Researching Emmitt Smith's family tree with Ancestry.com and Wall to Wall Productions was an incredible journey! There were many compelling and exciting stories uncovered and it has been a thrill to watch some of these stories come to life in the second episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?"
While researching Emmitt’s family tree, our talented team of professionals canvassed rolls of microfilm, examined online records and carefully analyzed the data each contained regarding Emmitt’s ancestors.
One of our main goals was to find documentation about some of Emmitt’s enslaved ancestors prior to Emancipation. Typically when working with African American family history this is not an easy thing to accomplish. However, the many hours of research paid off when documents were found that told the story of the Puryear family of southern Alabama. This story is featured in the episode.
Emmitt's great-great-great grandfather, Prince Albert Puryear, was born into slavery in Monroe County, Alabama in 1845. In searching the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, we discovered that Prince Puryear was living next to two other Puryear men named Thomas and Henry. Thomas and Henry were the right ages to have Prince’s brothers. Also, living in Thomas’s household was an older woman named Mariah who was born in Virginia. We asked the question “Are these three men brothers, and is Mariah their mother?” To find answers, we next wanted to identify the Puryears former slave owners. Further studies of census records showed that Emmitt's Puryear ancestors lived near a white Puryear family. Although not all emancipated slaves took the surname of their most recent owner, we developed the theory that Emmitt's ancestors may have been owned by this Puryear family and set out to either prove or disprove that theory.
Through a very time-consuming and intense study of tax lists, probate records, deeds, census and vital records, we were eventually successful in showing that our theories regarding Mariah Puryear and her children were indeed correct. An exciting discovery was made in the estate inventory of a woman named Mary F. Puryear regarding Emmitt's ancestors. Here, a listing of Mary's slaves were provided and listed the following: "Mariah and her children Henry, Mary, McTom, Victoria and Prince Albert." This document proved that Prince’s mother was Mariah and that Henry and Tom (McTom) were his brothers. The ancestors had successfully been documented as slaves of Mary Puryear and her deceased husband, Alexander B. Puryear!
Further research revealed that Alexander B. Puryear and his brother Richard were slave traders who were originally from Mecklenburg County, Virginia. In studying the deeds, tax lists and probate files for this county, another exciting discovery was made in an 1826 deed wherein Emmitt's ancestor, Mariah Puryear, was again listed as a young girl originally belonging to Alexander's father Samuel Puryear! In the episode, this deed was shown at the Mecklenburg County courthouse. Emmitt was particularly moved by the coincidental fact that it came from Volume 22—Emmitt’s former football jersey number was 22! Mariah would have been around 11 years old at the time, and because of this record, it was now possible to show a clear trail of this ancestor, Mariah, being brought by her owners from Mecklenburg County, Virginia to Monroe County, Alabama.
Tracing African American ancestors prior to the Civil War is a difficult task. Unfortunately, in many instances there were not sufficient records kept about slave ancestors that can allow genealogists to find the kinds of information that we found about the Puryear family. However, at the same time, there are still many instances where surviving records can be used to document an ancestor's former slave owner and possibly even trace the line back another generation or two prior to emancipation. In rare instances, it has even been possible to find enough clues linking an African American family back far enough to the ancestor who was originally brought from Africa! This, of course, is a best-case scenario and usually requires dozens of hours of intense and difficult research.
Emmitt's family tree is filled of stories that capture the essence of African American history in the South. They help to tell the legacy of strong and noble men and woman who bore the hardship of slavery and who were eventually able to find their dream of freedom. Many Americans have family trees filled with stories similar to Emmitt's and his episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” will certainly help anyone feel closer to their ancestors and no doubt want to know more about their own stories!
Megan Smolenyak, the DNA Expert on this episode of "Who Do You Think You Are" arranged for testing from three DNA companies. She, like most researchers, wanted as much data to crunch as possible. It was primarily Emmitt Smith's autosomal (sometimes referred to as "admixture" testing) that is focused upon in the episode. Notice that Megan used words like "roughly" and "about," because the figures she gave were estimates - give or take a few percentage points.
Autosomal DNA helps give an individual an overall snapshot of their ancestral origins. Our cells contain 46 packages of DNA called "chromosomes." Chromosomes come in pairs; 22 of those pairs are called "autosomes," and the 23rd pair determines your gender. Your autosomes are composed of random combinations of your ancestor's autosomes. So, you inherit your autosomes from your ancestors ... ALL branches of your ancestry contribute a piece to your autosomal DNA. That way, when autosomal DNA is tested, you're getting statistics (albeit with some small percentage margin of error) about where your ancestors originated.