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Angie Harmon and Sean Sculley of West Point discuss Revolutionary War ancestor in the State Archives tower. TLC

Angie Harmon and Sean Sculley of West Point discuss her Revolutionary War ancestor in the State Archives tower. TLC

Archivist Aaron McWilliams smiles and shifts his gaze toward the floor when asked about his brush with TV stardom. Every so often, a patron visiting the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, where he works, will ask him what it was like to appear alongside veteran Hollywood actor Steve Buscemi on a 2011 episode of Who Do You Think You Are? a reality series in which celebrities trace their genealogies.

It was a little scary to be on TV,” said McWilliams, “I was very nervous. The nervous part wasn’t necessarily sitting with a celebrity but trying to present archival records as accurately as possible.”

Since 2011 three celebrities have visited the Pennsylvania State Archives along with producers and crew from Who Do You Think You Are? The series ran on NBC for its first three seasons before it was picked up by TLC, which has since aired six more seasons. On the show, celebrities take journeys to various sites to fill in the missing pieces of their family trees. Often, they find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with archivists poring over old documents in hopes of learning more about their family and themselves.

Buscemi, the Brooklyn-born actor and director known for his roles in Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and The Sopranos, was the first celebrity on the show to explore the State Archives. In 2010 producers of the series reached out to the archives requesting a search of the Northumberland County tax assessment records. At the time, McWilliams had no idea that the records were for Buscemi. “We did the work and sent what we found to the producers,” McWilliams said. “They were trying to track an individual who was in Northumberland County. They were trying to create a timeline. Tax records are great for creating timelines because those records are generated annually.”

Archivist Aaron McWilliams.

Archivist Aaron McWilliams.
PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Over the next few months, the show’s producers were in regular contact with McWilliams, inquiring about additional records and the possibility of filming an episode in Harrisburg. Eventually, the producers settled on the State Archives as one of the stops Buscemi would make in his journey researching the life of his great-great-grandfather, Ralph Montgomery.

In the episode, McWilliams helps Buscemi interpret the Northumberland County tax records and the 1860 U.S. Census Bureau population schedule. They discover that Montgomery had worked as a dentist and later made a living as a grocer. In another scene along the Susquehanna River, Buscemi reads from a document found by McWilliams that reveals more information about the actor’s ancestor and propels him to other destinations outside of Pennsylvania. “There were scenes that never made it into the episode,” McWilliams said. “And what did appear might have been the result of multiple takes. The producers would say, ‘Why don’t you show a little bit more emotion?’ or ‘Can you explain that a little differently?’”

In the days and weeks following the airing of the episode on NBC in March 2011, McWilliams was often spotted by patrons at the State Archives who queried him about his appearance on the show, which often launched further questions about genealogy. “I think the episode did bring more people into the archives,” McWilliams said. “I certainly think the episode did have a positive impact on making the public more aware of the State Archives and which records we preserve.”

A few years later, McWilliams found himself again fielding research requests from Who Do You Think You Are? Before long, he learned that another celebrity would be doing family research at the archives on camera. In October 2014 Angie Harmon, star of the TV shows Law & Order and Rizzoli & Isles, arrived at the archives with a production crew to search for information on her fifth-great-grandfather, Michael Harmon, who came to Pennsylvania as an indentured servant and later served at Valley Forge with the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. At the State Archives she learned that her ancestor had been involved in the regiment’s mutiny against Gen. Anthony Wayne for back pay and better living conditions. Discharged, the soldiers were given the choice to leave the service or re-enlist; Harmon chose to leave.

Although McWilliams did not appear on camera during the show, his research into Harmon’s ancestor was discussed in detail with Harmon by West Point history professor Sean Sculley. After the episode aired on TLC in March 2015, there was a noticeable upswing at the archives of patrons interested in researching material related to the American Revolution.


Katey Sagal reviews documents in the State Archives relating to her Amish ancestry with Philip Otterness of Warren Wilson College. TLC

Katey Sagal reviews documents in the State Archives relating to her Amish ancestry with Philip Otterness of Warren Wilson College. TLC

Katey Sagal, famous for playing Peggy Bundy on Married . . . with Children and Gemma Teller Morrow on Sons of Anarchy, is the most recent celebrity to visit the State Archives for an episode of the reality show. The actress spent an afternoon at the archives in January 2016 with Philip Otterness, a history professor from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, studying ship lists of German passengers, 1727–1808. The list, preserved by the archives and interpreted by McWilliams, shows that Sagal’s seventh-great-grandfather and Amish ancestor, Jacob Hochstetler, was listed among the men who arrived at the Port of Philadelphia aboard the ship the Charming Nancy on November 9, 1738, making him the first of Sagal’s relatives to arrive in America from Europe.

“There’s little doubt that the show brought the State Archives more publicity,” McWilliams said. “Our name is certainly out there more. It’s helped the archives reach a larger audience.”

Sean Adkins is digital director for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.