Cynthia Nixon , Who Do You Think You Are?

Bear with me for a minute.  My brother is a fan of American Ninja Warrior, an imported Japanese game show in which extremely fit people sate their masochism by attempting (and failing) to conquer a ridiculously difficult obstacle course.  My brother complained that he preferred the Japanese version because the American version spends too much time on story and pathos of the competitors.  This is an opinion I share, but I have voiced similar complaints about the Olympics.  The focus on back story seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, and I often wonder who determines it, the audiences or the networks.  Do they show us the human interest story because we want it, or are we subjected to it because they determine that is what we want to see?

I often feel this way about Who Do You Think You Are.  In order to ensure pathos, authenticity is often needlessly sacrificed.  At its best, WDYTYA follows where the evidence leads.  Take, for example, the episodes in which Christina Applegate and Rita Wilson researched their grandmother and father respectively.  They had no preset agenda other than to learn.  Those are examples of how finely crafted WDYTYA can be.  Each climaxed in terrifically, aching moving resolutions without rewriting the historical record.

The flip side of this is that more often than not, WDYTYA does not let the evidence lead, but rather makes it subservient to a prefabricated story.   Celebrity of the Week knows nothing about his or her family but hopes to find something in particular–usually someone who share a trait that Celebrity sees in him/herself.  Celebrity is then led to a particular ancestor and does his/her damnedest to find that trait in said ancestor.   Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not.  At its worst, WDYTYA becomes a show about personal vindication of the present rather than an exploration of history.


Cynthia Nixon is now the third of the four Sex and City stars to have appeared on the show.  Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode and especially Kim Cattrall’s, it was a worthwhile watch (your story better be good, Kristin Davis).  Also like her costars, Nixon learns about an ancestor with a less than stellar reputation.  Whereas Parker’s ancestress was an accused witch in colonial Massachusetts and Cattrall’s maternal grandfather was a bigamist reprobate, Nixon’s 3rd great-grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, was a convicted killer.

(Side note: Cynthia Nixon is a fantastic actress, and I admire her desire to be outspoken on issues like marriage equality.  I think Nixon may even be the first LGBT celebrity who activism and same-sex spouse have actually been mentioned on the show.  Who knew that the gay agenda spread to genealogy?)

Nixon’s parents (both deceased) divorced when she was young, and as she was much closer to her mother, she chose to research her father’s family.  This is one of those moments where I wondered if “chose” is WDYTYA code for “the producers could not find an interesting story in her mother’s family.”

Even from the beginning, this episode showed signs of the producers’ heavy hand.  The family tree she received at the New York Historical Society has a big question mark next for the maiden name of Nixon’s 2nd great-grandmother Mary M. Nixon.  It’s like a flashing neon sign that screams, “This is where we are headed.”  As it turned out, Joseph Shumway, the genealogist who presented Nixon her family tree, also got Mary Nixon’s death certificate where we discover her birthplace (Missouri), and mother’s maiden name–Martha Curnutt.  Notably, Mary’s father’s name, and, thus presumably her own maiden name, was unknown.  Using a certain genealogical website that sponsors the show (first plug 5 minutes in), Nixon discovered that Martha Curnutt married Noah Casto in Missouri.

(Speaking of that certain genealogy website, my dear reader, do you use it?  And if so, are you aware of the outrage that has produced by closing down its services like MyCanvas and the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sites?  There is some real (and in my opinion, deserved) fury over the clumsy and unthinking way Ancestry botched the DNA closings.  Given that I have never used any of these services though, I am curious what other people think, especially those who have.  Does this also make you hesitate to try Ancestry’s autosomal test?)

Back to Martha.  Shumway shows Nixon the 1850 Census, the first to list family members instead of just heads of household.  Although there is no Martha Casto, there is a Martha Curnutt who has three children, Sarah (age 6), Noah (age 7), and Mary (age 10), Nixon’s ancestor.  All the children have the surname Curnutt, and Noah Casto is not in the picture.  Seven minutes in, we get our first commercial break and the promise of a shocking secret.

Noah Curnutt served and died in the Civil War.  Nixon went to Washington DC and found his pension record, which Martha, as his mother and therefore survivor, filled out.  The pension file stated that Noah the father died in 1842, when his daughter Mary was only two and his son Noah was not even born.  Which inevitably led to the question of who was Sarah’s father.

Long story short, Noah Casto’s death was not natural, and we find this out, first in a prosecution against Martha and then in a fantastically gossipy newspaper account which contained this description of Noah, “A man whose name our informant had forgotten.”  Martha killed him with an ax to the head while he slept and was found guilty only of manslaughter.  A perusal of a contemporary newspaper showed that Noah was a vile man who abused and possibly raped his wife and threatened to kill her the night she killed him.  This probably explains why she was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.  At the time, women were stripped of their rights and privileges once they were married, so even a divorce would not have protected Martha.   Murder, according to WDYTYA, was Martha’s only option, and the jury was sympathetic to an extent.  As it happened, she became only the second female prisoner in the history of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and was the lone female in a prison full of men.

As one would expect of any prison run by private corporations for profit, the prisoners were treated abominably, which was described in a book by a former inmate whose sentence was concurrent with Martha’s.  He wrote about Martha and described the abusive treatment the prison authorities dealt to her and to the child (Sarah) who was born while she was in prison.  Given the timing of Sarah’s birth, it appears that she was indeed not Noah’s daughter, but possibly that of a warden or guard who may have raped Martha.  In fact, Martha’s treatment was so horrible that the petition for her pardon was signed by many people, including prominent politicians.  Indeed, she was pardoned not even two years into her five-year sentence.  It was a pretty awful story, and I have no desire to trigger readers any more than I already may have by recapping it in full.  It certainly hit Nixon pretty hard, although I do wonder from time to time, given that many of these celebrities are actors, are these emotions genuine?  And if so, is it because of story of because of how draining the journey is?  It is one thing to react when a parent or grandparent is involved, but to get so emotional about a distant ancestor who you never knew existed until a few days before–that seems a little different.  Of course, this could also be a natural empathic reaction, and I could be a horrible cynic.

Regardless, the story was pretty powerful, so I will not fault Nixon for her emotion.  Where I believe she is on less solid footing is this supposition, typical of WDYTYA, that Martha helped usher in prison reform (specifically a separate prison for women and the recognition that they too commit crimes).  Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have opposed to such reforms.  Additionally, it is hard to see Martha as anything more than a passive figure in whatever prison reform movement may have occurred.  More likely, given the sparseness of the historical record, Martha wanted to move on with her life and get as far removed from that time as possible.

Using, a site Ancestry now owns but WDYTYA left unnamed, Nixon discovered Martha’s grave where she was buried with daughter Mary and son-in-law Samuel Nixon.  Nixon visited the graves and left flowers for Martha.  Then she spoke at length about Martha’s strength and she ran up against history and changed it.  Which, honestly seems quite a bit of a stretch, but these are definitely qualities that Cynthia Nixon has in spades.


Next week, WDYTYA continues its foray into the gay agenda with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons.

Misreading Windsor

Ever since the Supreme Court handed down United States v. Windsor last June, law professors and journalists have pondered over what it meant and criticized the majority’s perceived lack of clarity.  There are two major complaints: (1) ambiguous categorization; and (2) whether Windsor‘s holding relied on principles of federalism or Equal Protection.  

The complaint about ambiguous categorization in Windsor is a fair one.  When courts review laws that discriminate against a certain group, courts do so using a certain framework created by the Supreme Court to determine whether those laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.  In most instances, the government–the defending party in such cases is always a governmental body–is given the benefit of the doubt and the law is upheld.  This is called rational basis review.  But when it comes to certain categories of people, the so-called “suspect classes,” the standard the government needs to meet is much higher, and therefore those laws are generally deemed unconstitutional.  This is called “heightened scrutiny.”  The major categorizations for suspect classes are race, gender, and national origin.

Sexual orientation is not one of the suspect classes that I named.  Despite the outcomes in Windsor and its predecessor cases Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court never explicitly said whether sexual orientation is a suspect class.  The judiciary, federal and state, has taken all sorts of approaches absent Supreme Court guidance.  In recent months, some federal courts, most notably the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, have looked at Windsor and decided that even though the Supreme Court was not explicit, overall jurisprudence indicates that gays and lesbians are indeed a suspect class.  This is the rationale behind the gay juror case that I addressed in my last post.

As I said above, this continued explicit guidance is a fair criticism.  I do not particularly agree with it, because I think the Ninth Circuit read the tea leaves correctly.  Nevertheless, I can understand the frustration and acknowledge its validity.

The other complaint though, I do not understand at all.  It follows as such: the Windsor majority left the judiciary in limbo because the Court did not distinguish whether Windsor was a federalism decision (i.e. whether the federal government unconstitutionally encroached onto states’ rights) or an Equal Protection decision.  This is important because when state bans on same-sex marriage come before courts, those bans will probably fail under an Equal Protection framework but succeed under a federalism one.  On Slate, Dahlia Lithwick and David S. Cohen co-wrote a column suggesting that Windsor is an Equal Protection decision, not because the Supreme Court wrote it that way, but because subsequent state and federal judges have unanimously interpreted it as such.  By Lithwick and Cohen’s count 18 of 18 court decisions (and 32 of 32 judges) have all come to this conclusion.  That unanimity is essential to Lithwick and Cohen’s thesis.  They posit that judges could have interpreted Windsor as a federalism decision, but because they are universally choosing not to do so, eventually nation-wide marriage equality is inevitable.

I don’t disagree with Lithwick and Cohen’s conclusions; Windsor is indeed an Equal Protection decision, and marriage equality is inevitable.  Where I disagree with them–and all the other law professors and journalists who have spilled much ink on this subject–is this misconception that the Windsor majority was unclear.  Windsor is not an Equal Protection decision because subsequent federal judges read it as such; Windsor is an Equal Protection decision because Windsor is an Equal Protection decision.  This is not a tautology; the Court’s methodology is in the text, and it is not hidden.  The reason that 32 of 32 judges have decided the way they did is because they can read.

I believe that the bulk of the Windsor decision comes not from the majority opinion, but from the dissents.  There are two dissents of note in Windsor, one from Chief Justice John Roberts, and the other from Justice Antonin Scalia.  (There was another one from Justice Samuel Alito, which amounts to, “I’m scared of new things because I don’t understand them, and I don’t like them.”  As such this dissent has been forgotten.)  Scalia’s decision is the more famous of the two, because it was written by Justice Scalia.  When he dissents, he fulminates with puffed up, operatic rage.  In his Windsor dissent, Scalia rewrote the majority opinion to apply to state laws.  Perhaps he thought he was being cutting, but to date at least four federal judges who ruled in favor of equality have cited his dissent as a basis for their opinions–classic benchslap.

