Experiences and Case Studies

Who Do You Think You Are?

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Scott Foley

The Key to New England

New England is a place with beautiful fall colors and a rich history of early immigrant settlements, struggles to survive under harsh conditions, religious growth and strife, military conflicts and witchcraft. Scott Foley’s ancestors faced all of these conditions.

            As Scott Foley experienced, learning about the civil, social, and economic conditions of this part of the United States is a necessary part of seeking and understanding your New England family heritage. A vital part of the building of Scott’s Wardwell ancestral line involved using Andover Town records. In Massachusetts, each town is its own civil unit, so family births, marriages, and deaths are located in the town vital records rather than county records. Examining town records in each town lying within the county boundaries was an arduous task until records for more than 200 towns were published in the series “Early Vital Records of Massachusetts, from 1600 to 1850” by the Massachusetts Vital Records Project. Included in the publications were the town records, church records and gravestones, newspapers, and even some private collections.

Andover Marriages

As with any publication or transcription, there is room for errors; however, this can often be remedied by obtaining a copy of the original documents. In the case of many town records in Massachusetts, though, the original records do not exist. What appears to be the original handwritten document is in fact a handwritten copy of the original made by a town clerk. As town records deteriorated over time, the town clerk’s method of preservation in the 1700 and 1800s was to copy by hand the old deteriorating record, again opening the door to human error.

Marriage of Samuel Wardle [Wardwell]            Birth of Samuel Wardwell 

  [a clerk’s copy]                                                   [clerk’s copy]       


It is not possible to determine which of the handwritten documents is closest to the original without examining the paper and bindings of the volume. This would require an expert going to where the volume is housed. Since it’s not always possible to determine which copy is an original, the most valuable document for a genealogist is the one that provides the most information.

What can a researcher do in this situation? Using the Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, database on Ancestry lets a researcher examine images of multiple records for the same person. It is important to look at all of the different copies because some may contain more information than others. For example, one marriage record may provide the name of the bride and groom, another image the bride and groom with their father’s names, and a third image the names of both parents. When using New England town records, keep looking until you find a document that states the mother/wife’s maiden name. If the maiden names are not stated, look for additional documents, such as estate records, to clarify family relationships. Comparing all the available records can help you find the answers about your own ancestors.


Learn more about Scott's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.



Research Manager on Project:

Cheryl Coats

Project Hours:


Cheryl began genealogical research on her own family in 1974. The first ancestral line she researched was in Sweden and she was able to trace her family back into the 1600s. With this success, she was hooked.

Her interest in genealogy inspired her to pursue her degree in history and start her own genealogical research company while working as a Director/Creator for the Waldo County Archive. Cheryl helped with the Antigonish Diocese Catholic register indexing for Nova Scotia. While research in Maritime Canada, Ireland and Scotland is her focus, she enjoys helping descendants of the orphans shipped to Canada and Australia connect with their families in the U.K. Cheryl also enjoys genealogical research in all parts of the United States and Canada. She led the research for several episodes of "Who Do You Think You Are?" since 2014 to the present.