An Olympian in the Family

“Family is what disappears when you’re not looking at it.”

—Keith Chadwick

The ancestors of Tom’s who come to the forefront in episode three of HBO’s Family Tree are Tom’s grandparents, William and Victoria Chadwick, and William’s sister, Victoria, the great-aunt who gave Tom the trunk of family heirlooms that began his his genealogical journey.  Tom doesn’t seem to know much about any of them at the outset, though he spent time with them all in life.

After paying his respects at their graves, Tom returns to his mysterious trunk and coincidentally pulls out a vest tank top and a newspaper clipping related to his grandfather’s appearance in the 1948 London Olympics.  Visits to the local antiques shop and his grandfather’s boxing gym fill in the details of the ’48 Games in London — the “Austerity Games” — held when the UK was still rebuilding after the war.  Though the games were not austere as the running gags throughout the episode suggested, the athletes’ food was rationed (they received double what the typical Brit was entitled to) and no new venues or athlete housing was built (as the city was still rebuilding and many residents still homeless).*  Naturally, Tom’s grandfather was knocked out in his first match, but he provides Tom’s first encounter with the real history his ancestors lived through.

Austerity games: egg race

“Vintage footage” from the ’48 Olympics of the egg-and-spoon race

The episode’s first big revelation that William and Victoria had a ne’er do well brother, Brian, emerges when Tom visits the woman to whom Victoria left her flat, apparently the lesbian life partner no one in the family knew about.  A bittersweet exchange captures Tom’s sense of obligation to keep on with what he calls “The Search.”

Mildred:  Just before she died, Vic said that she hoped you might be the one to carry it on.

Tom:  Carry on what?

Mildred:  I don’t know.

Tom:  (Nods.)  I will.

The major surprise (won’t call it a cliffhanger since you have to have built dramatic tension to have one, and this show has little) is that Tom found the birth certificate of his great-great-grandfather, Charles Chadwick, who was born in… Maryland!  “I’m a Yank?!” Tom’s father protests.  Roll credits.

Austerity games: potato sack race

Austerity Games:  Potato sack race

Fortunately this episode did not include yet another horrific blind date.  Instead, Tom bonds with the daughter of the antiques shop proprietor, who recently called off her engagement.  The cringe-inducing scene — seemingly obligatory in this series — was Tom’s sister’s first ventriloquist performance, about which the less said the better (I seem to write that a lot in these recaps).

Austerity games: Tug of war

Austerity Games:  Tug of war

As the series proceeds, Tom’s actual research is increasingly pushed to the background.  Whatever effort went into finding his grandparents’ graves, or more interestingly, locating his great-great-grandfather’s birth certificate (or even determining who his gggf was) or finding Victoria’s will online (?!), all happened off-screen, putting the focus of the episode on Tom’s uniformly bizarre encounters with the living people who can advance his story beyond the records and heirlooms he finds on his own.  Typically the allocation of time in real genealogical research is the reverse, though bungled wildcard searches may not be appropriate sitcom fodder.  Perhaps if we were all comfortably unemployed like Tom, we could make heritage trips and track down distant relatives to our hearts’ content!

Whatever his approach, it seems finally to have gotten at least one of his family members to take “The Search” more seriously.  After her failed gig, his sister reflected on the wedding guests who were her audience:

They were happy as a family, it seemed.  It just felt like to be in a room with such a big family, it sort of felt that maybe Tom was into the right track looking into family.  Maybe we’ll feel some sort of connection, I don’t know, it just sort of struck me.
—Bea Chadwick

* What actually happened, not mentioned in the episode, is that shortly before Germany invaded Poland, London was chosen to host the 1944 Games.  Shortly after the war ended, the UK decided to keep London in consideration to host in ’48 as a national morale-booster.  Unsurprisingly, the 1940 Games also did not happen.  They would have taken place in… Tokyo.  Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 Games, though Italy was since they switched sides in ’43.  The USSR was invited as well, but did not send any athletes, which Stalin later regretted once he realized the propaganda opportunity he had missed.

