Vanessa Williams on "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Natalie Cottrill

Researching Vanessa Williams's ancestry was a richly rewarding experience for all those involved, including and ShedMediaUs. She has, in her ancestry, multi-racial roots, free African Americans, enslaved African Americans, and Caucasian roots. The stories in her tree are as compelling and beautiful as she. We could not cover in the television production all of the stories uncovered during research, but it has been a thrilling experience to watch the two stories we focused upon be recreated in the premier episode, second season, of "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Vanessa Williams learned about two of her great-great-grandfathers, David Carll and William A. Fields. David Carll was born a free African-American in Oyster Bay, New York and William A. Fields was born a slave in Fisherville, Tennessee. Their grandchildren, Milton Williams and Iris Carll, met in New York and married there, in Nassau County , in the 1930s.

Regrettably, it isn't possible to highlight all the nuances of research in a 42 minute presentation; all long-time genealogists could tell that there were hours of research that could not be presented on the show. However, the most pivotal records from research were actually shown in the episode.

David Carll

There were many hours spent researching and documenting the Carll ancestry from Vanessa Williams up to her great-great-grandfather, David Carll. David Carll (1842-1910) served in the Civil War for the Union Army. Vanessa Williams learned about his service after visiting his tombstone in the same cemetery in which her father was buried. Researchers found additional clues about David Carll's Civil War service and the pension he drew from it from's Civil War Pension Index.

In fact, it was David Carll's Civil War pension file that led to that amazing tin-type photograph (see left) for David Carll! Photographs in Civil War pension files are extremely rare finds. Still, some Civil War pension files have 2-6 inches or more of documents about the soldier and his family, including:  bible records, marriage, birth, and death records, medical records, and affidavits about the soldier's service reported by friends, relatives, and fellow soldiers. Original Civil War pension files for Union soldiers are kept at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. But, keep checking's excellent Civil War Collection because they are working steadily to get the Civil War Pension Records scanned an online.

Enlistment records, like those kept by town clerks in the New England states (and New York, examples here), will frequently have detailed information for a Civil War soldier. If you'll look closely during the televised portion of the show where Vanessa Williams visits the Oyster Bay town clerk, you'll see her pointing to a document that says "in the Military Service," at the top. This is the town clerk's record of David Carll's enlistment. Note that in the image to the right, Vanessa Williams's finger is pointing to the column that says "Names of Parents and Previous Occupation," and his parents are "Lewis Carll and Catharine Carll." Finding the names of the soldier's parents is a incredibly awesome find for anyone continuing research beyond the Civil War soldier!

Whenever you have an ancestor born between 1820 and 1845, it is a good idea to search for Civil War service. You can read more about the importance of military records in our Military Records for Genealogy Research article

Who Was Milton Williams's Mother?

In her quest to learn more about her grandfather, Vanessa traveled to visit her Uncle Earl W. Williams. This is an excellent genealogical tool; that is, to start your genealogy research by asking older family members to tell stories about your grandparents.  Her Uncle Earl told Vanessa that Milton Williams was born about 1911 in Memphis, Tennessee. Unfortunately, he was orphaned as a youngster. First, by his birth mother at age 2 and second, by his father at about age 11. This was a tragic time for Milton Williams, so he didn't share what he knew about his family once he left Tennessee and moved to New York. Uncle Earl knew that Milton's father was named John Hill Williams and that he was a barber.

Even with this much family knowledge about Milton Williams's origins, it was quite an involved research process to find and document the right John Williams with a son named Milton. After some careful research, it was a delight to finally find the same John Williams, with his first wife, Mary, in the 1910 census. There were over 700 John Williamses in Tennessee in 1910 and several of them were barbers! In the 1910 census (left image), John Hill Williams was listed as "H. John Williams." His wife, Mary Williams, was 34 years old and born in Tennessee. Both of her parents were born in Tennessee, too. She had two children and of those two, Arthur Williams was a known brother. (Recall that Milton Williams wasn't born until 1912, so he would not be in the 1910 census.) We were sure we had the correct family.

Vanessa's uncle, Earl Williams said that Milton's mother had died when Milton (born 1912) was about two years old. So, we searched Memphis area death records for Mary Williams about 1914. Once we found her death record, it gave an exact date of death so we could search newspapers for her obituary. Obituaries are excellent sources of genealogical information beginning in the late 19th century and continuing on to today. Mary's obituary record offered the names of her parents - William and Elizabeth Fields, as well as the names of her siblings. This information solidified all the time-intensive research we put into discovering Mary's maiden name. It took considerable work to find her and ascertain her maiden name. Finding our female ancestors' maiden names and parentage is frequently much more difficult that finding those of our male ancestors. So, when you have a female ancestor who died after 1870, we highly recommend checking local newspapers for an obituary or other death notice for her.

Finding Mary (Fields) Williams was the original goal of our research ... to help Vanessa Williams and her family learn the name of Milton Williams's birth mother and help solve that long-time family mystery. However, imagine our surprise and good fortune to find that Mary (Fields) Williams was the daughter of a school teacher, Justice of the Peace, and legistlator for Shelby County, Tennessee - William A. Fields. His story was absolutely amazing and I feel as if it were quite well documented in the television production. Vanessa Williams is fortunate to have had two ancestors who were prominent in their communities and obtain photos for both of them!


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I just received the [research] packet. It's awesome! I spent about an hour last night reviewing it and it will certainly take me some time to absorb. I am overwhelmed with the amount of detail you provided. - Larry H.


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