Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Chris O'Donnell

The emphasis on this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was on family.  The message was delivered in almost as heavy-handed a fashion as the "strong women" in the Kelly Clarkson episode, though Chris O'Donnell was far more believable than Clarkson.  In the introduction O'Donnell says that he's doing research on his father's family in honor of his father, who recently passed away, and that there's a legacy of courage, patriotism, and devotion to family.

The overview of Chris O'Donnell says that he's an actor, producer, and director.  He is mainly known as one of the stars of NCIS:  Los Angeles, and he's been in this career for more than 25 years.  Some of his important roles over the years have been in Men Don't Leave, Scent of a Woman, and Batman Forever.  He had the opportunity to be part of the Hollywood scene but family was more important to him.  At the age of 26 he met the "right person"; they have been married 16 years and have five children.

O'Donnell is the youngest of seven children.  His father, William O'Donnell, was born in 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri.  His father passed away two years ago (actually 2010, I think; later in the episode we get something about the filming being done in 2012) and by researching his father's family history he can maintain a connection with him.  William O'Donnell was a self-made man who put family first.  O'Donnell gets a little choked up when he speaks about his father and is obviously very emotional.  William was a solid role model and was proud of O'Donnell and his accomplishments.  O'Donnell's mother is still alive, so he can ask her questions about her side of the family, but can't do the same for his father's side.

Even though his mother is still alive, O'Donnell doesn't meet with her to start his reearch.  Instead he sits down with his sister Libby's middle daughter, Tory Berner, who currently (for the summer) is living with O'Donnell and his family.  Berner is this family's amateur genealogist, and she has put some information together.  (I'm really starting to wonder about all these celebrities who just happen to have someone in the family who's been doing genealogy work.)  She says right up front that she's been doing all of her research online, which should raise alarm bells, but off we blithely go.

Berner starts by saying that they know William's parents were Sarah Regina McCabe and John O'Donnell.  Berner has an 1886 baptismal certificate for Sarah from St. Louis; it says Sarah's parents were Henry McCabe and Mary McEnnis.  Berner suggests they find out more about the McEnnises and tells O'Donnell to look up McEnnis in St. Louis.  In the 1850 census he finds a 1-year-old Mary McEnnis in a household with Michael and Eliza McEnnis, probably Mary's parents — but since no relationships are listed in the 1850 census, this is just a supposition.  Without saying where she has found any verification of these people's identities, we immediately leap to the conclusion that Michael McEnnis is definitely O'Donnell's great-great-grandfather.

O'Donnell says he recognizes the name McCabe but has never heard of McEnnis before, so he wants to know more that side (how convenient).  Berner says she has looked at some local history sites and suggests O'Donnell look on the Missouri History Museum Web site.  (What?!  Ancestry.com allowed another company's Web site to be shown on the program?  I wonder how high the promotional fee was.)  O'Donnell dutifully searches for McEnnis and finds a reference to a cholera epidemic in 1849 in an online guide.  Berner says there's nothing else online, but since Michael McEnnis wrote the report, O'Donnell should go to St. Louis to find out what it says.  (When I searched I actually found online images of the report; page 1 is to the left.  Admittedly, they're low resolution, because they want you to buy copies, but I was able to read them.  I will concede that the museum may have posted the images online because of the filming of the program.  But they've never heard of interlibrary loan?)

O'Donnell travels to the Missouri History Museum Library in St. Louis, where he meets archivist Dennis Northcott.  O'Donnell explains that his ancestor Michael McEnnis wrote about the cholera epidemic in St. Louis and that he would like to find out more information.  Northcott says that he must have found the reference in the online guide and that he will get the item from the stacks.  (How refreshingly realistic!  Not everything is already pulled, and the admission that some things are stored in back and have to be retrieved!)  The manuscript is an original recollection written by Michael McEnnis.  Northcott says it was probably donated by McEnnis or a family member.  (Another refreshing change -- no conservator's gloves!  Maybe whether they wear them depends on the individual repository's policies.)