The Tail End of the Mystery of Harry Chadwick

“Genealogy is like any other -ology.  Best left to the scientists.”

— Keith Chadwick

The second episode of HBO’s Family Tree, which aired last night, picks right up with Tom showing his father the strange photograph of Harry Chadwick.  (Catch up on the first episode here.)  Great-grandfather is compared to a photograph of his son and to his living grandson and great-grandson — and not a drop of “Chinese-ity,” as Tom’s father calls it, to be detected in any.  Eventually the inscription on the back of the photograph is deciphered as “To the best Nanki-Poo in Hove,” which confirms that unsurprisingly, Harry was not Chinese, but an actor who once played a Japanese role. (Anyone who looked at Harry’s photograph could see that clearly, right?)
HBO's Family Tree | Harry ChadwickOff to Hove Tom goes, accompanied yet again by his faithful, but idiotic friend Pete.  An elderly former neighbor of Harry’s directs them to the local theater, where it is revealed to Tom by degrees that the fame his great-grandfather achieved on the stage was actually for playing… the tail end of a pantomime horse.  Lucky Tom is shown an old photograph and video footage (!) of his great-grandfather performing.  He leaves with his great-grandfather’s costume and a new bit of information:  Harry’s wife had an affair with Sid, the fellow who played the front-end of the horse.  The affair broke up the partnership, and after Harry died, his wife and former partner married and left town together.  The news hits Tom hard, as he also feels cuckolded by his former girlfriend.

Like so many of us, Tom wishes to pay homage to his great-grandfather.  He & Pete enter the annual costume horse derby, which Harry & Sid often won.  Needless to say, they do not continue the family tradition.  But it’s sweet that Tom cared so much.

After a creepy blind date (about which the less said the better), the episode concludes with a poignant scene in a cemetery — Tom reflecting on the sad end to Harry’s life — while the camera lingers on the backend of a horse engraved on Harry’s tombstone.  This was the part of the episode where I started yelling at the screen — this time for Tom to look at the names on the surrounding tombstones.  He notes only two, Harry’s parents, and wonders why their birth dates are not indicated on their tombstones.  Perhaps this mystery will occupy Tom next.


HBO's Family Tree |

Family Tree’s fake genealogy site,, showing Harry Chadwick’s death certificate

I’m beginning to see how this show operates.  The nature of genealogical research brings Tom into contact with new weirdos in new comedic settings every episode, perfect for Christopher Guest’s style of short vignettes with a wide range of actors.  Unfortunately like many viewers I’m just not finding it all that funny so far.

It’s also a little predictable, and I don’t think that’s just because I do genealogy and recognize all the old canards.  But I’ll keep watching.  The moments were Tom feels truly struck by the emotion of walking in Harry’s footsteps certainly feel genuine, unlike the absurd situations he keep walking into.  Though it can’t help that Tom is, well, such a loser, whose own family thinks his hobby is just a passing phase to fill the void in his life, these moments, plus the general fun and easy (too easy!) satisfaction of Tom’s genealogical journey, certainly present our obsession well to a new audience.

Genealogy: The Sitcom?

At NGS last week Dick Eastman and I had a discussion — was HBO’s Family Tree actually about genealogy?  He pointed out that the trailer follows the main character as he tracks down living relatives… which wasn’t quite what I was hoping the show would be about.  Well, who knows how the series will play out, but the first episode will feel awfully familiar to family historians.

Our budding genealogist is Tom Chadwick, recently bereft of girlfriend, job, and now great-aunt.  The latter’s passing puts him in possession of an old chest, inside of which he finds a photograph of a man in turn of the century military garb.  All his father can tell him is that he is Tom’s great-grandfather, who was some sort of military hero.  Eventually Tom finds his way to a fictional Maureen Taylor, who in true genealogical fashion clears up the mystery of the photograph, but leads Tom into an even bigger one.

