Chris O’Donnell, Who Do You Think You Are?


One small question, and yet one that cannot be easily answered.  Why are we here?  Why do we think, care, feel, or love?  Why do we trace our family trees?  All very difficult questions from a tiny three-letter word.  Nevertheless, there is one why question that I can answer.  Why do I want to punch Chris O’Donnell?  Anyone who watched tonight’s episode surely can sympathize.

Chris O’Donnell is the first male celebrity to appear on this season’s Who Do You Think You Are; in fact, he is one of only two men to appear this season in total (this season is remarkably female and white, which was not the case on NBC).  I wonder how much this reflects general trends in society; in my own research, while I have come across other male genealogists, most of the relatives I have met online are women.  Perhaps I am wrong–I am a sample size of one after all–but it seems to be the case that personal genealogy is female-dominated, or at least egalitarian, while the genealogy of famous historical figures or royalty is a male-dominated pursuit.  I also whether men focus more on events like wars in their research, which brings up to tonight’s episode.

I’m going to spoil the surprise, Chris O’Donnell’s second great-grandfather Michael McEnnis fought in the Mexican-American War (or, the Mexican War) and his fourth great-grandfather George McNeir (or M’Neir) fought in the War of 1812 at Fort McHenry.  If you knew that this was the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then congratulations; you are better educated than Chris O’Donnell.  Both the Mexican War and the War of 1812 (especially the former) are very nuanced conflicts.  Unlike the Civil War or World War II, where there were unambiguous evils–slavery and Nazism respectively–that could at least somewhat justify the fighting, the Mexican War and, to a lesser extent, the War of 1812 were unnecessary and, at least partially motivated by the United States’ nascent desire for empire building.  In the Mexican War, the US manufactured a war to successfully steal large swaths of territory from Mexico because of a misguided belief called Manifest Destiny.  (Then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln opposed the War, as did John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau.)  With regard to the War of 1812, there was definite provocation by the British, who were still angry about the American Revolution and engaged in yet another war against France.  Nevertheless, the War of 1812 was also about American attempts to annex Canada, which was the opposite of the United States–the British colony that stayed loyal to the Crown.  (While neither the British nor the Americans could claim victory in the War of 1812, Canada emerged as the real winner.)

But nuance is well beyond Who Do You Think You Are.  This show is all about heroism and giving the celebrities an American identity to be proud of.  There is no room to ask why?  Why were these wars fought?  Why is a bad question because the answer most certainly disappoints.


Why Chris O’Donnell?  I hadn’t thought about him in years.  Not since Batman and Robin anyway, a movie so bad that one can only respond to it with this.  A movie that effectively killed the Batman franchise until Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale came along.  Technically, WDYTYA did not mention the movie by name (it mentioned the earlier one with Val Kilmer instead–and that’s considered the better one), but it did show a picture of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl.  Chris said that he left Hollywood to raise a family (it’s his running theme).  I thought it was because Batman and Robin effectively killed his career.

Chris said he wanted to find out about his father’s family because of how much he loved his father WIlliam, who died two years ago.  Chris’s niece Tory, an amateur genealogist set him on his path with the contractual plug (4 minutes in), and a lot of information that was just thrown at us very quickly.   Not having a DVR or a TiVO, I cannot go back and see what I missed.  Not being interested in the episode, I wouldn’t even if I could.

Tory told Uncle Chris to focus on his second great-grandfather Michael McEnnis.  I am so tired of the non-organic way of introducing the story.  Apparently Chris already knew all that he needed to know about the other sides of his father’s family.  And his mother is still alive so no need to research her side.  Look, I’ve had it.  Just tell us the truth, “Researchers looked into my family for the past few months and found the most (only?) interesting story to be my father’s great-grandfather.”  Pretending otherwise is just insulting.

So, like most of this season’s celebrities, Chris started in Los Angeles and went somewhere else.  This time the somewhere else was St. Louis, Missouri, the home of Michael McEnnis.  Michael had written his recollections about the cholera epidemic of 1849.  At first I thought he was a journalist, but no, he wrote his moving account years later.  Why did he write these memories?  I don’t recall ever getting an answer to that.  Michael lost his father John and a younger brother, all while he was away fighting in the Mexican War.  (We saw a picture of young Michael, and he looked a lot like Chris.  Scarily so.)