While Scalia’s opinion is the more significant dissent, Roberts’s opinion is the reason why everyone is confused.  The Roberts dissent tried to limit the scope of Windsor by painting the majority decision as a federalism decision.  Significantly, none of the other dissenting Justices signed on to the Roberts dissent.  Scalia mocked it.  So why have so many law professors, pundits, and journalists wondered whether Windsor is federalism opinion?  Perhaps it is because John Roberts is a very smart man.  Perhaps it is because no one wants to believe that the Chief Justice of the United States deliberately misinterpreted a judicial opinion in a way unworthy of the cheapest political hack.  Perhaps it is because they need something to debate.  I have no idea, but they are wrong.

While at least three or four federal judges have gone toe-to-toe with Scalia, not even one has engaged the Roberts dissent.  Yes, they have heard federalism arguments, and yes, they all held that Windsor is not about federalism, but they have not refuted Roberts’s dissent so much as ignored it.  There is a reason for that, and it is not just that Roberts, whose opinion lacked hysteria, is a far less easy target to mock.

On pages 18 and 19 of the Windsor slip opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy addresses the question about whether Windsor is a federalism opinion.  (Highlighting is mine, and I removed citations to previous cases, but otherwise kept the citation intact.)

Against this background DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. Despite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance. The State’’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism. Here the State’’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA, because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage. ““‘‘[D]iscriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.’’””

The Federal Government uses this state-defined class for the opposite purpose——to impose restrictions and disabilities. That result requires this Court now to address whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.

Kennedy’s language is flowery, as is his wont.  Nevertheless, his meaning is quite clear.  This quoted section is the pivot in the legal reasoning.  Prior to this excerpt, Kennedy wrote in great detail about federalism principles, and how it has historically been the right of the states to define marriage.  Had he stopped there, Windsor would have indeed been a federalism decision.  But in the above excerpt Kennedy writes that it is not principles of federalism that are central to Edie Windsor’s case.  Federalism principles mattered in Windsor only because Congress’ violation of those principles in enacting DOMA signaled a suspicious and insidious ulterior motive.  That something, Kennedy concludes in the next section, was animus toward gays and lesbians, which is unconstitutional under the implied equal protection guarantees of the 5th Amendment.*

Scalia understood all this and would not let it go unchallenged.  He also understood, that if the judicially manufactured equal protection guarantees of the 5th Amendment applies to same-sex couples, then the next logical step is that the actual equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment must also apply.  The only possible outcome is for state bans on marriage equality to also fail constitutional scrutiny.  The Windsor majority may not have explicitly stated this, but their inherent message to the federal judiciary was equally loud and clear as Scalia’s overwrought one.  That is why all subsequent decisions have unanimously sided with marriage equality.


*  There is no Equal Protection Clause in the 5th Amendment; the Equal Protection Clause is unique to the 14th Amendment.  The 14th Amendment however, applies only to the states and not the federal government, which could have been a source of major embarrassment for a Supreme Court that wanted to combat discrimination.  The most famous use of the manufactured 5th Amendment equal protection guarantees is found in Brown v. Board of Education.  There were actually five cases collectively known as Brown, and one of those cases, Bolling v. Sharpe, came from Washington DC.  As Washington DC is not a state and under federal government control, the 14th Amendment does not apply.  Thus, the Warren Court used the 5th Amendment for the DC case and the 14th Amendment for the state cases .

Marriage Equality Comes To New Jersey

[Editor's Note: This post was written on October 18th, but posted on October 19th.  Every time I say "Today" it refers to the date of writing rather than publication.]

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down an opinion denying a stay in a case called Garden State Equality v. Dow.  This is the first major state high court decision to come down following the US Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.  Not to toot my own horn, but for months I had been telling anyone who would listen exactly how Garden State Equality would be decided and that marriage equality was inevitable.  Even though the case is technically ongoing, today’s decision proves me right.


To understand Garden State Equality, one must first go back to 2006 and a New Jersey Supreme Court case called Lewis v. Harris, the first time the Court considered marriage equality.  Lewis was both a landmark and a disappointment.  It was a disappointment because the Court, in a 4-3 split, held that although the New Jersey State Constitution required that same-sex couples be treated equal to heterosexual couples, it was the Legislature’s discretion to determine whether that meant marriages or civil unions.  The Legislature opted for the latter.  Yet Lewis was also a landmark because for the first time every Justice on a state high court agreed that same-sex couples deserved equal treatment.  The “dissenters” would have gone further than the majority and mandated full marriage equality.

Lewis, for its flaws, laid the groundwork for future victory.  Civil unions are okay so long as couples are treated equally, but if that were not the case, then the state had to offer marriage.  Almost immediately after Lewis was handed down, LGBT rights groups operating in New Jersey (Garden State Equality, Lambda Legal, etc.) started gathering evidence to prove that civil unions were not equal.  Simultaneously, LGBT organizations lobbied the Legislature to enact a real marriage equality law–first unsuccessfully in the waning days of the Corzine regime and then successfully during this current term, but vetoed by the Governor Chris Christie.   This meant that there were two options left for LGBT rights groups: (1) get enough votes to overturn Christie’s veto (currently ongoing); or (2) convince the New Jersey Supreme Court that civil unions are inherently unequal (or to quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Skim-Milk Marriage“).  Both of those paths however, would take a lot of time and effort, and neither was guaranteed.

And then came Windsor.


In the near future, I hope to write two posts about the recent gains of the gay rights movement.  The first is about the almost unrealistic nationwide and worldwide progress made in the past year.  The second is specifically about United States v. Windsor, a case that I would argue is not only the most important case in the history of the American LGBT rights movement, but also the most important American civil rights case since Brown v. Board of Education.  The implications of Windsor have only begun to be felt, but its impact has already been tremendous.  The decision in New Jersey today (and others that will follow in state and federal courts over the next couple of years) is solely because of Windsor.  It is not a stretch to say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and above all Anthony Kennedy are five of the six people most directly responsible for today’s victory.

The sixth person most directly responsible is Barack Obama.  When Windsor was handed down, Obama ordered all federal agencies to fully comply.  Every same-sex married couple is now treated equally in terms of federal benefits so long as the marriage is valid, i.e., recognized by the state where the marriage took place.  Social security, Medicare, immigration, military and veterans benefits, family medical leave, federal estate tax, joint filing, health insurance for spouses of federal employees–the list of federal benefits goes on and on.

President Obama also made a tremendous and specific impact in New Jersey because he instructed that federal benefits applied only to married couples, not those partnered in civil unions.  Those of us who understood what he was doing rejoiced.  Effectively, he told the courts that in terms of marriage he would not allow or accept “separate but equal.”*  Marriage is marriage and nothing else is adequate for federal purposes.**


When Garden State Equality came before Judge Mary Jacobson in the New Jersey Superior Court this summer, the legal team for the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment.  Basically, this means that (in a civil trial) one party in the case believes the law and the facts are so overwhelmingly on his/her/their side as to render a trial completely unnecessary.  In Garden State Equality, the plaintiffs argued that the lack of federal benefits to partners in civil unions meant that they would be treated patently unequal and only by offering full marriage equality could New Jersey correct the harm.  Although everyone files motions for summary judgment, granting them, especially in such major cases, is a rarity.  It is practically an invitation for an appellate court to overturn to overturn a trial court, something trial court judges hate.  (Also, judges tend to believe that everyone has a right to argue their day in court.)

Garden State Equality is as close to a perfect case as you can get for granting a motion for summary judgment.  Because of the Lewis demand for equality, the Windsor requirement that the federal government recognize married same-sex couples,*** and the Obama Administration’s refusal to treat marriages and civil unions equally, it was unthinkable that this case could result in anything other than a win for the plaintiffs.  On September 27, 2013, Judge Jacobson granted the motion for summary judgment and held that New Jersey had to offer marriage equality as of October 21.  The Christie Administration asked for a stay in judgment–asked the court to put the decision on hold until the case worked its way through the appellate courts.  Judge Jacobson refused.  Rather than appeal to the next level, the Christie Administration went straight to the top and appealed directly to the State Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case in January.  The Christie Administration also asked the Court for an emergency stay in judgement.  It was not so unusual–or unreasonable–a request.  (For example, in the Prop 8 case, the Court of Appeals put a stay on the trial court’s decision to strike down the law so that it could be litigated up to the US Supreme Court.)

Today the State Supreme Court came down with a ruling, and it was a doozy.  The Court denied the Christie Administration’s request for a stay, which means that same-sex marriages start at 12:01 a.m on October 21 (and there will be City Halls open at 12:01 a.m.)  Frankly, I was a bit surprised; granting a stay is almost routine–again, especially in such a major case with such big implications.  What is more amazing though is that the judicial opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and joined in full by the entire Court, was a decision on the merits of the case, which is almost never done when deciding whether to grant a stay.  Moreover, the Court all but said how it was planning to rule in January: “[T]he State has not shown a reasonable probability that it will succeed on the merits.”  In other words, although the case is not officially over, it’s over.

Everyone knows that the case is over.  Even Chris Christie, rather than fume and rage, has simply said that he disagrees with the decision but has ordered state officials to comply.  The outcome was inevitable.  Windsor made it so, and sooner rather than later all states will have marriage equality.

[Postscript: On Monday October 21, Governor Christie advised the State to withdraw its appeal.  It is theoretically possible but doubtful that a third-party will be allowed to intervene.  Therefore, most likely there will not be an oral argument in January, and undoubtedly marriage equality is now the law of New Jersey from here on out. ]


* This was not a surprising position from the President.  During the Windsor/Prop 8 arguments, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to rule that civil union states must adopt marriage–the so-called “Eight State Solution” (which will dwindle to six as of Monday).  Allegedly, the President was involved in crafting the Eight-State Solution.

** There was an argument put forward that civil unions are a form a marriage and the federal government should recognize them as such.  It’s a rational argument legally but deeply problematic in real world application.  Among those problems is, who would defend civil unions before a court?  A Democrat-led state government won’t do it because they favor marriage equality (the same is true for the vast majority of same-sex couples), and a Republican-led state government won’t do it because that would be a defense of the rights of gays and lesbians.  Although the Christie Administration did argue this position before the New Jersey courts, those courts cannot force the federal government to comply with New Jersey law.  Had the Christie Administration sued the federal government in federal court to demand recognition of civil unions, then I am certain the state case would have been put on hold until the federal case was decided.  It’s a moot point now for New Jersey, but I suspect other courts looking at civil union claims will see that New Jersey’s Supreme Court made the distinction and will subsequently follow.

