Rob Lowe, Who Do You Think You Are?

You may have noticed that I did not write about Rob Lowe’s episode until well after its initial airing.  I apologize for that.  Because of my work schedule, I was not able to catch the first half of the show last Friday, and the half that I did see was not all that interesting to me, so I had to force myself to sit down in front of Hulu to catch up.  Lowe spent the entire episode chasing after his 5th great-grandfather John Christopher East ( Johann Christoph Oeste).  Episodes that focus on the solitary ancestors are often the most gripping of the entire series; think about Rita Wilson or Susan Sarandon.  The inherent problem with this kind of episode though is that if the ancestor’s story is not gripping, the whole episode is flat and irredeemably dull.  In other words, high risk, high reward.  Wilson and Sarandon had a personal connection to their (respective) father and grandmother, even if in Sarandon’s case she never met her grandmother.  In contrast, Rob Lowe had no knowledge of or connection with his 5th great-grandfather.  He could have been researching anyone, and the distance really came through.

It was also a problem that the entire episode felt like it was shaped fit the search for Lowe’s solitary ancestor despite the pretense he knew nothing about his mother’s family.  First Lowe eliminates his father’s side of the family.  Then he goes on and on about hoping to find a patriot in the family (yes, The West Wing was referenced).  Even his meeting with his brother Chad seemed stilted and awkward as though designed to find the one story that Rob Lowe would be chasing.  It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that all the research is done months in advance, but it really felt like Lowe knew who and what he would be searching for and acted accordingly.  On the bright side, it was good to see Rob and Chad together; I thought they were estranged.

Rob and Chad found the wedding picture of their great-grandparents, Oran Hepler and Bessie May East, and then find a news article from early 1900’s Ohio about a reunion of the descendants of Christopher East.  After an overt Ancestry* plug (and a somewhat more subtle Apple one) about six and quarter minutes into the episode, the Lowe brothers discover a John Christopher East who the Daughters of the American Revolution were looking into as a possible Revolutionary War patriot.  So, off Rob Lowe went to Washington, DC to the DAR’s library.

A word about the DAR.  Without a doubt they have one of the finest collections that a genealogist could hope for, particularly if you have deep American roots.  (As I do not, I am uncertain that the DAR’s collection would do me much good.)  The DAR strikes me as an organization devoted to elitism–in order to be a member, you must have the right ancestry and be able to recite it as though you Homer composing The Iliad.  By default, the right ancestry by-and-large means WASPs, perhaps not entirely but undoubtedly predominantly.  This WASPishness is all the more pronounced because of the DAR’s terrible, foolish, racist blunder in 1939, which it will never live down no matter how hard it tries.  This is because the DAR’s blunder gave us one of the iconic moments in American music (and racial) history.

I am not claiming that the DAR is still a racist, pro-segregation organization, nor do I claim that in 2012 they would refuse to book Marian Anderson (were she still alive) in Constitution Hall.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that by excluding all but a few from their organization, they have created an ersatz Roman patrician class–the ancient founders who have more inherent worth than the rest of us undeserving plebeians.  This gives lie to the pretense (delusion?) that America is a society without a class structure.

At the DAR library, Lowe was given a family tree that showed how his great-grandmother Bessie May was related to John Christopher East.  He also learned that the DAR closed the application on East because there was no proof he fought in the Revolutionary War.  Apparently they had confused East with someone of a similar name.  Lowe did find a tax list from Newtown, Pennsylvania that listed East.  To further pursue the truth, Lowe’s then went to the Library of Congress, although he first stopped by the Lincoln Memorial for meaningless filler shots despite the fact that the Lincoln Memorial is in the opposite direction from the Library of Congress (not that it is that far away when traveling by car).

Long story short, East was in the Revolutionary War, except that he was a Hessian.  Moreover, he was captured by George Washington’s army at the Battle of Trenton, which Lowe did not know much about, but having grown up in the Philadelphia area, I was quite familiar with.  Lowe then went off to visit historical Trenton, and I was disappointed that the Lower Trenton Bridge with its “Trenton Makes The World Takes” sign was not featured.  As a side note, I find Trenton to be a terrifying city although perhaps not yet at Camden levels of sheer horror.  To contradict all my fears, Trenton’s historical area seemed quite lovely.  (As a side note, this map… true.)  On the other hand, Lowe didn’t have to go to Trenton’s train station.

Lowe followed Christopher East’s (Christoph Oeste) path to Newtown, Pennsylvania, a town I know well given that I grew up in that general area.  There he learned that George Washington showed mercy and (via act of the Continental Congress)permitted  the captured Hessians to assimilate in the United States should they defect from the British army.  They were also allowed to go home instead should they choose that path.  Although I learned about the Hessians growing up, I must admit, I never once thought about what they did after the Battle of Trenton.  I guess if pressed, I would have assumed that they went back to the area of what would later become Germany that they were from.  And I would have been mostly right, as 85% of them did return. But not East/Oeste  (Should Oeste have an umlaut over the O instead of an e afterwards?  I am unfamiliar with the finer points of German spelling.)  Oeste stayed and Lowe went to Germany to find out why.  In Germany Lowe learned that Oeste was the youngest of eight children, and therefore had little choice but to join the Hessians to improve his prospects.

Then came the twist.   Because Oeste paid some kind of tax to raise money for the war effort, the DAR accepted him as a patriot, and therefore Lowe was able to joint the Sons of the American Revolution.  Which makes absolutely no sense if you think about it, and despite (or perhaps because of) my railing earlier about the DAR and its elitism, I am highly suspicious of why they accepted Lowe.  My guess is that it is one of three things: (1) they need the membership dues; (2) they want to be able to say that Rob Lowe is a member; or (3) it would look really bad on television if the DAR/SAR kept Lowe out despite the fact that Oeste’s patriot credentials are really rather sketchy.  Technically, Lowe is a descendant of an American Revolution soldier, but a soldier who fought for the wrong side.

In a season of peaks and valleys, this episode is definitely nearer to the bottom.  I apologize to all the descendants of John Christopher East; I have nothing against your ancestor, whose story is no doubt fascinating.  But Who Do You Think You Are did him no justice with an episode that was listless and overly scripted (and allowed me too much time to pontificate on class and the DAR).  I just wanted the episode to end.  This one will not be savored on repeat viewing.

Next week, Lowe’s Parks & Recreations co-star, Rashida Jones, and it seems to be a Holocaust episode.


* For those not in the know, Ancestry just bought, a site that had been around for a while, but only recently tried to make a serious dent in the online genealogy market.  Archives (not to be confused with or was the site that the government chose to partner with for hosting the 1940 Census online.  Ancestry has been steadily gobbling up all competitors, most famously (now Fold3), to the point where it seems like it is the only major American player left in the market other than the LDS Church’s (free) site  In fact, other than FamilySearch, there are really only three major players in the market: Ancestry, the British company brightsolid (which owns and has yet to become a player in the American market), and MyHeritage (which is Israeli, and which is also only starting to break in).  I am quite fearful that Ancestry is going to create a monopoly, and I am wondering if perhaps it would be for the best if federal regulators put a stop to its acquisition of Archives.  Not that they will.