O'Donnell asks about the cholera epidemic.  The 1849 cholera epidemic came to the U.S. from Europe.  St. Louis was one of the hardest hit cities.  The epidemic killed about 10% of the population.  At its height 88 people were buried each day; 4,500 people died in three months.  (This doesn't quite add up, but that's what he said.)  At the time people didn't know what caused cholera, so it spread easily and rapidly.

Michael's father John McEnnis was the superintendent of a graveyard in St. Louis (a Catholic graveyard according to the document, though they didn't state the denomination in the episode).  Michael was off fighting in the Mexican War when he received a letter from his family.  His father had died and his brother had taken charge of the cemetery, but his brother had become very sick.  No one else was available to take care of the burials, and the family needed Michael's help.

One of Michael's reminiscences was the story of a woman who came to the cemetery with a bundle.  She asked for a poor ticket for a 12-year-old child's burial.  The bundle was the child in question, and she had already buried her husband and her other child.  She was the last of her people, and when she died they would all be gone.  (It wasn't stated in the program, but this must have been after Michael's return to St. Louis from the war.)

Northcott shows O'Donnell a photograph of Michael, who looks like a serious young man.  The 1850's are fairly early for photography, so it is uncommon to have a photograph of someone, much less have it survive.  O'Donnell wants to know where he can find more information about Michael in the Mexican War, and Northcott says he should go to Washington, D.C.  As he leaves, O'Donnell says that he has no written account of his own father's life, but now he has one for his great-great-grandfather.  So far he finds Michael's life to be amazing and wonders what else he will find.

In DC, O'Donnell goes to the Georgetown Neighborhood Library and talks with Amy S. Greenberg of Pennsylvania State University, listed as an expert on the Mexican War (though it does not appear to be the main focus of her research).  She has Michael McEnnis' compiled military service record (CMSR) from the National Archives, so the Georgetown library is yet more window dressing.  O'Donnell gives a lame cue — "Can you give me a synopsis about the Mexican-American War?  Refresh my memory from my senior year in high school." — and Greenberg explains that in May 1846 the United States extended only to the Midwest but believed in manifest destiny, so we declared war on Mexico, which controlled the continent from Texas west to California.

Michael's service record jacket showed that he was in the 1st Regiment of the Missouri Mounted Infantry.  (If Michael's records are at NARA, I would normally think he was in the regular U.S. Army, not in a state volunteer unit, as those records are generally held in state archives.  But I've researched the Mexican-American War — in fact, a Missouri mounted unit — and I recall that most units were state volunteers, and this sounds like a state unit.)  Greenberg explained that he was a 12-month volunteer.  His first muster card, for June 11–August 31, 1846, showed that he signed up less than one month after President Polk had called for volunteers.  His unit's orders were to go to New Mexico, capture the enemy, then go to California and capture the enemy there.  (This is a weird coincidence.  This is exactly what the orders were for the person I researched for this war.  I'm pretty sure Michael's unit was under General Kearny.)  This was during two months of the summer in Oklahoma and New Mexico, when the weather would have been broiling.  Michael's muster card for January–February 1847, though, shows that he was absent on furlough in St. Louis.  For some reason, O'Donnell comments that "he disappears", but later corrects it to saying he was on furlough, and wants to know why.  Greenburg has him look online on Fold3.com (owned by Ancestry.com!), where he finds a letter from Michael to the Adjutant General dated December 21, 1846, applying for a discharge.  Michael stated that on June 7 he had left St. Louis/Fort Leavenworth and then arrived in Santa Fe, where he had learned of the death of his father.  He had a large and helpless family and needed to return to them.  For some reason O'Donnell asks whether the discharge was dishonorable.  Greenberg immediately responds, "No!" and says that it was an honorable discharge.  She then mentions that the Smithsonian has an amazing collection of Mexican War artifacts and suggests that O'Donnell should check it out while he is in town.  This immediately implied that the research team had found something there about Michael McEnnis.