*** In Windsor, the Supreme Court did not address civil unions because that was not part of the case.  Nevertheless, reading between the lines of the majority opinion, one gets the sense that the majority, if faced with the question, would not find civil unions equal to marriage.

Genealogy Roadshow – Austin

The final week of Genealogy Roadshow comes from Austin, Texas, that little pocket of blue in America’s largest red state.  Specifically, the program was recorded at the Driskill Hotel, about which we were told much, but which I missed because life is short and duty called.

I have not counted, but this week’s Genealogy Roadshow probably had the fewest televised guests.  There were no bite-sized appearances that lasted all of two minutes.  There were only six participants in total, which meant a lot of history, a lot of filler, and a lot of fluff.  This week also had some odd editing, which sometimes made it seem like the powers-that-be sacrificed part of the actual story for time constraints.

The problem I have with Genealogy Roadshow is that may be too small in is scope.  Perhaps this is a byproduct of a limited budget and time constraints in the research.  But I think the show has rather myopically chosen to just show what makes people American, which makes it more like Who Do You Think You Are than I feel comfortable with.  It also excludes so many people whose ancestors were not a part of the major events of American history or have recent immigrant ancestors.  It’s why I think going on the show would be a waste of time for me, which is a very sad thing to admit.


A caveat:  Names and family trees flashed by very quickly, and while I tried to get them correct, it is possible that I wrote down something wrong.  Please forgive me if I made a mistake.

Denise Garza Steusloff loves Texas.  I mean, she loves Texas.  Almost to the point of tears.  (Loving one’s state that much is a phenomenon I just don’t understand.  There is something unsettlingly antebellum about it.)  Denise has two big stories in her family. (1) There is a family legend that her father’s family was descended from Sephardic Jews who fled the Canary Islands to escape the Inquisition.  This is especially relevant to her family as her sister is raising her children Jewish.  (2)  Being Tejano is very important to Denise, and she feels (justifiably) that the contribution of Tejanos to Texas’s War of Independence against Mexico has been overlooked because Tejanos “don’t look American.”  (It’s a heartbreaking statement.)  Denise wanted to know if any of her Tejano ancestors fought in the war, which would allow her to join the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), which I guess is an honor, but as with the DAR, it just seems like there is so much baggage attached to membership.

The first question that (D.) Joshua Taylor dealt with was the Jewish heritage question.  Is Denise the descendant of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition? (Or were they crypto-Jews, which she used interchangeably, but which are actually different?  Crypto-Jews were public Catholics but secretly maintained their Judaism.  Jews who fled the Inquisition may have done so to stay Jewish publicly and privately.)  As you can imagine, when you are trying to hide something to avoid torture, exile, imprisonment, or death, you don’t leave much in the way of records.  Alas, there was no paper trail for Denise. But… there is the DNA test, and that, according to Taylor, proved that Denise is a descendant of Sephardic Jews because her DNA matches that of people who are known to be the descendants of Sephardic Jews.  I am an avowed DNA skeptic, which I have said many times, and I just think it is somewhat irresponsible to say that a DNA test (probably Y-Chromosome, but never explicitly stated) is definite and dispositive evidence of descent.  Nevertheless, I welcome Denise to the tribe and say, “Mishpucha!”

As to her second question, there were a lot of names that were thrown around, so bear with me.  There was a Simon Casillas who had a brother Ambrosio Casillas who was Denise’s 3rd great-grandfather who had an ancestor named Juan Casillas who was in the Mexican Army before the Revolution.  Fortunately, there was a pension record filed by Juan’s children (with testimonial evidence) that stated that Juan was at the Battle of Bexar.  Ergo, Denise qualified for the DRT, and lo and behold, there was someone from the organization there to give her a membership, a flag, and a hug.  Taylor said, “Mazel Tov.”

The next participant was Earl Campbell.  Now, I am not a fan of football (the American kind), so I had no idea who he is, but he was apparently a great player in college (at the University of Texas) and in the pros (at the Houston Oilers).  Even though I didn’t know who he was, the people there did, and after his segment, people took pictures with him.  Earl wanted to know about his father Burke (who died when Earl was in 5th grade) and grandfather Julius.  Apparently Earl’s family goes back to at least 1863 in Tyler, Texas.  Both of Earl’s grandfathers were landowners (although his maternal grandfather’s land was lost after he died, and Earl bought it back.)  Furthermore Burke was a Black Army AirCorp pilot and was at D-Day.

Marc Airhart had done his own genealogy but hit a roadblock with his ancestor George Airhart who, according to family legend, was adopted.  Taylor was very excited by this search because the name Airhart is so unusual and therefore easier to research.  George served in the Civil War for the Confederacy and was at Vicksburg where he was captured.  Also captured at Vicksburg, a William and an Alexander Airhart.  Looking at old census records determined that there was some relation to each other and to an Eliza Airhart.  After looking at the 1880 Census and an obituary, Eliza, it turned out, was a “mulatto” half-sister of George.  Also apparently of William and Alexander, although I am not sure how they determined that William, Alexander, and George were brothers.  Marc submitted to a DNA test, and his results included a bit of sub-Saharan DNA, which is extremely unusual for a white person.  This led only to more questions, all of which went unanswered.

Sheila Jobe lived in Texas all her life.  She had heard two stories, the first is that there was a murder in her maternal grandmother’s line, which she wanted to explore, warts and all. Also a great-uncle did research and through him she has a roadmap to how she may be connected to the Mayflower on her maternal grandfather’s side.  Kenyatta Berry told Sheila about her ancestor Isaac L Page of Maine who was in the Civil War.  Isaac’s muster record showed that he was left sick in the hospital at Gettysburg following the battle.  He was also at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, which meant he was at three extremely bloody and horrific battles.  After the war he returned to Maine, married Arletta Braun, and had five children with her.  One day, Isaac walked into the home with a pistol when Arletta was in the kitchen.  She said “Don’t shoot” but he shot her 6 times and killed her.  Isaac’s aunt Sarah Horn said he didn’t remember anything; he had blacked out completely.  Isaac was placed in an insane asylum, and while there he killed himself by jumping off a bridge.  Berry wanted to examine why he killed his wife, and she offered a theory, probably correct, that he may have suffered from PTSD from his time at war.

As to whether Sheila could trace her origins to the Mayflower?  Berry says everyone wants to be related to the 102 survivors of the Mayflower.  I would just like to say here and now, that not everyone.  I am quite happy about the fact that I do not come from the Mayflower, and I would not trade my heritage for anyone’s.  Berry told Sheila that she is not related to just one person, but four people who were on the Mayflower.  Sheila got a silver book of Mayflower descendants through five generations.  (There were a lot of gifts in this episode.)

Max Hibben wanted to know if he was related to Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island.  Because Roger Williams was a rebel like Max.  (If I had played a drinking and took a sip each time someone said, “rebel,” I would have dropped dead from alcohol poisoning before the show ended.)  Taylor thought that there is a family resemblance between Max and Roger Williams (“America’s first rebel”) from the old portraits.  Whatever.  Don’t get me wrong; as far as our founders go, Williams was definitely one of the better ones.  WIlliams negotiated and treated with the natives (unlike almost everyone else).  Max is related–11 generations back.  But now the big reveal, Taylor is also related to Williams, so they are cousins.  Another famous relative was Anson Perry Windsor who also descended from Williams.  In the Second Great Awakening he became a Mormon (which Max also is) and made his way out to Utah.  I didn’t really catch the rest but Windsor had something to do with the time when President Buchanan called out the federal troops to Utah.  Windsor was a rebel too.  (I’m reminded of the SNL sketch when TIna Fey played Sarah Palin during the Vice-Presidential debate and said, “Maverick” over and over again.)

The final guest was Julie Delio who wanted to know how her family fit with American (and world) history.  Julie believed that dead relatives easier to deal with than living ones, which is not a very happy thought.  In 1985 Julie asked her mother to write a history, but decided her mother’s notes were completely unreliable.  Berry told Julie that her ancestors came from Ulster Province in Ireland.  The family immigrated in 1735 or 1745 to Philadelphia and then moved to Rockbridge County, Virginia.  There were clergy in the family, one of whom built a Presbyterian church in Rockbridge.  Julie, as it turned out, shared an ancestor with Samuel Houston. But that’s not the only governor of Texas she is related to.  Berry told her that she is also related to Rick Perry.  Julie is stunned.  I would be too.  I can’t imagine ever wanting to have anything in common with Rick Perry.  Ever.  Especially DNA.  The truth is though that there are only so many ancestors to go around.  Sooner or later we are related to everyone.  We just lack the documentation to show it.

At the end of the show, useless host Emmett Miller wondered what will next week’s episode will bring.  The answer is nothing because the show’s season is finished.  This is what I mean when I complain about the editing.
But now my complaining is done.  All genealogy shows are finished for now.  Hopefully the next post I write will have nothing to do with genealogy television.

Genealogy Roadshow–San Francisco

This week, Genealogy Roadshow left its heart in San Francisco and made sure to wear some flowers in its hair.

Truth be told, I have been looking forward to this episode more than the previous two.  With all due respect to Nashville and Detroit, neither city’s history–nor in fact any US city with the exception of New York (and arguably Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia)–has anything as colorful as San Francisco’s.  There’s just so much there.  The Gold Rush, the railroad, the Chinese and Irish immigrations, the 1906 earthquake, the Counterculture, the Gay Rights Movement–San Francisco is just so darn interesting.  I also have a small connection to the place; my great-great-grandfather’s brother moved out there and I recently discovered a whole large family on the West Coast.

This week’s episode took place at the Old San Francisco Mint, and although the history of the building is usually the best time for a bathroom break, I actually thought it was rather interesting.  Mints are fascinating places.  I loved visiting the one in Philadelphia.  I also remember looking at my coins to see if I could tell they were printed.  I believe it was a P for Philadelphia, an S for San Francisco, and a D for Denver, but if I am wrong I am sure some kind soul will correct me in the comment section.

As always, we are guided by our intrepid hosts Kenyatta Berry and Joshua Taylor, the latter of him looks different, perhaps it is a snazzier haircut.  I hope fame is not going to his head.  (I also wonder about the other genealogists who do work behind-the-scenes.  I highly doubt just Berry and Taylor do all the research.)

