You're in the right place. With essential advice from expert genealogists, our beginner's guide is the best way to sow the seeds of your research and watch your family tree grow.
As Carrie Bradshaw in the hugely popular Sex and The City, Sarah Jessica Parker is a woman who lives for today. In real life, the family orientated actress longs to find out more about her hidden roots.
GROWING UP in mid-Western Ohio as one of eight children, Sarah felt like an immigrant in America, with her family’s immediate German and Jewish roots the most prominent evidence of her ancestry. “I categorise us under 'mutt'... a little bit of this, a little bit of that," she remarks jovially at the start of the film. Sarah admits to wishing for a connection with the Mayflower but jokingly dismisses the notion – as she puts it, “We’re just not that extraordinary!".
With low expectation of her family’s past, Sarah visits her mother for a starting point on her maternal ancestry. Her mother was raised in a German community in Cincinnati and believes the family to be “German on all sides”. However, with the discovery of a great-grandfather with the decidedly English sounding family name Hodge, the actress’s Germanic ancestry is thrown into question.
Going for gold
Armed with this new information, the actress makes a return to her hometown of Cincinnati where she visits a genealogist who reveals Hodge to be a very old New England name with a early colonial pedigree.
After working through death certificates to piece together her family tree in Cincinnati, Sarah discovers the obituary of her 3x great grandfather John Eber Hodge. Interestingly, the article tells of the death of John’s father John S Hodge in 1849 as he was travelling to California. Could Sarah'\s ancestors have been part of the 1849 Gold Rush?
Events take an unexpected turn when the 1850 Californian Census reveals John S Hodge to be alive in California a year after his supposed death. An Article of Agreement from 1849 shows John Hodge to have joined a company of men heading to California to find gold.
“That is un-bel-ievable!," Sarah exclaims. “I have a relative who is a dreamer.” Yet more evidence of John’s 23,000 mile journey are un-earthed using the California Wagon Train List, which provides a more precise chronology of his journey to the rocky foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
First Generation American?
Keen to turn her attention back to the Hodge’s of New England, Sarah heads to the East coast and the New England Historic Genealogy Society, where genealogist Josh Taylor is on hand to help.
It emerges that John S Hodge’s father, Eber, had been born in Connecticut. Using Eber’s mother's maiden name, Elwell, Sarah successfully traces Abigail’s line to her father Jabez, through three generations of Samuel Elwells back to English immigrant, Robert Elwell – the first Elwell in America.
Finding that Robert’s son Samuel was born in 1635 (just 15 years after the Mayflower landed) the actress is confronted with a revelation she had only dared dream of – that her family were first generation settlers in America.
By the late 17th century Samuel was married to Esther Elwell and living in Essex County, the setting for one of the darkest events in American history – The Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Sarah is fearful of what she might uncover – were her ancestors involved in the trials? “I can’t say how shocked I am with the turn this story has taken”, she exclaims.
To uncover whether her family had any involvement in the witch trials, Sarah searches through the original court records. She spots the name Esther Elwell beside the word ‘warrant’ – but was she the accused or accuser?
The full picture is revealed with a copy of the Warrant for Arrest of Esther Elwell, suspected of using witchcraft on her neighbour Mary Fitch that caused her death. Upon uncovering the original deposition relating to the case, Sarah is shocked at just how flimsy the prosecutions case was: the mains accusation came from a young girl who claimed she saw Esther’s spectre strangling the said Mary Fitch.
Shocked, Sarah’s thoughts turn to the fate of her unfortunate relative: “I find this physically upsetting...its horrible,” she says.
Following the paper trail to its tangible source she travels to Salem where she discovers that with what seems like impossible luck, Esther had escaped being tried for witchcraft thanks to the date on the warrant of her arrest – 8 November 1692. The court that had been set up to try witches was dissolved in the October of that year, meaning that Esther's case never went to court and she escaped a tragic death by a matter of days.
As the actress muses over all she has seen and discovered about her ancestors she explains how the experience was more than she ever expected, “It’s changed everything about who I thought I was, everything”, adding, “I went into this thinking I wasn’t connected to anything historical. I was terribly, thrillingly wrong”. Lisa Herdman