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.