HBO Family Tree:  Harry Chadwick

Tom:  He’s a Chinese man?
Neville:  Yes, hence his name. Harry Chadwick.

The field marshall in the photograph is not Tom’s ancestor… but Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge!  Typical mistake!  It turns out that Tom’s great-grandfather took the photograph, and a picture of this great-grandfather shows him to be… Chinese?!

There’s much in the pilot episode that rings true for genealogy buffs, from the old photograph you can’t stop wondering about, to the desire to see in yourself the best characteristics your ancestors embodied.  Alas, the genealogy on the show is presented in true WDYTYA style, where key records just happen to be at the fingertips of the researcher, and breakthroughs happen in seconds, but it is recognizably genealogical research.  (As an aside:  Was anyone else yelling at Tom to take the photograph out of the frame to read the back?)

However, there’s much that does not ring true at all.  For one, Tom’s best friend accompanies him on a long train ride to visit the photographic expert, but when have you ever convinced a non-genealogically-inclined friend to accompany you on any genealogical excursions?!  Furthermore, Tom’s blind date seems to take great interest in Tom’s genealogical quest, but I can tell you from extensive personal experience that this is not what happens in real life.

Overall the show seems promising, if you don’t mind dry British comedy or the extreme eccentricities of Christopher Guest-created characters.  I can’t yet say I’m invested in Tom or his living family, but the mystery of Harry Chadwick I’m curious to see unfold.  And if nothing else, I wouldn’t mind catching another glimpse of the show-within-a-show of The Plantagenets!

Click here for our review of Episode 2.

Pretends to be Free

Pretends to be FreeAs genealogists broaden their interests beyond their most illustrious forebears to include their least, specialized kinds of records must be sourced to flesh out the story of people who were overlooked in their own time.  The descendents of enslaved Americans, who never even had birth certificates, marriage records, or proper tombstones, face a rather extreme version of this challenge.  But personal records do survive in unexpected corners.  One underutilized resource that provides insight, and perhaps inadvertent dignity, to early American slaves is a collection of runaway slave ads reprinted in Graham Hodges‘ 1994 book Pretends to Be Free:  Runaway Slave Advertisements from Colonial & Revolutionary New York & New Jersey.  The “top of an ill-defined iceberg,” the 753 fugitive slaves described in these ads stand out as individual personalities representing a forgotten and largely unmemorialized group.

New York Gazette and the Weekly MercuryTake, for instance, the ad placed in the loyalist New York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury for Betty, a rare example of a female runaway, who left her master while New York was under British occupation in 1777.

A NEGRO WENCH, RUN-AWAY, supposed to Flatbush, on Long-Island, where she was lately purchased of Cornelius Van Der Veer, jun. is about 2[ ] years old, call’d BETTY, can speak Dutch and English, is of a stubborn disposition, especially when she drinks spirituous liquors, which she is sometimes too fond of; is a pretty stout wench, but not tall, smooth fac’d and pretty black; ’tis probable she may be conceal’d in this city.  Whoever harbours her will be prosecuted, but such as give information to Wm. Tongue, her owner, in Hanover-Square, shall receive FIVE DOLLARS with thanks.  She usually wore a striped homespun pettycoat and gown.

Here’s the context lacking from the ad:  Much of the city had burnt in a massive September 1776 fire, and the Van der Veer family, her former owner, was particularly reeling: several of its men were serving in what was to become known as the Continental Army, and one Van der Veer, a military surgeon, may have already been captured.  This information, readily available to any history buff, likely explains why Betty was sold.

But the biographical details about Betty are unique to this source.  Though the description of her character is tainted by the frustrations of her owner, it’s also likely the only assessment of her personality that exists.  Between the lines one can detect her positive qualities — her opportunism, commitment to the family she was taken from, and her determination to gain her freedom — as well as clues with research potential.  For example, the fact that she is bilingual in Dutch and English indicates that she must have deep connections to her destination, Flatbush, as this agricultural corner of Brooklyn retained its Dutch character for generations after Peter Stuyvesant’s surrender in 1664.