O'Donnell talks about how Michael had volunteered to serve his country right away but went back to St. Louis to take care of his family.  His duty to his family was his priority, more important than his military career.  O'Donnell relates to that, as his own family is his priority also.

O'Donnell heads off with Greenberg to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.  Curator David Miller (this page says he's the Gun Room curator) meets them at a display about the Mexican War.  On a table are a cavalry saber and scabbard.  Miller hands O'Donnell a letter and says it came with the saber.  The letter is dated June 5, 1905 and was written by Michael McEnnis.  Michael said he "accidentally retained" the old saber and was now donating it at the request of a friend (perhaps someone associated with the museum).  To handle the saber, the conservator's gloves do come out.  Miller explains it is a Model 1813 horseman's saber and that it's been in storage.  (Apparently the Smithsonian has an excellent listing of its storage items!  How in the world did the show's researchers find out about this?)  O'Donnell wonders whether Michael would have thought that his great-great-grandson would be holding it 107 years later (which is how we can tell this was shot in 2012).  O'Donnell mentions that he also "accidentally" kept his sword from The Three Musketeers, so apparently it runs in the family.

Greenberg says she had done some additional research and they also found a photo of Michael.  Michael looks to be about 80 years old, so they've estimated it dates to about 1905, the time of the letter.  Michael looks rather distinguished, with a full head of gray hair; O'Donnell wonders if he'll get gray hair also.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from May 14, 1911 talked about Michael as the only man still living in St. Louis of the 8,600 men from the city who were in the Mexican War.  The article said he came from fighting stock and was the ninth generation of his family in this country.  In the War of 1812 88 members of the family fought, including Michael's grandfather George McNeir, a lieutenant in the sea fencibles who participated in the bombardment of Ft. McHenry.  From the cholera epidemic manuscript, O'Donnell knows that Michael's father was John, so assumes that John's wife must have been a McNeir and George was her father.  O'Donnell makes an unusual comment:  "Looks like I'm going to find out something about George McNeir."  (Maybe he's psychic.)  To find out more about George, O'Donnell is told to look for records at the National Archives.

O'Donnell starts adding up the numbers — if Michael was the ninth generation in this country, that makes O'Donnell the thirteenth, and his children the fourteenth.  Then he starts thinking about George McNeir, his fourth great-grandfather, who was in the War of 1812, and wondering what he will learn.

Now he goes to the National Archives (that's probably why they shot the first scene with Greenberg somewhere else) and talks to historical researcher Vonnie Zullo.  (We also saw her on the Kelly Clarkson episode.)  Zullo tells O'Donnell he's "in luck" becuase George McNeir's original CMSR for the War of 1812 still exists.  The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain.  Great Britain was at war with France, and the U.S. had been trading with France, so Great Britain started attacking U.S. ships and impressing sailors.  At the beginning the U.S. was being crushed.

McNeir was a third lieutenant in Captain John Gill's company of sea fencibles.  O'Donnell says, "I've never heard of a sea fencible."  (Neither had I; thank heavens for Wikipedia!)  They were local men who protected key U.S. ports.  O'Donnell asks what a third lieutenant did.  Zullo responds that he would have been in charge of the cannoneers, and they joke that he probably would have had bad hearing.  The first of McNeir's muster cards shown is for February 28–March 31, 1814.  At that time the war was not going well for the U.S.  The British had more ships and men and were destroying towns by burning them to the ground.  The next muster card, for April 30–June 30, 1914, showed McNeir in Ft. McHenry in Baltimore.  (No muster card was shown for June 30–August 31, during which period the British burned Washington, on August 24.)  The final muster card shown was for August 31–October 31, 1814, which did not list a location but indicated McNeir was discharged.

Zullo again says that O'Donnell is very lucky, because she was able to find a few more documents.  She emphasized this was uncommon.  One is a letter from McNeir dated October 22, 1814.  He wrote to the Secretary of War asking to resign his position as third lieutenant, citing a situation with his family that required his presence.  The similarity with O'Donnell's second great-grandfather Michael McEnnis is rather striking.  O'Donnell asks whether the resignation was accepted.  (I couldn't believe that O'Donnell didn't comment on the fact that he was holding a piece of paper with his fourth great-grandfather's original signature on it.  I would have been doing the genealogy happy dance!)