Our first participant was Lisa Gates, a fourth generation Californian, whose mother is the family history and who was at the Mint for the family presentation.  Apparently Lisa’s mother told her that they were related to James Marshall, the man who discovered gold in California, but other relatives said that was not true.  Lisa also wanted to know about the circumstances surrounding the death of her great-great-grandfather Clinton Augustus Edson.  He was murdered, but the reasons were unclear.  Was it an angry, cuckolded husband furious about an affair his wife had with his boss Clinton?  Was it a disgruntled employee?  (Could the disgruntled employee be disgruntled because his boss had an affair with his wife?)  Berry traced Lisa Gates ancestry back to Maine and found no evidence to connect her to James Marshall, who was from New Jersey (Lisa’s reaction?  She tells her mother, “You’re in trouble.”)  Berry was however, able to tell Lisa how Edson was murdered.  An employee named Charles Becker killed him.  As Edson was in is 50’s and Becker and his wife were in their 70’s at the time, it was probably not about an affair.  Becker alleged that Edson hadn’t paid him for three years and owed him $800.  Becker filed an unsuccessful lawsuit and then took matters in his own hands.  Becker killed Edson and was sentenced to San Quentin for eight years for manslaughter.  Lisa joked about whether they still owned the Becker family and would be hunted down.

Cecilia Chen is a fourth generation Chinese American in the San Francisco Bay area.  Her father said that they were related to a gangster named Big Jim Chen.  Cecilia wanted to know about how her family and her connection to her history as an Asian-American.  Taylor told her that Big Jim Chen was very hard to trace.  Then we get a history of the Chinese immigration, how they were first embraced and then in the 1870’s blamed for an economic recession which led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and which in turn led to a rise in criminal activity and secret societies.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943 and the quotas were eliminated in 1965.  For Cecilia’s family, her grandmother Mary Fat Yee came to San Francisco with her family from New York, but it was neither direct not easy.  (Cuba was involved somehow in their travels.)  The family had to carry picture identification with them at all times, which was bad for them, but great for Cecilia who got to see pictures of her great-grandparents Fat Yee and Chin Shee.  Fat Yee was a native-born citizen, but still he was interrogated because he was Chinese.  Chin Shee came from the same region of China as Big Jim Chen (who also went by the name Chin Shin), but other than that Taylor could not find a connection, sort promising that he would keep trying.  Big Jim Chen was apparently a really good gangster, which meant that he was really good at hiding the paper trail.  So in the absence of documents, only the oral history is left.  Then Taylor says something about the American dream, and I kind of tuned out thinking I had wandered into Who Do You Think You Are.

Jennifer Weed’s great-great-grandfather was John W. Lambert, the inventor of the first gasoline-powered automobile–years ahead of Henry Ford and others.  The story in Weed’s family was that there was a feud with Ford, and no one in her family has driven a Ford since.  Taylor confirms that Lambert did invent the gasoline-powered automobile (and was also the first crash in American history when he ran into a tree), but there was no evidence of a feud, so Jennifer can safely drive a Ford.

Dava Segal’s family was from the South and she wanted to know if they were involved in the Civil War.  They were. Her ancestor George Efner was in the Confederate Army, the Shreveport Rangers from Louisiana.  They were an elite side who fought in major battles including the Siege of Vicksburg, where Efner was wounded and taken as a POW.  Despite taking an oath of allegiance, Efner returned to the fighting, and I think I heard that he was taken as a POW again.  One of Efner’s ancestors, Joseph Efner, fought in the Revolutionary War under Benedict Arnold at both battles of Saratoga.  Although no one said this out loud, Dava now can petition to be in the DAR.

Casey Robbins was researching her father’s side when she discovered that she may be connected to the Folger family, one of the original families to settle Nantucket.  Benjamin Franklin was also a Folger and Casey wanted to know if there was a connection to him.  There was a history segment about Franklin’s early life (being from Philadelphia, I am quite familiar with Ben Franklin.  There was however, a really interesting article about his sister Jane a couple of months back in The New Yorker.)  Casey did have a connection to Nantucket; her 5th great-grandfather Jesse Bunker was a Nantucket whaler who died at sea.  Bunker’s widow was Eunice Folger Bunker.  Eunice’s line could be traced back to Peter Folger (Casey’s 10th great-grandfather), who was one of the first settlers of Nantucket.  He learned the languages of the native tribes, was a court clerk, and wrote all the early records.  His wife Mary Morell came over as an indentured servant, but Peter paid $20 to buy her contract and married her (“the best appropriation of money I ever made.”)  Apparently Mary Morell was mentioned by Herman Melville in Moby Dick as Franklin’s grandmother.  ( I need to try to read that book again, but every time I give up.)  Benjamin Franklin and Casey are first cousins 10 times removed.

Michael Logan got a DNA test.  When he went to give blood for the bone marrow registry, he was discovered to have an unusual pathogen, which will be fatal if he gets sick. On that less-than-cheerful note, Berry went through the results of his admixture test–primarily Northern European descent, some Southern and Eastern European descent, and a tiny amount of North African descent.  His paternal line (Y-Chromosome) appeared to originate in Scandinavia (“ABBA country, right?”)  Maybe it’s just me, but that seemed rather glib and uncomfortable: “I could die.” “Okay; let’s check your DNA results.”  I think that perhaps different decisions should have been taken in the editing room.

Karla McLaren had troubled getting past her grandparents on one branch of her tree for her own research, so Taylor tells her about her grandfather, his father Delaney Rogers, and Delaney’s father who fought for the Union in Civil War from 1861-64.

Jamie O’Keefe is a 5th generation San Francisco native whose great-grandparents, Frank and Anne (Savage) O’Keefe, met as a result of the 1906 earthquake (you knew they had to get that in somewhere).  There was confusion about how they met.  Was his home destroyed and he stayed in her barn or was hers destroyed and she stayed at his bar?  According to Berry, Timothy O’Keefe, Jamie’s great-great-grandfather, immigrated from Ireland in 1874.  He ended up in San Francisco where the Irish were a third of the population.  In 1896, Timothy opened a grocery store and saloon (O’Keefe’s Saloon).  Seven years later, he died and his son Edward took over.  Edward’s younger brother Frank was 19.  Anne Savage was also of Irish descent.  She and her sister owned  business which primarily sold ostrich feathers.  Frank, in the Mission District, survived as did his business and much of his neighborhood.  Anne was not so lucky.  In 1909 Frank and Anne were married, all of which points out to her taking refuge in his saloon.

Finally Jim Saltzman wanted to know about his relative who was reportedly a survivor of the horrific 1860 Wiyot Massacre on an island off Humboldt County.  He brought in a walking stick that he thought belonged to his ancestor Eliza Lindgren, but his mother said it belonged to Josephine Beach, who he thought was Eliza’s sister, and who was the survivor in question.  Josephine got lost in a fog, and as a result, she escaped the massacre.  The rest of her family was not so lucky.  It turned out that Eliza and Josephine were not only not sisters, they were not even from the same tribe.  Using the 1900 censuses (General and Indian), Taylor was able to tell Jim that although Eliza and Josephine were not sisters, there was a connection–Eliza’s daughter married Josephine’s son.  The walking stick belonged to Jim’s ancestor.

And that is it for this week.  Next time, the season finale.

Genealogy Roadshow – Detroit

From my very brief perusal of the genealogy blogs, my take is that last week’s episode of Genealogy Roadshow got a decidedly mixed reaction.  While it is always nice to see a genealogy-themed show and Kenyatta Berry and Joshua Taylor make for very appealing hosts, there is also a feeling that the information is just coming too easily.  The participants are simply told their histories, and there is little to no documentation backing up the claims.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the genealogists and historians who work behind the scene are wrong or making things up; I’m sure they are correct.  But in a profession that worships documentation and citation it is a little jarring to see so little of either.  Who Do You Think You Are has a similar problem but with the focus on only one person as opposed to eight or so, there is more time to show records (especially when contractually obligated to do so).

My complaint about Genealogy Roadshow is different.  When I watch a genealogy show I wonder how it could help me with my own research.  And my answer for Genealogy Roadshow is, so far as I can tell, not very much.  The research seems to be somewhat limited, and I have yet to see any kind of documentation that I cannot already find on Ancestry or some other genealogy website.  This week four of the participants had stories originating outside the US (and three from outside the Anglosphere), and even that I am not sure required all that much research beyond what is already on the Internet.

This week’s setting was Indian Village, one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods (and probably the nicest Detroit has ever looked on television).  Michelle Stoutenberg brought in a blue, glass plate that her grandmother said was a butter dish on Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration table.  Apparently the story is that Lincoln was a relative of some kind.  Michelle’s Lincoln ancestry was already traced with pages of family tree data, but Abraham Lincoln was not on it.  Taylor found the connection–Samuel Lincoln, the first of his line to come to the United States was the common ancestor, which makes Honest Abe Michelle’s fifth cousin four times removed.  As for the plate, it was not part of the Lincoln state china set that Mary Lincoln bought, which means that Michelle’s next stop should be Antiques Roadshow.

(As an aside, does it seem like the histories we are getting are just filler?  Maybe it’s me, but I am getting very little out of it other than a necessary bathroom break.)

Charissa Joy Los was adopted when she was 2 days old.  Because her parents did an open adoption, her birth mother was a part of her life.  She met her birth father when she 14.  Charissa is biracial; her mother is white, and her father is black.  Like many of this week’s participants, Charissa is very interested in her genealogy and has done research.  However, she knew very little about her birth father’s line, and it was important to her because she wanted to know about her African-American heritage.  Berry showed Charissa her birth father’s ancestry–her ancestor Andrew Ingram came from Hancock County, Georgia where he was probably a slave of one Thomas Dudley.  During the Great Migration of the early to mid 20th century, her family went north to Detroit to get a labor job, in places like the Ford factory (in any show about Detroit, Ford will naturally loom large).

Steven (last name unknown) wanted to find out about his father’s family because his father Samuel never spoke about them.  Samuel’s father Lesley fought in World War I, and either during or after the war he lost his leg.  When Samuel was 2, his mother died.  He never knew his grandparents either.  The story made Steven cry.

