Family  /  Discovery

Shiny Object Ancestors: The Ones We Can’t Resist

Tracing the family history of some of today's most popular celebrities.

Accidental discovery

Learning something that makes you do a double take, as often as not, results from tripping across a random tidbit in a newspaper, and this is the equivalent of an engraved invitation to dig deeper. In the case of Katy Perry, for instance, I spotted an article about a gold heist in 1859 San Francisco that featured members of her family. That caused me to follow the trail of her Irish immigrant great-great-grandmother, Anna “Hannah” Maria Mulhare, and reach the conclusion that she’s probably the one who wound up with the haul.

Similarly, with Barry Manilow, I stumbled across a piece about one of his grandfathers, Harry Pincus, that revealed he was a strongman swimmer — that is, he did stunts where he swam long distances (usually a mile or two) and used a rope in his teeth to pull up to five rowboats with men in them. Sometimes he even did this with his arms tied behind his back. This alone would have been sufficient to lure me, but then I found a prison record for him and had to know more.

Pocket of history I want to know more about

If you’re like me, there are slices of history you have a passing knowledge of — maybe you studied them briefly in high school — but you never truly wrapped your head around them. Every once in a while, I’m fortunate enough to be able to address one of these gaps thanks to a beckoning ancestor.

Ambrose Hawkins, a 3rd great-grandfather of Pharrell Williams, is one such person. I was aware of the American Colonization Society and its efforts in the first half of the nineteenth century to send free people of color to Africa (which they referred to as “repatriation” in spite of the fact that most descended from families that had been in America for generations), but Pharrell’s antecedent left an intriguing paper trail and it wasn’t until I investigated his involvement that I gained a better understanding.

David and Sophie Towns, a pair of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 5th great-grandparents, were kind enough to take me on an extended ride to learn not only what it was like to be an interracial couple in the early 1800s, but also about the chaotic early days of Texas and the role that slavery played in the revolution that gained its independence from Mexico.