Another ad, also in a 1777 issue of the Gazette, seeks the return of 25 year old Harman.  In it, one can almost sense the indignation of the person writing the ad after Harman’s second disappearance.

TEN DOLDARS Reward.  LEFT Brigadier General De Lancey’s service, from his farm at Bloomingdale. a negro fellow named HARMAN, of a yellowish colour, broad face and shoulders, hollow back, big buttocks, and remarkable strong well shaped legs, with a very large foot, is about 25 years of age, understands farming.  Had on a Dutch Thrumb’d cap, a blue sailors jacket, speckled or white shirt, good trowsers and shoes, with a spare buckskin breeches.  This is his second elopement, and by his dress may induce masters of ships to entertain him, who are requested to deliver him to New-York goal.  Whoever takes him up shall have the above reward paid by General DeLancey, the printer, or Mr. Joseph Allicocke.

Harman’s fine dress was atypical — most runaways had only the standard slave attire of buckskin britches and tow cloth shirts.  As the ad notes, this advantage gave him an unusual form of cover… or is the writer insinuating something more about his character and intentions?

It would have been well-known to readers that Harman’s owner, the notorious loyalist General Oliver DeLancey, was away at the front with the regiments he personally financed, and Joseph Allicocke, another prominent loyalist, was responsible for collecting him.  It turns out Harman’s timing was prescient as well as opportunistic: the DeLancey manor house was ransacked by patriots a few months later.

Harman and Betty were part of a dramatic increase in the number of runaway slaves during the war.  Some even fought for the country’s independence — or against their former masters.  The most famous of these is the subject of his own ad:  “Run away from the subscriber, living in Shrewsbury, in the county of Monmouth, New-Jersey, a NEGROE man, named Titus, but may probably change his name..”  Indeed, Titus, became Colonel Tye, a Loyalist commander who led raids against the Americans.  (You can read more about the fate of these Black Loyalists here.)

From these examples one gets a sense of the valuable information that these runaway slave ads can provide genealogists.  They are rich in both names and stories; masters, slaves, agents, printers, and locations are all described.  More than that, the perverse level of detail in which owners documented their lost property ironically gives us some of the most complete human portraits we have of enslaved Americans.  Ads routinely list scars, bad habits, skills with animals, farming, trades, languages spoken, and even musical aptitude (42% of runaways were musicians!). Family and geographical connections are at times made plain, shedding rare insight into a group of people for whom a more traditional paper trail does not exist.

As genealogists we always need to keep in mind that resources are always most useful when used in conjunction with each other.  How do these ads compare to family records?  Do bills of sales or receipts in ledgers help us paint a broader picture of the lives of both slaves and masters?  And what of the family burial ground?  If you’re one of the rare genealogists who has been able to trace your enslaved ancestors to the Colonial period, comparing your existing records to these ads might reveal a lost chapter of courage in your family’s history.  And for those without a traceable connection to these people, the glimpses into slave culture and masters’ perceptions of their property reveal details about this period that history books too often gloss over.

Though Pretends to Be Free is a difficult and expensive book to purchase, much of it is available on Google Books, and it is held by many large public libraries.  Search to find a copy near you, or your local librarian can help you utilize the interlibrary loan network.

Who Replaced My Book?

It is the most important revolution in how we read in history:  the traditional form factor of books is dramatically altered after centuries.  Readers must alter how they read–not only how they physically manipulate these new books, but also how they remember a book’s content in their minds and discuss it with friends.  During the time period when the old format gradually supplants the new, there are lots of complainers who feel that the new way debases the reading experience as well as the content itself.  “I just don’t read that way!” they protest.

Do you think I’m talking about the rise of e-books?

I’m not — I’m talking about the replacement of scrolls with codexes (books) starting in the first century!