Cynthia Bedolla-Redman wanted to know if she had any English or Irish ancestry.  She also wanted to know if there were any deep family secrets.  Thomas Hatchard–an ancestor whose relationship I did not catch–was born in 1730 and baptized in Dorset, England.  His son John started a bookstore called Hatchards, which had three royal warrants.  So apparently Hatchards was the royal bookstore and is to this day.  Cynthia is thrilled by this information.  For my part, I don’t understand the appeal of monarchy.  Thomas’s great-grandson, also Thomas, arrived in the United States in 1849.  He joined the Union Army as a surgeon and was in a regiment that was part of Sherman’s March to the Sea.  After the war he started a medical practice in Wisconsin.  When he was older he married a much younger woman named Nancy.  The marriage didn’t work.  Nancy was arrested for shoplifting, and she hung around some characters of ill repute.  Thomas filed for divorce.  In response, Nancy claimed his medical practice was not reputable and both Nancy and Thomas were arrested for murder–apparently a woman went to Thomas for an abortion, and she died the next day.  Although the community loved Thomas and hated Nancy, they were both convicted and served 4 years in prison.

Rose Thompson wanted to know what happened to an uncle who one day just disappeared.  Taylor brought in evidence of two possible marriages (and the suggestion of bigamy), although he said it was merely “highly probable.”  Then came World War II and the uncle reappears in the record with a draft card.  That was the end.

William Blackman wanted to know two things: (1) was he related to Daniel Boone and Patrick Henry on his mother’s side; and (2) was his father’s family name changed to Blackman at Ellis Island?  Taylor gives him some very good advice–never trust unsourced family trees online.  With that, Taylor tells him that no, he is not related to either Boone or Henry.  His ancestor James Grubbs, however, was in Robert E. Lee’s army and wrote to Jefferson Davis to see if he could get out and take a desk job instead.  It failed.  Instead Grubbs was injured in 1865 and admitted to a hospital in Richmond a week before the city surrendered to the Union Army and his opponents became his caretakers.

As for the Blackman family, they came from Courland, which is in today’s Latvia, but at the time his ancestor Abraham left, it was a part of the Russian Empire.  (The Courland Jewish community was unique in the Russian Empire because of an affinity with Germany, the German language, and German culture).  Taylor found a passenger list for Abraham–then named Abram Bleckmann–from Hamburg.  That meant that Abram traveled probably via foot to Hamburg where he sailed to Grimsby, England.  In Grimsby he took a train to Liverpool and got on another ship to New York.  But did they change their name at Ellis Island?  Taylor hedged on that, and I think it is important to note that the answer is no.  One of the enduring family myths is that the people at Ellis Island changed your name.  They didn’t.  Really.  It’s a fable.  I criticize Taylor for allowing this pernicious myth to perpetuate.  What happened is that immigrants changed their own names subsequent to landing either through a formal name change or a massaging of the spelling, which, especially for Eastern European immigrants, was never firmly fixed anyway.  In Abraham’s naturalization papers, he was Bleckman, and in the 1910 Census he was Blackman.  (Keeping in mind that the not exactly the gold standard of accurate spelling.)

Eugenia Gorecki is a retired Ford Motor Company engineer.  She was a pioneer–the first female engineer at Ford.  Eugenia was born in a little Polish village.  Her father was also an engineer, but he died in 1942, when she was two and she knew almost nothing about him.  He was taken away, and when died 10 days after he came home.  She wants to know what happened to him.  According to Berry, Eugenia’s father was in a sporting club called the Falcons which was also a Nazi resistance group.  Members of such group, usually from the intelligentsia and the elite, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps or work camps.  The Nazis dragged members of the Falcons into the woods and beat them.  One of those Falcons was Eugenia’s father who died from injuries (nephritis or kidney failure).  Shortly after the War, Eugenia and her mother immigrated to the US.  (Eugenia’s mother was born in Detroit and her father moved the family back to Poland during the Great Depression).

Finally Monica Donley wanted to know if she was related to Ponce de Leon as her amateur genealogist husband Kevin said she was.  Wisely, he did not trust the family trees online and wanted to see the evidence.  (A brief aside–is the name pronounced Pons or Pon-say?  I’ve never been able to figure that out, and it seemed like it was pronounced both ways in this episode.)  We got the history of Ponce de Leon, although I take issue with the claim that he was a founder of the United States and the Caribbean.  Taylor talks about how Spanish genealogy is great because unlike Northern Europeans, the Spanish took the surnames of both their parents.  Because of that, he was able to trace Monica’s ancestry through Ponce de Leon’s daughter.  Monica was his 15th great-granddaughter, and very excited by the discovery.  I admit, I’m jealous that anyone could go back that far.

And that’s it for Detroit and half this season.

Genealogy Roadshow–Nashville

Thus begins Genealogy Roadshow, PBS’s latest attempt to capitalize on the family history craze that is sweeping the nation.  Well, I’m not sure it’s a craze.  It’s definitely a popular hobby though.

I honestly had no idea what to expect when I heard about this show.  I have only seen a few minutes of Antiques Roadshow, but even so I could not imagine how that show’s format could be used for genealogy–that is about object, genealogy is about people.  I thought maybe the producers (or whomever) would perhaps tie the participants’ genealogies into a history of Nashville (or whatever city is hosting), but no, the Antiques Roadshow format worked.  A quick overview, stripping away stories, and revealing interesting history. but it is also nearly impossible to write about.  I am not writing about a story anymore, just a series of vignettes and a couple of history lessons.  PBS however, is truly is the station for genealogical-themed television.


The main players of the show are the host Emmett Miller and two genealogists, Kenyatta Berry and Joshua Taylor.  The latter I know of by reputation.  I believe he appeared on Who Do You Think You Are, and he is mentioned rather frequently on a genealogy podcast that I listen to.  Both Berry and Taylor are excellent choices as hosts.

This week’s episode was set in Nashville at the Belmont Mansion.  The participants were an interesting mix.  Marguerita Page is an African-American woman whose grandfather’s cousin Albert Roberts was the illegitimate son of the future Governor of Tennessee Austin Peay (who was 14 when he became a father).  There was Edwin Kennedy, a white man who presented a photo of his grandfather’s then-toddler brother sitting on the lap of an older black man named Lafayette “Fate” Cox, who was a soldier in the Civil War, a farmer, and then a servant.  For good measure, Fate’s great-great-granddaughter was brought in to see, for the first time, a picture of her ancestor.  Then Marquita Fletcher learned that while she was not related to the Pointer Sisters or the abolitionist George Boxley, her great-grandmother Mattie Lee Fletcher worked in the house of the philanthropist Andrew Burton (great-grandfather of singer Amy Grant) who supported the preacher Marshall Keeble.

Then there were Michele Fox and David Vaughn, both of whom claimed a relationship to Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, who is apparently one of the top ten most-claimed relatives (for the life of me, I will never understand why people are so eager to claim relationship to famous people).  Vaughn’s connection was established (which was very good as he is a Davy Crockett reenactor), but Fox’s was disproved.  As a consolation prize, Joshua Taylor found that her husband’s family is descended from a soldier in the American Revolution, and thus her children and grandchildren are eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Following that, Berry gives Chris Hudson, a young African-American man the results of a DNA admixture test (mercifully not attributed to any specific company).  He is 84% Sub-Saharan ancestry, a fair amount of Northern European ancestry, and a very small amount of Native American ancestry.  I will restate my skepticism of DNA testing and leave it at that.

A lovely woman named Jean Carter Wilson claimed that she was related to George Washington, Jimmy Carter, the Carter Family, and Jesse James.  Three of the four were disproved.  But Wilson’s ancestor was Jesse James’s great-aunt, or something to that effect (the charts went by too quickly for me to figure our relationships).

Max Scruggs and his family learned that their ancestress Dinah Bell was a slave to a Sarah Henderson who brought Bell to Tennessee in the 1780’s, making them some of the original (non-native) Tennesseans.  And there were Janet and Michael, a married couple whose full hyphenated name I did not get, but one of those names was Hatfield, as in Hatfields and McCoys.  And yes, Janet is related to those Hatfields.

Finally, there was the story of Sarah Jones, who wanted to know about her father, who she never knew.  Joshua Taylor gave her a whole history of her father’s family dating back to her great-grandfather’s immigration from Poland (a week before the Titanic sunk) and ending with pictures of Sarah’s father David.  As I, and probably everyone else, wondered how Taylor got those pictures, he introduced Sarah to her cousin Sharon, whose mother had put together a photo album.  It was a touching moment.  Someone in the audience cried.

And that was the first episode of Genealogy Roadshow.  Easy to watch, not easy to review.  I’m holding out for the day the show is in Philadelphia, New York City, or Troy, New York.  Perhaps one day you will see me on the show.   Or maybe Antiques Roadshow; my mother has these mismatched heirloom candlesticks I would love to learn about.

Jim Parsons, Who Do You Think You Are?

So we have at last arrived at the season finale of Who Do You Think You Are.  I’ll miss writing these recaps (and the page views they’ve brought), although my sleep patterns will certainly improve.  Believe it or not, I will also miss this show despite my many (many) criticisms of it.  I don’t actually dislike WDYTYA; I consider myself something of an ombudsman.  The American version, unlike the British original, abandons itself to the excesses of reality television aspect–sometimes to the expense of history.  No one that I have seen from the genealogy community has stepped up to criticize the show for its flaws or hector it get better, so with a sense of self-importance that I have not earned, I have stepped into a role that no one asked me to fill.  Fortunately for me, I will have 10 more episodes next year to work with.  Thank you, TLC; in gratitude I’ll stop making fun of your Amish fetish for a few days.


Jim Parsons.  I kind of have a crush on him after this episode, which for the most part I enjoyed.  He just seems so sweet and is adorable in a geeky way.  I am unfamiliar with Jim’s work.  I know he’s on “The Big Bang Theory,” but I have never actually seen the show.  I will probably watch “The Normal Heart” when it airs, although I didn’t actually like the play for a variety of reasons when I read it about 10 years ago, none of which matter to this review.

Jim began this project as a tribute to his late father who died in a car accident when Jim was in his early 20′s (I think that’s what he said, but I could be wrong).  Jim loved his father very much and thought the world of him.  Jim said he thought his dad would have been intensely interested in his genealogy.  (Apparently Jim was too, and has since started his own tree on Ancestry, although i am not searching for it.)  But Jim had another reason for his interest; he said, “you are the sum of your parts.”  I cannot think of any more genuine statement any guest has made about the show or why we do genealogy; it’s not just historical research, it’s a form of self-discovery.

Sometimes during those segments where the celebrities talk directly to the cameras, I wish we could hear the questions they are asked rather than just hearing their answers.  Without the questions it’s just kind of a narration that doesn’t always reflect so well on the celebrity.  Never more do I wish to hear those questions then at the beginning of the show when the celebrity talks about what he or she hopes to find.  Inevitably, they always find it by the end of the episode (Jim wanted to find another artist in his family, and he found one of the most prominent architects of the Ancien Régime).  I wonder if the research was done first and then the celebrity was led in that direction or the celebrity told the researchers what he or she wanted to find and then the researchers found it.  Frankly, I wish they would abandon that who structure altogether.  It’s too forced, and it takes away from the genuineness of the search.  It’s one thing to investigate whether a family mystery is true or not (e.g., did Jim’s family come from France?), but finding over and over again exactly what a celebrity hoped to find in an ancestor is absurd.