Zullo pulls out one more document.  It states that George McNeir accepted his appointment on March 22, 1814 and that his resignation was effective November 24, 1814.  His resignation was accepted.  Zullo says that this type of request was not necessarily normal.  She stresses again that O'Donnell is lucky because most often documents such as these have not survived.

Then O'Donnell wonders what the situation was with McNeir's family that caused him to submit his resignation.  Zullo says that since McNeir was from Baltimore, the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis would be the place to look for more information, as it would have records about people from Baltimore.  O'Donnell says he has to find out more.  His ancestors chose family, as he and his own father did.  He wonders if maybe someone in the family was sick or had died, or maybe if McNeir was just sick of hearing cannons.

At the Maryland State Archives O'Donnell is met by genealogist Michael Hait (I know him!).  O'Donnell tells Hait that he has muster rolls for his fourth great-grandfather George McNeir, who had to leave the army due to family reasons.  Hait says he has "done a little bit of research already" and has to finish up, but in the meantime suggests that O'Donnell look at the 1810 census to get an idea of the McNeir houshold composition and dynamics.  He leaves O'Donnell with an iPad and says he'll be back in a few minutes.  (Another time the researcher goes away to retrieve records — definitely different for this show.)

Now, O'Donnell is a decent actor, and he made most of the scenes in this episode believable.  But I have trouble believing that he could look at the 1810 census and make immediate sense of it.  I routinely have to explain how to read the early U.S. censuses to people who have already been doing some level of genealogical research.  How likely is it that someone with no experience could just up and understand it?  Well, I guess it isn't impossible, but I'm a little suspicious.

Inexperience notwithstanding, O'Donnell finds the relevant census page (even though it's indexed on Ancestry.com and appears on the page as McNier) and goes to George's name.  He sees that the household has two parents and four children.

Hait returns and shows O'Donnell a page from the 1812 Baltimore city directory, which he says will give more details.  McNeir is listed as a tailor.  O'Donnell extrapolates that if the British win the war, McNeir's business will be destroyed.  He asks Hait if the address is near the water.  Hait points out that Baltimore is a port city and that everything is near the water and would be affected by the war.

Hait then shows O'Donnell some "poor papers."  O'Donnell is stunned that these are originals and that he can touch them (but weren't the muster cards originals also?).  Hait tells him to go to #72.  There he finds George McNeir listed with house rent of $21.10.  On April 21, 1813 McNeir's goods and chattels (which O'Donnell asks Hait to define; chattels are personal property) were seized and taken in payment for his house rent.  Eighty-eight great coats worth $704 (according to Hait, about $11,000 today) were taken, which probably would have been his complete inventory.  As for why this would have happened, trade with Europe had been hampered because of the war, and most of McNeir's customers would probably have been upper-class people in Europe.  So the war destroyed his business.

McNeir's inventory was gone, but he had a wife and four children, so he needed a job.  That would be a good incentive to sign up for the military.  O'Donnell asks how much a sea fencible would have earned, and Hait says about $23/month, equal to about $300–$400 today.  So now we know why McNeir enlisted, but why would he have resigned?  Hait points out that McNeir was serving at Ft. McHenry during September 1914, when a significant military event took place.  He says that might give more information but doesn't actually say where O'Donnell should go (or at least if he did it didn't survive the editing process).  Something I noticed during the scene with Hait was that O'Donnell was the person leading most of the dialogue, unlike the scenes with the other researchers.

O'Donnell says that McNeir had lots of problems but that his first priority was to provide for his family.  He doesn't know why McNeir resigned but thinks that visiting Ft. McHenry might help him learn.

At Ft. McHenry O'Donnell meets Vince Vaise, a historian and park ranger with the Ft. McHenry National Monument.  Vaise is a hoot.  He is so enthusiastic about history, it's contagious.  It's worth watching this episode again just to see him.

