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