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History professor helps well-known actor trace his roots

sheen_t.jpgBOONE—An actor’s quest to learn about his ancestors took him to La Coruña, a port city in northern Spain, where Dr. Edward Behrend-Martinez’s expertise in Spanish trials helped provide the dramatic conclusion in the television program “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Spain port La Coruña, Spain.jpgEdward Behrend-Martinez spent four days in the northern port city of La Coruña, Spain, as part of his appearance on the television program “Who Do You Think You Are?” The program traces the ancestral history of celebrities. (Photo courtesy of Edward Behrend-Martinez)

Martin Sheen and Edward Behrend-Martinez_t2.jpg
Actor Martin Sheen’s quest to learn about his ancestors took him to the regional archives in La Coruña, Spain, where he learned about his Spanish relatives thanks to assistance from Edward Behrend-Martinez, an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University. (Photo courtesy of Edward Behrend-Martinez)

spanish court document.jpg This photograph of a legal document from a 16th-century court proceeding in Spain is an example of the type of documents Dr. Edward Behrend-Martinez studies for his research of family and marriage trials from 17th and 18th century Spain. The hardest part of his research is becoming comfortable reading the handwriting of court notaries and lawyers, he said. Behrend-Martinez is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University. (Photo courtesy of Edward Behrend-Martinez)

regional archives in La Coruña, Spain.jpgCourt records found in the regional archives in La Coruña, Spain provided invaluable insight regarding Martin Sheen’s Spanish lineage. (Photo courtesy of Edward Behrend -Martinez)

Behrend-Martinez is an associate professor and assistant chair in Appalachian State University’s Department of History.

The series follows celebrities – from sport figures and actors to musicians – who visit archives, libraries and other sites as they trace their family tree as far as records allow, all with the help of historians. The season opener, which aired Feb. 3 and is available on the program’s website,, featured actor Martin Sheen who learns details about his Irish-Spanish heritage.

Behrend-Martinez had never watched the television program before being called by producers to provide historic insight regarding a trial that Sheen’s great-great-great-great-grandfather presided over.

“This is the kind of history that I do,” Behrend-Martinez said. His research focuses on the everyday lives of early modern Spain, Basques and Spaniards, such as marriage and family trials. He also has published the book “Unfit for Marriage: Impotent Husbands and Wives on Trial in the Basque Region of Spain 1650-1750.”

In addition to receiving a five-page contract, which strictly enforced pre-show confidentiality, Behrend-Martinez received a photo copy of court documents from an 18th-century trial in which a young woman was accused of having an abortion – a secular and ecclesiastical crime in Spain.

“The Spaniards had a long history of being detailed court record takers. It was a culture of transcribing testimonies and keeping records,” Behrend-Martinez said. That’s one of the great things about working in Spanish history. They were such great record takers. They had a great culture of writing everything down.”

Behrend-Martinez said the hardest thing about working with 17th- and 18th-century court documents is the handwriting. “It’s basically chicken scratch,” he said. “You have to get really used to reading that kind of handwriting. That’s the biggest difficulty more than the language. The language of the courts was pretty straight forward.”

Behrend-Martinez spent about two and a half hours with Sheen, which eventually was edited to about a 12-minute segment. He read the trial documents, which he had translated into English, and put them in historical context for Sheen.  “They really wanted to get his reaction to the information in the documents,” Behrend-Martinez said.

While the producers were interested in a dramatic reaction, Behrend-Martinez was a bit more sensitive.

“Up until this point, everyone I have ever studied was dead and I didn’t have to worry about the reactions of people I discussed. While I didn’t pull punches or change the story, these were Martin Sheen’s ancestors and I wasn’t going to say whatever I wanted about these people,” Behrend-Martinez said. “I never had to worry about that before.”

Viewers of the program learned of the surprise connection between Sheen, his great-great-great-great-grandfather, and the young woman, which won’t be revealed for those who may choose to watch the program online.