Prior to his search, Jim said that he wanted to find out whether his family was French, which he had heard from someone (he did not remember who) years before.  He thought that someone came from Louisiana, so a French origin was entirely possible.  Jim’s family, for as far back as he knew, was Texan.

Jim’s search began with his mother Judy who met him in New York and brought with her old photographs and documents.  One of the photos was a picture of Jim’s great-grandmother Jeanne Hacker Parsons, and one of the documents was her death certificate.  Sure enough, Jeanne was born in Louisiana to Charles and Adele (Drouet) Hacker.  Judy also brought with her a picture of Adele at age 90.  Jim made a comment about how he and his mother shared good genes for long life, and then corrected himself–he has good genes.  He wished his mother good luck.  I laughed.

The first stop was New Orleans and the Louisiana Historical Society where genealogist Judy Riffel met Jim and told him that both Drouet and Hacker are surnames of French origin.  At 7 minutes in we got the final contractual Ancestry plug of the season when Jim found Charles in the 1850 Census, which was taken shortly after Charles’s birth.  Charles and his family lived in Plaquemine in the Iberville Parish of Louisiana.  (Louisiana, with its French origins is something of a freak state, particularly at a legal level, which is why I was so glad to see it featured tonight.  Finally, something we haven’t seen before.)  Iberville was apparently very rural and Charles’s father J.B. Hacker was a doctor, which was exceedingly rare in that time period in that area.  J.B. Hacker was not, however, the French connection, as he too was born in Louisiana around 1810.  Jim expressed surprise that his Louisiana roots were so deep–his 3rd great-grandfather J.B. Hacker was born there–because everyone he knew is from Texas.

Genealogist Judy Riffel pretended that she was going to do more research and sent Jim to Tulane University to meet with Professor Jeanette Keith who was an expert in southern rural history.  Together they looked into J.B.’s medical practice.  Keith showed Jim a book, and I wasn’t exactly clear what it was (lacking a recording device, I can’t get everything), but Jim said it smelled like his grandmother’s house.  I think it was a list of the graduates of the Medical College of Louisiana, the Deep South’s second oldest medical school and the predecessor of Tulane.  Sure enough, in 1842, eight years after the school’s founding, J.B. (Jean-Baptiste) Hacker was the 55th graduate of the college.  According to Keith, in that time period one did not have to go to medical school to be a doctor.  Any joker could have (and often did) put up a shingle and practiced medicine.  But the school was opened by a group of men who wanted to change the way medicine was practiced in the country and to legitimize and professionalize it.  So if your parents pressured you to go to medical school, blame those people.

Jim also discovered that J.B. wrote an article for the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, which was published in 1854.  Specifically J.B. wrote about a severe yellow fever epidemic in Iberville in 1853, which killed many people, and which he himself witnessed.  At the time, no one knew that yellow fever was caused by mosquitoes, which made it all the more terrifying.  Jim made a reference to that being similar to HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s, which really struck me.

I don’t know Jim Parsons, but I think I can guess his story.  Jim is an openly gay man born in 1973.  At the time he was coming into his sexual identity in the 1980’s, he was probably hyperaware of a deadly, incurable disease that was killing gay men in large numbers.  I am a few years younger than Jim, and I was terrified, and I was not involved in theater like Jim, which had more than its fair share of deaths in that time period.  Jim will be appearing in a televised version of The Normal Heart, a play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and a barely fictionalized recounting of the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.  I bring this up because celebrities on WDYTYA have an unfortunate tendency to make grand comparisons between themselves and their ancestors, but here Jim did such a subtle job making the association between himself and his 3rd great-grandfather, if you blinked, you missed it.

Jim then went to to find old newspaper reports about J.B.  This is the second time this season a celebrity went to GenealogyBank without the site being named.  Perhaps this is Ancestry’s quiet concession that they must use it even though they don’t own the site–it is far more comprehensive than, the old newspaper site Ancestry owns.  Jim found a news article from 1854 about the loss of the Steamer Gipsy following a boiler fire and the 10 people who died aboard it.  Among the dead were J.B. Hacker, his daughter, and his nephew.  (When I checked GenealogyBank, different articles had a different death count.  Some of the articles listed different relatives who died.)  Jim was curious about how the fire started, so he met with Robert Gudmestad, an expert on Mississippi River steamboats on the Steamer Natchez.  Gudmestad told Jim that the Gipsy was made of wood and powered by fire in a boiler in the middle of the ship.  The night of the fire was a windy one.  You do the math.  Gudmestand also showed Jim a painting of the Gipsy painted a year before the fire.   Finally he showed Jim an article about how the community mourned for J.B, whom they dearly loved.


Jim reunited with genealogist Judy Riffel who said she tried to trace the Hacker line, but the paper trail ended and they are lost to history.  She did however, have more luck with the family of Adele Drouet Hacker, Jim’s 2nd great-grandmother.  Riffel gave Jim a pedigree chart which showed Adele’s lineage: her parents, Auguste Drouet and Anaïs Marie Trouard, the parents of Anaïs, Prosper Trouard (who was born in France) and Eliza Boisclair Chauvin Delery, and Proper’s father Alexandre Louis Trouard who was born in Paris on March 15, 1761.  (It should be noted that some sources have the name Louis Alexandre Trouard.)

At the National Archives of France in Paris, Jim met with Drew Armstrong of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert in French history and a master of French pronunciation.  Armstrong said he could not find anything about Prosper, but they did find the baptismal record for Alexandre Louis.  He was the son of Louis François Trouard and Marie Genevieve Rondel.  Louis François was an architect, a very, very important architect.  So important that he even has his own Wikipedia page (it’s in French).  He was an architect to King Louis XV.  Louis François’s father, Louis Trouard, was the marble supplier to the King, a not quite as grand a title.  Louis pere was middle class, but his son reached the highest artistic and cultural circles in France.  In 1753 Louis François won the first place in architecture in the Prix de Rome, which is a scholarship for art students organized by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture that subsidized them to live in Rome to study art for three to five years.

Louis François was in Rome from 1754-57.  In 1769, he was awarded a place in the very elite Royal Academy of Architecture, the greatest honor he could have achieved.  There were only 16 seats and they opened up only upon the death of the previous occupant. Jim called it the Supreme Court of architects.  Honestly, I don’t know much about any of this (I fail to understand almost everything French), so if anyone has any insight into Louis François’s rise to the top, please post.  Louis François was so much in the counsel of the King, that he had a residence in the building adjacent to the Palace of Versailles, which is where Jim went next.

At the Chapelle de la Providence, Jim met with Ambrogio Calani, a historian of French architecture who told him that Louis François designed the Chapelle de la Providence, and it was one of his masterpieces.  Jim thought that it was elegant and classy-looking but at the same time inviting.  I don’t know enough about architecture to have an opinion.

Then there was a voice-over narration about the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.  Apparently, architects were targeted by the revolutionaries for being corrupt and too close to the regime.  I didn’t quite get why this history was given at that moment except to create tension as to whether Louis François was targeted.

He was not.  Apparently, despite being the Architect to the King, he also had Enlightenment sympathies.  He was friendly with liberal and radical figures, foremost among them Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, a writer, philosopher, and former priest.  Raynal was very much in favor of the Enlightenment and very much against slavery.  He also apparently lived with Trouard for a time, which seems to have established Trouard’s street cred so that when the Revolution came, he was not the first against the wall.  Then, as if to throw in the mandatory ties to American history, we saw a letter from Benjamin Franklin indicating that he and John Adams also stayed in Trouard house, probably because they too were interested in Raynal’s ideas.  I don’t know.  That just seemed so tacked on at the end.  In any case, Louis François survived the French Revolution and died in 1804.

Alexandre Louis/Louis Alexandre also won the Prix de Rome in 1780.  He went to Haiti, where according to the information i’ve found online, he died in Port-au-Prince.  I am not sure why he was there or what he did, but his son Prosper ended up in New Orleans.  That information is all in the book that the producers gave to Jim and probably also on the cutting room floor.  As the credits rolled, Jim spoke about his father.


So that’s it.  The end of the season.  I hope you enjoyed the recaps.  This was not the best season of the show by a long shot, but it ended with a good episode, and it had the strongest “hour” of the entire American series in the Christina Applegate episode, which for my money stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the British series.

On to Genealogy Roadshow, which airs September 23 on PBS.  I make no promises about watching it, but I am sure if I do, I will enjoy it very much.

Finally, a big thank you to all my readers who truly made this season a pleasure, particularly those who left such great comments.  And I leave the last word to you.  In the comments, I ask you to tell me your hopes for the season, which celebrities you would like to see next year, and what locations you hope they go to.  I’m just hoping for something new.  South Asia, Central America, Scandinavia, whatever.  Just something different.

Trisha Yearwood, Who Do You Think You Are?

As this season of Who Do You Think You Are approaches its end, it is fair say that there has been a depressing amount of sameness to the season.  Perhaps because the show no longer has the cachet of a major television network behind it, the show cannot pick and choose from a pool of A-list celebrities.  Which is not to say that previous seasons were spectacularly diverse either, but there is something almost rote this time around.

There is, of course, the ethnic homogeny.  All the celebrities this season are white.  Not just white, but almost entirely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (the one half-Jewish celebrity researched only her non-Jewish grandfather).  A majority of the researched ancestors lived in 19th century America or England.  Only two celebrities went outside the US and England, and they both went to Germany.  There was a strong East Coast bias; in six of seven episodes, celebrities went to either New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, or Georgia.  Almost every episode focused primarily on one ancestor–maybe two–and most of those ancestors lived at least 100 years ago.

From my view, the two episodes that were the most different were Christina Applegate’s and Cindy Crawford’s.  The former was special because the episode focused on a very recent yet unknown ancestor and left aside the history in favor of a  personal, almost voyeuristic experience.  The latter was special because the show hit the genealogical motherlode, an ancestral path to Charlemagne.  It should probably come as no surprise that my posts about these two episodes have been the most popular of the season, and two of the most popular posts I have even written in nearly three years of blogging.