We genealogists know better than most how much history repeats itself, but it’s amazing to think that almost two millennia ago, people struggled to make the switch from one-sided, one-page scrolls to two-sided, many-page books just as we struggle to move from paper to screen.  We know why e-books are winning:  superior technology.  Codexes replaced scrolls for the same reason.  The breakdown into pages meant for the first time the reader could easily flip back and forth to different sections and reference passages in a clear way.  These advances enabled the early Christians to study and share scripture; it was they who popularized codexes.

Scroll/codex comparison

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang via

Unfortunately, the e-book format reverses some of this progress.  On an e-reader, as in a scroll, it’s very difficult to read non-linearly.  This reason is partly why I am one of the hold-outs still without an e-reader.  I have rituals for how I mark my place, identify my favorite passages, and sometimes let myself skip ahead (bad!).  Instead of buying art, I line my walls with shelves of books, and when one catches my eye, I pull it down to skim my favorite parts.  How does any of this happen with an e-reader?

E-readers clearly win for making books more accessible, affordable, and portable.  But do they advance the actual experience of reading as codexes did?  Search engines and hyperlinks are useful, but surely I’m not just a curmudgeon when I say that the inability to flip through pages is more than the loss of my life-long habits, but a set-back for how we consume and absorb content?

In the first century Pliny wrote, “our civilization…[depends] very largely on the employment of paper,” upon which “the immortality of human beings depends.”  Though short-sighted about paper, he hits a kernel of truth in the transmission of knowledge.  Four centuries later Cassiodorus says it better.  A papyrus scroll “keeps a faithful witness of human deeds; it speaks of the past, and is the enemy of oblivion…There discourse is stored in safety, to be heard for ever with consistency.”  This is the principle that matters most:  a witness that transcends time. So long as we maintain that — whether via ink or pixels — we’ll progress.  The Greeks only read linearly, and look how they advanced human knowledge!

The Other Obama Genealogy

With election season in high gear, publishers are releasing book after book about the Obamas.  In genealogy circles, the one getting the most coverage is Rachel Swarns’ American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama, because Megan Smolenyak pointed out the book’s “considerable holes” and over-reliance on “family lore and flimsy evidence.”  But there is another new Obama book venturing into genealogical territory, Barack Obama: The Story.  It has gotten much attention for the embarrassing letters David Maraniss excerpts to show how a young Obama’s romantic and intellectual pursuits shaped him.  But as Jill Lepore argues in a recent New Yorker review, the book’s more provoking questions are about to what degree genealogy made the man.

That Obama’s Kansan mother and Kenyan father should have met at all at the University of Hawaii requires Maraniss to trace both lines to get at the roots of the Dunhams’ wanderlust and the Obamas’ Westernization. “The genealogy of any family involves countless what-if moments,” Maraniss writes.  “That is how history works, the history of families as well as the history of nations and movements.  Along with with the rational processes of biology and geography, of politics and economics, there come seemingly random connections that spin out profound and unintended consequences.”  But, as Lepore points out, are Maraniss’ intentions to make biographical or genealogical connections?

Weird stuff happens.  What does it mean? . . . In biography, order is to be found in the journey of life; in genealogy, in lines of descent.  In biography, the boy is father of the man.  In genealogy, the boy is a leaf on a branch on his family tree . . . [his] origins are inescapable . . . Inheritance is destiny.

In the first case Obama actively works to reconcile his unique identity, arriving at the proud conviction that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”  In the other, with no regard for the man’s agency in how to receive his legacy, “ideological pseudo-historians” (Maraniss) use the genealogical line Obama knew the least to argue that his values are un-American and we’re “being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s” (Dinesh D’Souza).

Let’s take a step back from the incendiary issues of Obama’s real or purported political goals to acknowledge which connections we make in our own lives.  Did you forge your own identity, or was it handed to you?  I believe that we do genealogy because of the joy in discovering exactly what were the random connections that spun out the most profound consequence of all — us!  But in our day-to-day lives, it’s our mental biographies, re-written in the aftermath of each new experience, that record our evolving sense of self.

To me the biography vs. genealogy argument underlying Maraniss’ book deserves more consideration than whether American Tapestry was a correct and complete genealogical study.  The latter discussion may make us better genealogists, but the former will make us more thoughtful people.

