Season 8, Episode 3

Allison Janney

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Allison Janney traces her family’s deep American roots to one of the earliest settlements in the nation—Jamestown.

Award-winning stage, film, and television actress Allison Janney grew up close to her free-spirited, rebellious maternal grandmother “Sippy,” who died of a heart attack on an annual trip to Bermuda in 1978. Allison regrets that she doesn’t know much about her favorite relative’s lineage, but thinks she may have deep American roots.

She meets with Joseph Shumway, a genealogist at Ancestry®, who has been digging into Allison’s maternal family tree. Working her way through the tree, Allison marvels at how far back it goes—and how deep her roots run in Massachusetts. She sees that both Constance Hopkins, her 10th great-grandmother, and Stephen Hopkins, her 11th great-grandfather, were born in England—but died in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s. The fact that Constance and her father Stephen are living in Massachusetts in the 1600s means that they were among the very first English settlers to make the journey to the burgeoning British colonies in North America.

The Jamestown Experiment


The Jamestown Experiment

After a long voyage across the Atlantic and two devastating winters that left only 60 of the original 500 colonists alive, the English colony of Jamestown struggled to become a permanent settlement in North America.

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Allison’s ancestors can be traced back to the Mayflower—see what it took to connect and verify the generations between then and now.

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A document attached to Stephen Hopkins’ entry reveals that he attempted to come to America in 1609, but was shipwrecked. The boat crashed off the coast of Bermuda, the very place where Allison’s beloved Grandma Sippy had died. Allison heads off to Bermuda to learn more about the disaster, and how her 11th great-grandfather eventually made it to America.

In Bermuda, Allison discovers that Stephen Hopkins was aboard a ship that was part of a fleet traveling to one of the earliest American settlements called Jamestown. The vessel was caught up in a harrowing storm, veered nearly 800 kilometers off course, began to sink, and ended up wrecked on the shores of Bermuda, which was uninhabited at the time. A first-hand account of the event reveals that after the shipwrecked men had narrowly escaped death, they realized that they were presumed dead and no one was coming to save them. Sir Thomas Gates, who had been appointed governor of Jamestown but was now wrecked on Bermuda with everyone else, took charge. Gates directed the survivors to strip everything useful from the shipwreck in order to build two small ships to transport them all to their intended destination: America. However, many of the men had heard that the Jamestown colony was a disaster and began to re-think whether they wanted to leave Bermuda. Hopkins rebelled against Gates, defying the man’s authority on land that was not America. Accused of trying to cause mutiny, Hopkins was arrested and sentenced to death. But he was very well-respected among his fellow seamen, who pleaded for his life to be spared, and succeeded. Stephen Hopkins escaped death for a second time in less than a year. Allison discovers that the men managed to build the two ships and embarked again on the high seas, heading once more to Jamestown, which they reached in just two weeks. Allison follows her ancestor’s trail to America.

Allison walks in the same footsteps as Hopkins in historic Jamestown, which commemorates life of the early settlers. There, she finds that before Hopkins arrived, life in Jamestown was anything but ideal. Nearly 500 men, many of whom did not know how to farm, were living in a very small area with limited provisions. What’s more, the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom - a confederacy of Algonquian-speaking Indigenous peoples who had been amicably sharing their land, food, and seeds with the English - began to lash out after the Englishmen began to abduct their people as slaves and steal their food. They also soon learned the English had no intent of giving the land back. The Powhatans forced the settlers to stay inside the Jamestown fort, leaving them to take care of themselves. Only 60 of nearly 500 men survived the famine that followed; but then Stephen Hopkins and the others from Bermuda arrived at Jamestown on May 23, 1610, bringing with them more settlers and provisions. This became known as “the Day of Providence.” On the brink of utter devastation, the settlement was revived when ample provisions arrived from abroad. Against all odds, the Jamestown settlement proved to be a success.



See if your ancestors can be traced all the way back to the original thirteen colonies.

See if your ancestors can be traced all the way back to the original thirteen colonies.

Knowing that her 11th great-grandfather ended up with his family in Massachusetts, Allison heads there to keep digging. She finds that Hopkins traveled back to England; but that his first wife, Mary, had died. He remarried to Elizabeth and set sail back to America, this time taking his family and servants with him. Incredibly, Stephen once again participated in a truly historic American event when they boarded the Mayflower. He even signed The Mayflower Compact, which is one of the earliest documents in American history that promotes self-governance. It was an early and remarkable attempt at democracy, which became a foundation of the United States. And Allison’s 11th great-grandfather was a part of it all.

Allison is humbled by and proud of her rebellious ancestor who repeatedly risked his life to benefit his family, and ended up enduring and participating in some of the most remarkable events in American history.