Vaise tells O'Donnell that in late 1814 Washington had been burned, and Baltimore was next on the list for the British.  On September 12 the British navy was seen on the horizon, so the men at Ft. McHenry prepared for battle.  The next morning, September 13, it was pouring rain.  The ships were out of range for the Americans because the British had a "secret weapon", a 194-pound shell that had a 2-mile range.  The Americans were ordered to cease fire because they couldn't reach the ships and there was no reason to waste ammunition, so they were just sitting there.  One captain later reported that they "felt like pigeons."  The British bombarded the fort for 25 hours, and the battle could be heard in the city of Baltimore.  On the morning of September 14, the British ceased fire.  They had the advantage, but apparently they had used all their ammunition.  Their secret weapon hadn't taken down the fort, and if they moved in closer, they would be within range of the American guns.  So at 9:00 a.m. they sailed away.

The original "Star-Spangled Banner"
When everything became quiet people in Baltimore wondered who had won the battle.  After the British left, the morning cannons fired and the small flag that had been flying was taken down.  In its place a 42' by 30' flag was raised over the fort.  This flag was seen by Francis Scott Key, who was a lawyer in town to negotiate the release of a prisoner.  He was so inspired by the sight of the flag that he composed the poem that was later renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" and became the U.S. national anthem when set to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven."

The Battle of Baltimore became the turning point of the war for the U.S.  It also had an impact on the treaty that ended the war.

After educating O'Donnell about the importance of Ft. McHenry, Vaise asks if he would like to help change the flag, to which he of course agrees.  He looks very proud as he helps raise the flag over the fort.

In his wrap-up (the third one without the family member from the beginning), O'Donnell talks about how his ancestors felt the call to service but had more important things like their families that took precedence.  His ancestors helped with the cholera epidemic and the battle that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner."  His father would have been inspired and proud at the amazing stories he's learned about.  These past generations helped instill the love of family that he has.

This episode had some fantastic stories.  It is an amazing coincidence that both George McNeir and his grandson Michael McEnnis joined the military and then very shortly afterward resigned to return to and help their families.  It's incredible that the Smithsonian has McEnnis' saber and the letter he sent when he donated it.  (And I'm still amazed they know their storage inventory that well.)  Like the Zooey Deschanel episode, the producers must have been thrilled to be able to connect their celebrity so closely to such a major historical event.  But the one thing they never actually demonstrated in the episode was why McNeir resigned his position as a third lieutenant.

The inference in the episode was that McNeir might have resigned because of his incredibly stressful experience at Ft. McHenry.  But if the reason McNeir enlisted was to support his family because of the problems with his business, the fact that the battle at Ft. McHenry went in favor of the Americans wasn't enough to solve those problems.  They probably didn't know at the time that the battle was the turning point in the war.  The war itself didn't officially end until 1815 — but it was mostly over by the end of 1814.  I think it's more likely that McNeir resigned because the war was ending and he thought it was time he could start to rebuild his business.  But that doesn't sound as dramatic, does it?


  1. The restored original flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner is on display at the Smithsonian. I was surprised they didn't have O'Donnell go there and look at it. This would surely have been an emotional moment for him.

    1. Maybe he did go and it just ended up on the cutting room floor? It is kind of an obvious visit to make, especially since the flag is in the same part of the Smithsonian, i.e., the National Museum of American History.

      And for those of us not going to DC anytime soon, I just found an online exhibition all about the flag: http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/default.aspx.

  2. I would love to know if Chris has an ancestry, Gedmatch or FamilyTreeDNA page. My Grandmother, Great Grandfather and GGGF O'Donnell's all lived in St. Louis, MO. where I was born. Could there be a connection?

    1. If he does have a page on any of the public sites, it's probably a private one, as celebrities justifiably tend to be cautious about having everyone being able to connect with them when it isn't work-related. That said, there's enough information about his family that you should be able to research it for more specifics. Then look at the information for your family and see if there is a connection. There well might be!


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