Who Do You Think You Are? Season 3 Superlatives

It’s been two weeks since the last (ever?) season of Who Do You Think You Are? wrapped up — time for superlatives!  Here are my picks:

Best Episode:  Jason Sudeikis’ three generations of sons without fathers.  Each generation’s story involved fascinating records and surprising twists, but the connection of each generation to the next made for the best episode-wide arc of the season.  We saw how the forgotten past influences our present, and Jason clearly got how lucky he was to have a father who broke the cycle.  Honorable mention to Edie Falco’s even more dysfunctional line tracing back to the orphaned daughter of a master mariner from Penzance.

Best Guest:  I loved how Reba McEntire connected her ancestors’ distant lives to her modern proclivities (ex: why she never liked England).  I loved how she personified her ancestors and addressed them directly.  I was moved when she apologized to her seven times great-grandfather for judging his decision to indenture his son.  Best of all, she got the irony that this indentured ancestor’s success paved the way for his prosperous descendants… to own slaves.  What a family story, and what a person to discover it!

Most Emotional Episode:  I give Rashida Jones’ lopsided family tree the slight edge over Rita Wilson’s father’s escape from Communist Bulgaria.  Although it was pretty clear early in both episodes where we were going, I cried with Rashida when she and her mother paid their respects at Rumbala and also with Rita when she read her father’s first letter from freedom.  But Rashida’s journey came as a total revelation to her; whereas Rita’s filled in details of a story she mostly already knew.

Most Ironic Disocvery:  The shiksa goddess from Mad About You turns out to be descended from Jewish aristocracy!  Helen Hunt seemed completely nonplussed by this connection (in contrast to her Augusta Hunt connection), but I was shocked!

Most Interesting Ancestor:  Blair Underwood’s three times great-grandfather, Sauny Early.  “Eccentric character wearing badges and cabalistic (sic) signs.”  “Second Jesus.”  “Negro religious enthusiast or lunatic.”  Given how many times he was shot — in the face, even! — declared dead, even! — he might not have been so crazy when he claimed that no man could kill him.  It also turns out he might not have been so crazy for “[declaring] war” on his neighbors, who in reality encroached upon his property.

Most Appreciative of His Ancestry:  Rob Lowe didn’t have the sort of Revolutionary War hero he expected, but his Hessian five times great-grandfather prisoner-turned-patriot proved to be a much more inspiring example for Lowe’s patriotism.

Most Enviable Breakthrough:  My most vexing brick wall is how the last name Davis prevents me from tracing this line into Eastern Europe.  But Rashida Jones’ Bensons were Bensons since the day Latvian Jews took last names in the early 19th c.!  It is extremely difficult to find these kinds of records in this part of the world, which makes the discovery all the more remarkable.

Agree?  Disagree?  What are your picks?

Finally Someone on Finding Your Roots Has a Native American Ancestor

We’d call the guests on the season’s last episode of Finding Your Roots Hispanic, but two of them wouldn’t.  Linda Chavez sees herself as a “mix of European cultures,” and Adrian Grenier calls himself a “Native American white boy,” who checks the “Other” box on forms.  Only Michelle Rodriguez calls herself Hispanic.  To varying degrees they all came on the show wanting the evidence to bulwark these identities they had shaped for themselves.  But Gates’ own goal for the episode was the reverse, “to find out how such similar family trees could lead to such different identities.”

(Spoiler alert.)  Though Hispanic Americans are often lumped together with more recent Spanish-speaking arrivals, only one of Gates’ guests, Michelle, turned out to be connected to recent immigrants to the US. Though Linda faced discrimination as a child for being “Mexican,” her ninth great-grandparents came to the US in the late 16th c.  Arriving around the same time was Adrian’s 11th great-grandfather, one of the original Spanish settlers in New Mexico. In the early days of Spanish colonization the male settlers had no choice but to procreate and/or intermarry with Native Americans and African slaves.  As we learned in the last episode about the eastern colonies, only later did racial divisions set in in the west, when the Spanish created an elaborate class system to preserve the status of whites above the new racial mixtures.  The celebrities’ crazily tangled family trees were the result of intermarrying rather than risk losing their status.  Ironic given modern discrimination against Hispanic Americans.

