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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 GenealogyBank.com 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 Newspapers.com, 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

Ancestry Issues

Just a quick check.  Does anyone else use Ancestry.com and if so, have you been having issues with the site for the past month or so?  I have been having many problems of late, and I am none too happy.  This is definitely a recent development.

Sometimes I think the motto of programming is “If it ain’t broke, break it.”