Next Chris flew to Washington DC to meet with Dr. Amy Greenberg, at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library.  I wondered why that location and not at the National Archives, and wondered that until later in the episode when Chris did go to the National Archives and met with a researcher.  I guess Georgetown was nicer.  Greenberg told Chris that Michael requested, and received, an honorable discharge so that he could go back to St. Louis and take care of his family.  She got this information from Fold3, which, if you are unaware, used to be called until it was bought by Ancestry and turned into a primarily military records site (Ancestry went heavy on the advertising tonight).  I’ve never really used Fold3 because none of my ancestors went to war.  (Fun personal fact:  My grandfather was in the army but was honorably discharged before World War II.  Every year on Memorial Day the people who put flags on veterans’ graves mistakenly put the flag meant for my grandfather on his father’s grave despite the fact that he never served in any branch of the military anywhere.  We decided my grandfather, who adored his father, would have preferred it that way, so no one in my family is planning on fixing it.)

Chris then headed off to “the Smithsonian,” and I kept yelling at my television, “Which one?”  See, there are a lot of Smithsonian museums.  It turns out it was the National Museum of American History, but that was left to the narrator to clean up.  At the museum, Chris decided that he and Michael are kindred spirits because Michael left the army to take care of his family ravaged by a cholera epidemic and Chris left Hollywood to start his.  Yes.  Totally equivalent.  At the museum Chris saw a saber used in the Mexican War, and after an anticlimactic commercial break (which this episode was full of), he learned that the saber actually belonged to Michael McEnnis, who donated it to the Smithsonian, where it was kept in storage.  (Chris said that he kept his sword from “The Three Musketeers,” so another totally equivalent comparison between the two.)  I wasn’t exactly clear why the Smithsonian wanted Michael’s saber, but I think it had something to do with being the only living Mexican War survivor in St. Louis in 1905.  Or maybe I am confusing things.  In any case, there was a picture of Michael in 1915 from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a little family background.  Chris said that Michael looked like his dad a little.

It turns out that Michael was actually the 9th generation of his family in America, which if my (admittedly faulty) math is correct, then Michael’s ancestors came to America somewhere around 1620.  That might have been an interesting story.  The Post-Dispatch article mentioned that Michael’s maternal grandfather George McNeir fought at Fort McHenry.  Chris asked where that was.

Okay, here is where he and the show irreversibly lost me.  I ripped Kelly Clarkson for not knowing what Andersonville was.  I was even more anything by Chris O’Donnell not knowing anything about Fort McHenry.  You know, if you are going to put on the whole, “Yay America! U-S-A! U-S-A!” guise, which most of them do, then you should at least not be ignorant about important moments in American history.  I would say that the battle that inspired the lyrics (but not the music) to the national anthem is an important moment in American history.  Even without knowing the nature of battle, you should at least hear “Fort McHenry” and reflexively think “Star-Spangled Banner.”

George McNeir was a third lieutenant in the Sea Fencibles.  Before that he was a humble tailor in Baltimore with a wife and four children.  In 1813, his personal property and inventory was seized because he could not pay his bills, probably because the War of 1812 interrupted trade to Europe where most of his inventory would have been sold.  So he enlisted in 1814, almost a year after his property was seized so that he could put his life in jeopardy to be underpaid.  And yes, he was at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  And then he request and received his discharge, which Chris assumes was to take care of his family, just like Michael McEnnis and like Chris, who (if you didn’t remember) left Hollywood for his family.

At some point Chris ended up at Fort McHenry (as we all knew he would), where he learned about the battle, and Francis Scott Key, etc., and Chris admitted that he never knew what the “Star-Spangled Banner” was about, which made me hate him all the more.  The guide at Fort McHenry asked Chris if he wanted to raise the gigantic flag over the fort, which I am sure they let everyone do no matter what their level of fame is or whether or not there is a television crew with them.  And if the message of Patriotism wasn’t overbearing enough, Chris hoisted the flag to the strains of, you guessed, it, the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

God, how I hated this episode.  The only thing it had going for it was that at least more than one ancestor was profiled.  But, you know, why?  Why prolong the suffering?

Next week: Cindy Crawford.

A little housekeeping note:  I have an engagement next week.  I am hoping to be home in time to watch the show, but my review may be a little late depending on timing and such.


2 responses to “Chris O’Donnell, Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. I was truly disgusted with the lack of knowledge Chris had of American History. As soon as they mentioned Ft McHenry and the port of Baltimore, I knew where this was going…even my third grade students would have known this answer and they would have known Francis Scott Keys as well.

    It’s interesting how anyone who has ever fought a battle is instantly considered a hero which isn’t always the case in real life.

    I must admit that I am envious of the documentation and physical evidence that has been preserved.

    • I’m jealous too. All the branches of my family came from towns and cities in Eastern Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine). As far as I can tell there is little to nothing until they came to the US, and in the early days even that is scant (thank you, vanished 1890 Census).

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