Julia Roberts was stunned to discover that she’s not actually a “Roberts” after looking into her family’s history and learning about her great-great grandmother’s, Rhoda Suttle Roberts, previous relationships.
The 55-year-old actor had her mother and father’s family tree examined using DNA analysis and genealogical detective work in a recent episode of the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots. While exploring the family history of her father, Walter Grady Roberts, Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr discussed her great grandfather, John Roberts, who grew up on a farm with his mother, Rhoda Suttle.
After Julia noted that she’d never heard of this woman’s name before, Gates showed her the 1880 census for Dougal County, Georgia, where Rhoda was living with John and his three brothers. After pointing out that the father of these four children wasn’t listed, Gates then revealed that Julia’s great grandfather was not the son of Rhoda’s husband, Willis Roberts.
“Digging into Georgia’s County archives, we discovered that sometime in the 1850s, Rhoda married a man named Willis Roberts,” Gates said. “Julia carries Willis’ last name. But Willis passed away in 1864, over a decade before Rhoda gave birth to Julia’s great grandfather, John, leading to an inescapable conclusion.”
He then told Julia that “Willis Roberts could not possibly be [her] great-great grandfather” because he “was dead,” prompting the Pretty Woman star to ask: ‘But am I not a Roberts?”
Gates went on to showcase his discovery and said that after “looking for any record named John’s father,” they “found absolutely nothing”. However, the professor and his team still had another way to find him. They looked at DNA samples that were extracted from Julia and one of her father’s first cousins.
From there, Gates said that he and his team compared those results to “publicly available databases” before finding a match for who Julia’s great-great grandfather could be.
“We found a cluster of matches that tie Julia and her cousin to one man,” Gates said, before Julia read the name: “Henry McDonald Mitchell Jr.”
After the Ticket to Paradise star asked: “So, we’re Mitchells?,” Gates responded: “You’re Julia Mitchell. You are not a Roberts, biologically.”
As she laughed at the news, she also expressed her shock over it, saying: “Wow. That is crazy. I bet nobody knew.” Gates claimed that “everybody near that farm knew,” since Suttle’s husband “wasn’t there” and she was “still having babies”.
“Wow. Is my head on straight still?” Julia replied. “Am I facing you?”
Gates noted that while there’s no way to know why Rhoda kept the identity of John’s father a secret, data has shown what the reason might be. After looking at the census, the doctor said that when John was two, Henry Mitchell was living with his wife, a woman named Sarah, and their six children.
He also noted that Mitchell only lived “a few miles” away from Rhoda. Mitchell’s “widow mother,” Elizabeth Mitchell, also “lived just four households from” Rhoda, according to the census.
Regarding how she felt after seeing all this information, Julia said: “On the one hand, truly, my mind is blown and it is fascinating. On the other hand, there’s, you know, a part of me that is calmer. [I] can still wrap my arms around the idea that my family is my family.”
After noting that she still “prefers the name Roberts,” the Notting Hill star emphasised that learning this story about her family “was a very unexpected turn”.