And even more ironic since these bloodlines did not begin as pure!  The son of Adrian Grenier’s conquistador forebear had children with a Native American, as did Linda’s seventh great-grandmother when she was held captive.  But Linda’s suppressed racial history doesn’t end there.  The ninth great-grandparents mentioned earlier?  Crypto Jews who fled the Inquisition!  In fact, the large percentage of Middle Eastern genes in her DNA suggests other Crypto-Jewish lines as well.

It’s not this forgotten history that answers Gates’ original question about his guests’ differing identities, but much more recent events.  “Other” Adrian was raised by a single mother who wanted him to identify with his rumored Apache forebear more than the Hispanic community she left.  “Hispanic” Michelle (who cried “eeeuuw!” when she learned her DNA was three-quarters European) was raised primarily by her Dominican grandmother partially in the impoverished Dominican Republic.  And “European” Linda grew up knowing that her family’s illustrious past, including a former governor of NM, had been spoiled by a criminal grandfather.  Each internalized the hardships of their youth and shaped themselves accordingly.  What they learned on the show may or may not change them.

For the rest of us, we are reminded that history is written by the victors.  We neglect how much the Spanish shaped the US in favor of the current politicking over illegal immigration and failed assimilation.  These family histories defy the usual prejudiced assumptions, leaving us with as much to reevaluate as Gates’ guests.

Paula Deen’s Ancestors Owned Slaves

The early part of my personal journey in genealogy confirmed the obvious. While I had not previously known any of the towns or circumstances of my ancestors’ lives, everything I learned was exactly what you would expect for a person of my background. The surprises came later.

In Friday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Paula Deen traveled around the State of Georgia proving that she had deep Georgia roots. She learned along the way that her great-great-great-grandfather, John Batts, owned slaves — 35 according to the 1860 census. Somehow she was shocked to learn the news. “My family was never involved in slavery in any way,” she had previously believed. “It’s the hard reality of the Old South,” consoled the historian assisting her.

But Batts was not just any slave owner. He was one of the largest plantation owners, whose personal fortune, mostly consisting of slaves, amounted to a million dollars before the war. He was a congressman, state senator, and judge, who supported the pro-slavery candidate in the 1860 election. In short, he was a person who profited as much as a man could from this peculiar institution and did as much as a man could to preserve the status quo. He paid a terrible price: he never recovered from his son’s death in battle, and after losing his fortune in the 1873 depression, he shot himself in the head. Of everything that she learned and intuited, somehow what Paula most found in him was a “tremendous love of family.”

Perhaps Batts’ suicide explains why the family’s past got lost, but the episode left other unanswered questions. I most wanted to learn how Batts had risen to his position in the first place. I suspect Paula would have as well; her major take-away from everything she uncovered, as she explained to her sons, was “We are deeply, deeply vested in this beautiful state.”

I can connect to her Georgia pride 100%, since it’s how I felt to confirm that my ancestry connected me deeply to exactly what I most wanted to be connected to. But I wonder how she really felt about Batts’ full legacy. Today there are African-Americans who believe they are due reparations because of people like her ancestor. How should her family’s past affect her? Does it impose a moral obligation on her? Should the revelation change her or her outlook?

The episode ended with Paula exploring the overgrown landscape where the long-gone plantation had stood. People profited and suffered on the land by extremes, the country was torn asunder as a result, but not even the foundations of a house or the presence of a wild cotton plant remained to bear witness to what once had been. But the past was not obliterated entirely. Paula may have had had to search deep in archives all over the state, but the land at the center of her research — mere miles from her own birthplace — proclaims its past boldly: “Batts Road,” reads the street sign. It knows.