Where there was diversity, at least as compared to other seasons was in profession, and yet even that is not as diverse as it would seem.  Most seasons have been actor-heavy, this one somewhat less so–there were two singers, a talk show host, and a former supermodel.  Yet every celebrity on the show makes a living because of her or his face or voice (or both).  There were no athletes, no (non-singer) musicians, no directors, no writers, no journalists, no dancers, no politicians.

Perhaps Who Do You Think You Are is an indictment of our celebrity culture.  In previous seasons there were African-Americans, but there has never been a celebrity of Latin American origin.  Nor has there been one of Native American, Asian or recent African origin.  Skip Gates already got Eva Longoria, Yo Yo Ma, and Kristi Yamaguchi for his shows, but that can’t be all.  Even the celebrities who went to Africa did so because of DNA testing, some of which was highly dubious.  Is there no celebrity whose recent family history is from Africa?  Even a visit to Australia would be a welcome change, and that’s still part of the Anglosphere.

What was homogenous is turning monotonous.  It’s not bad per se, but it’s just so bland.  And this episode may have been the blandest of all.  I take copious notes while watching this show, which form the basis of these reviews (you’re welcome) and I wrote several times something to the extent of “This is so boring; I don’t care.”


This week’s confession: I am not actually familiar with Trisha Yearwood.  Don’t get me wrong, I have heard her name before, and looking at her Wikipedia page, I’m pretty sure I have heard one or two of her songs, but I can’t say that I knew her at all.  I know who (her husband) Garth Brooks is.  If someone asked me who Trisha Yearwood is, I would have known she was a singer, but I had no idea about the cookbook or the cooking show.  Or pretty much anything else.

Trisha grew up in Monticello, Georgia, which is not pronounced like the name of Jefferson’s home.  Trisha knew all about her mother’s side of the family, but not much about her the family of her paternal grandmother Elizabeth Winslett Yearwood.  Trisha wanted to learns about them even if there was murder, scandal, prominence whatever.  And because WDYTYA is a ridiculously unsubtle show, you knew that she would find at least something to that extent.
Trisha said that her grandmother never spoke about her life, so for some reason that led her to want to know who the first Winslett in America was.  If my paternal grandmother never spoke about her family, I would care less about the earliest American ancestors on that side and want to know more about her closer relatives–unless they were one and the same.

(As it happens, my paternal grandmother did have a near-pathological aversion to speaking about her birth family, which was really frustrating because I knew and adored her mother–who died when I was five–and I was named after her father.  Getting information from my grandmother was like pulling teeth; almost everything I found out came after my grandmother’s death.)

Trisha began her search at the Nashville Public Library with genealogist Kyle Betit, who graciously built an online tree for her on Ancestry, in case you ever forgot who sponsors this show.  Elizabeth was the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson who was begotten by Seaborn who begotten by Jonathan who begotten by Samuel, Trisha’s 5th great-grandfather.  Samuel was that first ancestor born outside of America (Binstead, Hampshire, England in 1744). This indicated that the rest of the episode would be spent on Samuel, and Trisha went on her way to England.

At the Hampshire Research Office, Trisha looked for Samuel in the Baptism Index where she found Samuel, whose last name was hilariously spelled “Winslut.”  Samuel was the son of John and Mary.  Trisha wondered if there were any siblings, and by asking you knew there would be.  Sure enough, she found three brothers, William, James, and John Jr.  Trisha was amazed at how this brought history to life.  Given that there was actually very little beyond names and dates, I’m not sure I understand what she was talking about.

The researcher in Hampshire searched and then produced the Burial Registries from Easter 1753-Easter 1754.  The show went to commercial, but I figured that Samuel’s parents died.  I also wondered how much time could be added if WDYTYA got rid of the unnecessary narrative recap after commercial breaks.  Sure enough, Mary died on May 3, 1754 when Samuel was seven or eight.  John Sr. died about five years later.

Trisha was very interested in what happened to Samuel, and she found one result–Samuel and his brothers James and John were put on trial in West Sussex County for killing several deer at the Shillinglee estate.

Because Shillinglee still exists, that was Trisha’s next stop to find out about this deer incident.  She met with Dr. Emma Griffin at the Shilllinglee Deer Tower.  Long story short, the Winslett brothers (minus William who, despite Trisha’s repeated claim that she wants to know all about the brothers, was never mentioned again), killed five bucks and were turned in by their co-conspirators after the estate owner, Lord Winterton, offered a 30 guinea reward.  In 18th century England, poaching was a death penalty offense.

What made this part so frustrating is Trisha’s comments that she felt sorry for Samuel even though he committed a crime–not that she was trying to justify his actions.  My response to that is, “Why the hell aren’t you trying to justify his actions?”  Samuel was a poor orphan who was facing the death penalty because he poached deer, either for food or for money to buy food.  Don’t tell me about that you feel sorry for him even though he committed a crime; have an awareness that his real crime was poverty.

Now, maybe it’s because I am a Socialist at heart–my ideal country is a northern European government with southern European cuisine–but I cared very little for Trisha’s armchair psychoanalysis about how damaged Samuel was because his parents died.  Yes, fine, whatever.  I fail to understand how Trisha could not notice the fact that Samuel lived in a class system that valued human life so little that poaching deer in a rich man’s estate was a capital crime.  This was a class system that had no mercy for the orphans or the poor.  You only had value if you had a title or money.  Who would stand up for the poor?  The King?  The Lords?  Or the rich men in the House of Commons?  No one would.  Which is why the class system perpetuated until World War I exposed the system’s failings in a major way.  (Although some would say it still very much exists, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.)

On a different site, there was a link to last week’s review (thank you so much, by the way), and a commenter noted that I had strong opinions about the Puritans and the English Civil War.  That’s not exactly true.  I don’t really have strong opinions on either, but I am infuriated by the way WDYTYA time and again manipulates history to create a neat little story, truth be damned.  In the case of the class system though, I have very strong opinions.  The class system is bad.  It is very, very bad.  When the Haves have too much and feel no sense of social responsibility for the Have Nots, then the society is rotten to the core.  And I’m not just talking about 18th century England.


Back to Trisha’s story, her next stop was the National Archives where she learned about the assizes, the county courts where the judges from the Central Court in London would perform their circuit duties.  (Fun fact, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court also used to sit on circuit courts.  Given how much bigger the United States was than England, even back then, you can imagine what kind of hell circuit riding was in the absence of cars, trains, and airplanes.  The early Justices’ hatred of riding the circuits is legendary.)

The court documents showed that the brothers were sentenced to be hanged, but they got a reprieve of sorts.  The King extended mercy to all the prisoners that day and sent them to the American colonies instead of death.  WDYTYA missed a golden opportunity to mention that Georgia was originally envisioned as a haven for debtors.  (And let’s not omit England’s most famous penal colony–Australia.)  Apparently, even in 18th century England the outcry over executing the poor was great enough that convicts were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor instead for businessmen and plantation owners in the American colonies.  In other words, they were temporary slaves.

Samuel was sent to Georgia.  Trisha said she’s rooting for him, which is a silly thing to say given that she knows he died in his 80’s.  Also, she seems to have no interest in what happened to his brothers whom she cared so much about 10 minutes prior.  We never hear about them again, so if anyone has any information, feel free to leave it in the comments.  I’m still interested.

Then we come full circle.  Trisha, who is from Georgia, went back to Georgia to find her ancestor, but not before a commercial.  (If I ever wondered who TLC thinks is the target audience for this show, all doubts were abolished when I saw the pregnancy test commercial.)

At the Georgia State Archive, Trisha discovered that somehow in 1770, Samuel was granted 100 acres of land in Wrightsboro, despite the fact that had only served four years of his sentence (and had probably escaped.)  So the question is why he was granted land.  The answer is most likely that the Georgians had coerced the Creek Indians to cede them a lot of land and then handed out land deeds like they going out of style.  In 1784, Samuel got another 287 and a half acres, all in Creek Indian country.  This is the closest WDYTYA has come this season to anything approaching criticism.  The Georgians, believing the allegedly neutral Creek sided with the British during the American Revolution, effectively forced the Creek to give them more land.  The young Creek hunters were angry about it and considered Samuel and his neighbors to be border jumpers and squatters.  So the two sides were more or less at war, which made Samuel’s land very dangerous, and that was why he was able to get so much of it.  Trisha, en route to the land deeded to Samuel, said she wanted to believe that, after all the trauma done to him, Samuel would not turn around and do the same thing to the Creek, which was a hopelessly naive fantasy.  Sure enough in a document from 1778, Samuel claimed his bay mare was stolen and he believed the Creek stole her.  He complained again in 1779 that the Creek destroyed his property and his furniture, and that he lost $60 worth of livestock.  Eventually he moved his family to Eatonton, where they remained until Trisha’s day.  Or something.  I don’t know.  I thought she came from Monticello. I’m a little confused, and my interest was near spent.

Trisha does one final psychoanalysis of Samuel.  She said that now he feels like she knows him and knows his strength, resilience, and courage.  She said she admires him and believes that while she got her good qualities from her parents, maybe she got a little from Samuel as well.

Now for my part, this led me to question something the show did not address, but felt like an incredibly large elephant in the room.  How did Samuel take care of all the land he had?  What compassion did this courageous, strong, and resourceful man who was punished for poverty and sentenced to forced labor learn from the abuses committed against him?

In the 1820 Census, Samuel Winslett owned 22 slaves.

Next week:  Jim Parsons and the Season Finale

Cindy Crawford, Who Do You Think You Are?

Another Tuesday, another edition of Who Do You Think You Are.  This week’s celebrity is Cindy Crawford, a woman whom I have not thought about in ages.  I imagine that this week’s episode left all serious genealogy-inclined viewers of the show gnashing their teeth in disgust.  It was not enough that Cindy was given a 12 generation family tree in the beginning of the episode; oh no.  (And it was her first day pursuing genealogy too!)  At the end of the episode she was given a 43 generation genealogy chart tracing her ancestry all the way back to Charlemagne.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What bothered me about the episode was not so much that Cindy was spoon-fed her family history, although I did feel a pang of envy, but rather the fact that complicated historical ambiguities were glossed over in favor of facile and incorrect assumptions.  After nearly four seasons, one would think I would be used to this.  Nevertheless, I still get frustrated every time the only lesson the celebrity learns from his or her journey is “Woooo!  My ancestor was awesome!  (And vicariously so am I!)”

Sometimes I wish I could put myself in the shoes of the historians, librarians, professors, and genealogists who appear as guides for the celebrities.  These are people who spend their lives devoted to history.  How does it make them feel to teach lessons that are incorrect even in an elementary school classroom?  Why they are even there?  All they do is give the next clue in the scavenger hunt.

