seated opposite Gates as he guides them through their life book.
Gates Exposes His Own Family Genealogy
Gates tend to use examples from his own genealogy. For example, his grandmother had multiple children with a white man whose name she never revealed.
Apart from the celebrity guests, there are normal everyday people that are also featured in some episodes to create a third or fourth storyline.
The Inspiration for the Show
To understand Gates’ inspiration for the work he does on the show, it would be helpful to know a bit about him. He developed an interest in ancestry and genealogy when he was nine, the day after his grandfather’s funeral.
His father showed him his father’s scrapbooks and in one was an obituary of his great-great-great-grandmother Jane Gates who died January 6, 1888. The obituary read: “Jane Gates: An Estimable Colored Woman.”
He Learned About His Family
He learned that she had been a slave, and his grandfather never wanted the family to forget about her. Not knowing what estimable meant, he looked up the meaning that same night. And he said, “Wow, she’s estimable! I must be estimable too!”
He then asked his father to buy a composition book for him to interview his father and mother about his family tree.
And one night, an idea came to him.
One Night, It Came to Him
Young Henry Louis Gates, Jr. felt a real urge to know about his family tree so he could find out how he was related to this “estimable” woman.
Then in 2007, a black geneticist wrote to him saying they can test his DNA, and he was for it. Around that time, Gates recalls that he got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and that’s when he came up with an idea, at 57 years old, for Finding Your Roots.
Gates’ Advice for Finding Your Own Roots
If you’re interested in finding your own lineage, Gates has some advice for you. For one, you need to ask for advice. As he said, “you need a guidance counselor or the local minister or someone who’s been where you want to go.”
“You need to ask many people. Many people are too anxious or too afraid to ask a question. They think it makes them appear weak. And I always tell my students that the most important thing is being able to ask the right questions and finding somebody who can answer them.”
Steps For Finding Your Family Tree
There are things you can do once you decide to go down the path of learning your family’s lineage. To begin, you need to get organized.
You’re going to be talking to relatives and asking questions, which means you’re going to be getting a lot of information. There are online free and fee-based genealogical databases, like Ancestry.com.
Treasure Hunt at Home
You should start by focusing your hunt in the attic, basement, and drawers with photos, documents, and personal stuff. Any items you find with dates are very helpful.
Look for old pictures, military records, diplomas, report cards, diaries, postcards, and letters.
Talk to Your Elders
“Your older relatives are living libraries,” says Megan Smolenyak, a genealogy expert. “The family histories stored in their brains can save you so much trouble down the road.”
You may have heard tidbits of stories throughout your life, but it’s another thing to sit down and take the time to interview your elders and record it all. Ask questions about every family member you can think of.
FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and Archives.com are all popular sites. Many libraries also offer free access to lots of information.
Smolenyak suggests starting with the Mormon Church’s free, nonprofit FamilySearch. It’s the world’s largest genealogical organization. “They have been collecting records from around the world for about 100 years and are digitizing their collection at a pace of tens of millions of records a week.”
Get a DNA Test
Today, there are cutting-edge DNA ancestry testing kits that determine your deep ancestry.
When looking for a DNA testing service, choose one with a large database of people tested, as well as free DNA sample storage in case you want to later order a different test.
Manage Your Expectations and Keep Going
TV shows like Finding Your Roots may make it seem like everyone has famous relatives. But that’s not always the case. So keep in mind that you may not have a famous ancestor, but you will learn about who they were and that’s deeply meaningful.
There may come a point in your journey where you chose to travel to the place where your ancestors came from and that will definitely by a rewarding moment after all your hard work.