Can I get something else off my chest?  I don’t understand how the opening credits are organized.  They are not alphabetical, and they are not arranged by order of air date.  In the (better) British version of the opening credits, the order is changed each episode so that celebrity of the week is the last one to appear.  The American credits, like the show itself, lack an internal rhyme and reason.


Cindy Crawford wanted to know about her family.  Or perhaps it was because her daughter had a big genealogy project for school.  We got both reasons.  Cindy, who was born in DeKalb, Illinois, knew all four of her great-grandmothers and two of her great-grandfathers.  For that I am truly jealous.  When I was born three of my great-grandmothers were still alive.  Two of them died when I was when a little boy, and the last one died when I was in high school.  I understand how fortunate I am that I remember them, but I’m still jealous of Cindy.  There are so many questions I would have loved to ask.

Cindy said she hoped that it turns out she is related to someone who was historically relevant, but mostly she wanted a connection to history.  I am the opposite; I am proud that I am a descendant of farmers, junk dealers, tailors, housewives, and jewelers, and I completely understand my connection to history.  However, when she expressed her wish that she is related to someone famous, I knew that she would be related to someone big.  Perhaps the biggest sin of WDYTYA is its predictability.

From what I gathered, Cindy’s great-grandparents all lived in Minnesota, so she traveled back and forth between Illinois and Minnesota as a child.  One of her grandmothers was named Ramona Hemingway, and naturally Cindy wondered if she was related to Ernest.  (She is–eighth cousin twice removed.)  Ramona’s parents were Frank and Hazel (Brown) Hemingway, whom Cindy knew as a child.  Frank, a popcorn farmer wanted a son, but got eight daughters instead.

Frank’s parents were called Grandpa Lou and Grandma Lou.  Cindy said she did not know Grandma Lou’s real name, and the show never actually told us.  In fact, on the genealogy chart shown on-screen for the benefit of the viewers, she is labeled as “Grandma Lou,” which I thought was rather condescending.  For the record, her name was actually Carrie Salisbury Hemingway.  You’re welcome.

Cindy, mercifully bucking of the trend of talking to a family member, researches on Ancestry (5 minutes in) on her own.  She randomly found the correct Louis Hemingway by clicking the first entry she saw (note to newbies: don’t search like Cindy does) and discovered that his father Frank came from New Hampshire.  So Cindy went to the New England Historic Genealogy Society in Boston where she got that 12 generation family tree that I mentioned.

It’s got a little confusing here, and I am glad I have an Ancestry subscription to double-check the research.  Bear with me.  Louis’s great-grandparents were Ebenezer and Ruth (Gates) Hemingway.  Ruth’s parents (Cindy’s 6th great-grandparents) were Amos and Mary Gates.  Mary Gates’s maiden name was Trowbridge.  Mary’s great-grandparents (Cindy’s 10th great-grandparents), were Thomas and Elizabeth (Marshall) Trowbridge.  And this is where the show wants us to be.  The Trowbridges were a very old New England family, so old and so important that the New England Genealogy Society had a book them about them.  Thomas and Elizabeth were also the first ancestors of Cyndi’s to be born outside the United States (presumably just on that side of the family, the other branches were left untouched).

Thomas, who was born in Taunton, England around 1600, was the son of John Trowbridge, a wealthy and prominent wool merchant.  Thomas married Elizabeth in 1627 and they had four children, the youngest was born in 1633 in England.  Since Cindy’s own ancestor, Thomas’s son James was born in New England in 1637, that meant that the Trowbridges moved to the new world somewhere between 1633 and 1637.

I have a sense of déjà vu all over again.  Thomas was a Puritan who left for Boston in the mid-1630’s during the so-called Great Migration.  We the audience are told that Thomas and the Puritans fled England because of religious persecution.  I’ve ranted about this before, so I don’t want to spend so much time on this, but this idea that the Puritans left England to flee religious persecution is not the full story, and it drives me crazy when it is treated as such.  When the Quakers and the Catholics came to Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively, they were fleeing religious persecution.  When the Jews from Eastern Europe came to the United States between the 1880’s and the 1920’s, they too were fleeing religious persecution.  But the Puritans were different.  They were a major political faction in England who had just challenged the monarchy.  The Puritans who left did so because the religious and political climate was hostile, but it is not religious persecution as we are accustomed to thinking of it.

Additionally, when the Puritans and the Separatists, both dogmatic Calvinist sects, came to what is now Massachusetts, they did not create a utopia.  Rather, they established a communal theocracy in which those who did not adhere to their strict tenets were punished or exiled (or both).  Thomas Trowbridge was one of those Puritans who believed that Boston was too populated and there was too much dissension–in other words, Boston was not strict enough.  So he and others founded the New Haven Colony.  (Ironic now that New England is the locus of American liberalism and the Congregationalists today are far removed from the Puritans.)

Cindy next went to Hartford, Connecticut where she learned that the New Haven Colony set an attachment on Thomas’s property because he did not pay his taxes and was a debtor to others.  In April 1644 his estate was sequestered and his family was dissolved.  His wife was no longer in the picture, probably dead for years, and his children were given to another member of the community to raise.

Another document showed that Thomas had returned to Taunton to marry Frances Shaddock because there was a dearth of single women and those who were single were completely ineligible for a man of marrying age to wed.  So he left his children in New Haven and fled the colony.  There was no record that he ever came back.

Following on his trail, Cindy flew over to Taunton.  There she was told that it was not unusual for the colonists to return to England either temporarily or permanently.  In 1640 and 1641, there was a great surge of people who returned following King Charles I’s unsuccessful war against the Scots.

Cindy then got a document that required the use of white gloves.  I don’t think I ever mentioned this, but white gloves are somewhat controversial in historical/genealogical circles.  There are two schools of thought.  The first is that the gloves protect the documents from the oils and dirt on readers’ hands.  The second school says that clean hands are better than the gloves which leave behind fibers that damage the documents.  I have no expertise in the matter; I’m just putting that out there.

The document that Cindy got was from the local court rolls, and it’s an award of pensions to former soldiers who were wounded in war.  Their captain was Thomas Trowbridge who, at the time, was a captain of the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War.  So Trowbridge returned to Taunton, not just to marry, but to fight.  We are told he fought “King Charles’s religious oppression.”

I am no scholar of English history, but I find this idea of religious oppression to be extremely simplistic and wrongheaded, and it does an incredible disservice to history.  The English Civil War cannot merely be boiled down to religious oppression in the same way that the American Civil War is boiled down to slavery (which, in and of itself also does a disservice to that war’s complexity).  There were many reasons behind the English Civil War.  There was a money issue, and there was a problem with the Scots, and overshadowing everything was the rising power of Parliament.  And then there was the monarch himself.  The Stuarts were not the Tudors and could not inspire love and fear the way their predecessors could.  Nevertheless, Charles, and before him his father James I, saw themselves as absolute monarchs, unanswerable to both Parliament and the law.  Add this to the fact that Charles married a Roman-Catholic which alarmed Protestant England.  Parliament and the monarchy were on a collision course.  In other words, the English Civil War was less about religion and more about the balance of power.  It resulted in the beheading of King Charles I (not mentioned by WDYTYA), the Protectorate/military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell (also not mentioned), the eventual Stuart Restoration (also absent), today’s complete and utter dominance of Parliament–specifically the House of Commons–in the government, and the relative stability of England later on when the Continent burned with rebellion, or when there was yet another succession crisis.

So… religious oppression?


Back to our story.  Cindy learned that what Trowbridge did–leaving his children and going across the sea–was not that unusual.  She also learned that because of the English Civil War, shipping was disrupted so he could neither bring his children back or write to them.  Cindy decided to give him a break.  It’s lovely until you realize that Thomas lived until about 1672 and left his children in the early 1640’s.  Moreover, the English Civil War ended in 1651.  But again, what do I know?

Cindy went to Taunton Castle where she learned that Taunton was the only holdout in Somerset County for the Parliamentarians, and it was a hotbed of Parliamentary activity.  As a captain, Thomas had a duty to protect the people who were forced to endure a brutal seven month siege by the Royalists.  The people of Taunton dug trenches and built barricades, but the Royalists broke through.  What happened?  A commercial break happened.

After more commercials we learned that on the brink of victory, the Royalists had to withdraw to face Cromwell.  And even though there was a great cost to the city, Thomas Trowbridge was feted as a hero and he helped his soldiers get pensions.  Cindy then decided to learn more about her family, how far back it goes.  After all, she wants her daughter to get an A+ on her genealogy homework.  So she went to London for reasons that were unexplained.  In London she met the historian Charles Mosley, who I swear was in the Brooke Shields episode.  It was Mosley who gave Cindy that second family tree that went all the way back to Charlemagne through Thomas’s mother Agnes Prowse Trowbridge.  There were a lot of names on that tree and the camera went through them very quickly (and I was very glad to find Trowbridge’s family tree on Ancestry).  Earls of Somerset (William de Mohun), counts of Britney, Bernard of Italy, the King of the Lombards.  And then at the top of the tree was Charlemagne.

I’m sure it was very shocking and exciting for Cindy Crawford to learn that her 41st times great-grandfather was one of the great figures of European history, but my first thought was “Henry Louis Gates already did it.”  On one of his genealogy shows, I forget which one, he discovered that the poet Elizabeth Alexander was also a descendant of Charlemagne.  Also, although I cannot say with absolute certainty, I imagine that most people of Western European descent are descended from Charlemagne.  What’s shocking is not that he was her ancestor, but that they were able to trace it, and without actually seeing sources, I am going to be skeptical.  After all, this show does make mistakes.

Finally, Cindy went to Aachen, Germany where she learned all about Charlemagne, and if you’re interested in him there are a zillion resources in print and online, so there is no need for me to summarize.  Cindy said something about being a girl from the Midwest and connecting that to the history she learned, but by that point, I had completely tuned out.

Going back to the Charlemagne lineage, it actually ties in with something I want to make sure I say to any newbies out there.  If you find a family tree that traces your lineage back to Adam and Eve, it is wrong.  Ditto with King Arthur.  And quite frankly, if you find one that traces your lineage back to Charlemagne, demand citations.  Charlemagne, and his known ancestors, is probably the farthest point back in time most people will be able to trace.  Even European royalty, where the lineage is assiduously studied, can go only at the very farthest into the Merovingian dynasty era.  At some point, and is this is probably true around the world, history is not so much fact but legend.  Mathematically, we may all be descendants of Mohammed or Nefertiti or Confucius, but you can’t claim them unless you can document it.  Good luck.

Next week Trisha Yearwood.