Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Zooey Deschanel

I had a personal interest in this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? once they started talking about Quakers.    Several of my father's family lines were Quakers, and I have read interesting stories about them.  I know from my own research that the Society of Friends was strongly abolitionist, and I looked forward to seeing what role Zooey Deschanel's family played in the movement.

Zooey Deschanel is part of a show-business family—director/cinematographer father, actress mother and sister.  She is an actress and singer/songwriter.  Her breakout film was Elf, she has released four albums as part of the duet She & Him, and she currently stars in the television series New Girl.  Born in Santa Monica, she now lives and works in Los Angeles (and no, Santa Monica is not part of Los Angeles).

Deschanel is close to her parents and her sister, and family has always been important.  She has been told she comes from a long line of strong women (foreshadowing!) and thinks of herself as a gung-ho feminist.  She even launched HelloGiggles.com, a positive Web communication site for young women.  Her father's mother, Ann Orr Deschanel, passed away recently; she was a spitfire and a champion of human rights.  "Granny" worked to end slavery worldwide; she was from a Quaker family, and Quakers were activists and liberal.  Granny was political in her views, and at the age of 80 was arrested for chaining herself to the fence of a nuclear plant.  Now Deschanel wants to know more about Granny's ancestors.  She's been told she came from a long line of abolitionists and that someone spearheaded the movement before the Civil War.

To begin her research, Deschanel visits her parents, Caleb Deschanel and Mary Jo Weir Deschanel.  Caleb is the one with Quaker ancestry.  He shows a family photograph of his great-grandparents Joseph Orr and Martha Elizabeth Pownall with their children, including his grandfather Adrian Orr.  The three of them discuss how the Quakers were the first religion to take a stand against slavery.  Quakers were also against war; they had close to equality of the sexes and believed in racial and religious equality.  (One of my female Quaker ancestors was well known as a fervent preacher.)  Deschanel says she was told stories of the Pownalls being abolitionists and wonders where she can find more information.  Her father suggests that she go to the Philadelphia public library, and says it should have lots of records because Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers (gotta love that logic).

So Deschanel travels to Philadephia, specifically to the Free Library of Philadelphia.  She meets up with Max Carter, Ph.D., a Quaker historian and minister and director of the Friends Center at Guilford College (a Quaker college).  He says that he has already done considerable research (now there's some honesty!) on the Pownall family in Quaker meeting (congregation) minutes and produces a fancy calligraphed family tree (shades of Mr. D. Joshua Taylor).  They particularly look at Sarah Henderson (died in 1852), the daughter of Thomas Henderson and Elinor Brinton (died in 1853).  Deschanel says she has heard about Sarah and asks if there is any way to find more information about her (one of these days I'd love to hear the researcher just say, "No, sorry, nothing to find" when the celebrity asks that leading question).  Carter says to look up census records on Ancestry.com and specifically points her to the 1800 Pennsylvania septennial census in Lancaster County.  This was a list compiled for tax purposes.  A Thomas Henderson, identified as Deschanel's 5th great-grandfather, is shown owning one slave (though based on what we see in the episode there is no way to know that he is actually the correct person).  Obviously, this guy was not a Quaker.  Carter confirms that he did not appear in Quaker records (which may be why the fancy family tree has "unknown" for his birth and death?), so Deschanel wants to know why Elinor would have married him.  Carter explains that Quakers emphasized marrying for love, so Elinor would have been allowed to follow her heart and marry someone not of the same faith.  (This confused me, because I have seen in Quaker records where someone was dismissed from a meeting for marrying outside the Quaker faith.  Maybe it was okay if you got permission?)  So Deschanel wants to know which side of the slavery issue Sarah was on.  Carter says she should go down the road to Swarthmore College, which has the best repository of Quaker records in North America (and is another Quaker college).

Deschanel really didn't have far to go, as Swarthmore is only about 13 miles (as the crow flies) from Philadelphia.  At the Friends Historical Library she finds Stacey Robertson of Bradley University, whom she says she asked to look for records about Sarah.  Robertson says she asked Chris Densmore, a curator at the library, to pull all the relevant materials.  (So everyone is being very up front about this being set up beforehand!)  They bring out record books for the Sadsbury Township Monthly Meeting for 1845–1882.  They all wear conservator's gloves to handle the papers (since I've mentioned before that this is now generally a deprecated practice, I have to wonder why we see it so often on this program; maybe this is a small concession to the fact that many viewers believe that the show represents a normal research experience, and having them wear gloves will mitigate hordes of people going into repositories and pawing everything in sight).  Deschanel starts with a record from January 5, 1848.  In the meeting minutes she reads an admonition to "encourage the members of our society to be faithful against the sin of slavery."  She asks whether abolitionist sentiments were common, to which Robertson replies no.  Sarah was willing to be an outspoken opponent of slavery when it was dangerous to do so.  Abolitionists were condemned as zealots by many people.  They were attacked and mobbed, and sometimes kicked out of church.

Robertson hands Deschanel a pamphlet, which the latter reads part of:  "We feel constrained to invite you to join us in the inquiry against slavery, seeing that the evil has been steadily increasing."  She continues with, ". . . when we lend our support to a government that sanctions and perpetuates this wrong."  Sarah Pownall was one of the signers on this manifesto, which was a powerful statement against a U.S. government that accepted slavery in any form.

Deschanel is very emotional, talking about how very brave Sarah and the other abolitionists had to be and how she feels closer to Granny now.  She really does look moved by what she is learning.  I love what she says:  "Yesterday all I had was a family tree, but now I have an identity for this woman."  If all you have is names and dates, it is just a family tree.  You need to find more information about your ancestors, get to know more about them as individuals, to give them identities and allow them to be real people.

Robertson says she is sending Deschanel to the Lancaster County Historical Society, because Lancaster County was a hotbed of abolitionism.  Deschanel says she wants to know what else Sarah did to fight slavery and hopes maybe she can find a picture of Sarah (so we know she will).  At the historical society she sits down with Professor Nikki Taylor of the University of Cincinnati.  She says she wants to find out more about why Lancaster County had such a high level of antislavery activity.  Taylor tells her that is was a combination of a large number of Quakers and close proximity to the Maxon-Dixon Line, which divided slaveholding Maryland from free Pennsylvania.  To help illustrate the point, Taylor unrolls a poster map of the area which includes important sites and historical notes.  In addition to clearly showing Lancaster County just across the Mason-Dixon Line from Maryland, the poster also has a photo of the "Parker House at Pownall Farm" and a note that it was demolished in 1898.  Deschanel asks whether that was her Pownall family.

Taylor answers yes and explains that it was the home of William Parker and his wife, who had been born slaves but had escaped to Pennsylvania.  They rented land from the Pownalls.  Parker was both a conductor (someone who guided runaway slaves) and stationmaster (someone who hid runaways in his home) on the Underground Railroad.  Deschanel figures that the Pownalls must have known about these activities.  She then focuses on a marker for the Christiana Riot and asks what it was about.  Taylor tells her that is now commonly called the Christiana Resistance and was a standoff between free blacks in Lancaster County against slave owners from Maryland.  (I'm not quite sure about classifying escaped former slaves as free, though.)  She says that it was an extremely important event leading up to the Civil War, and then adds that she has arranged for Deschanel to have a private tour of the Pownall farm so she can learn more about the Christiana Resistance.  As she leaves the historical society, Deschanel is curious about what happened on her fourth great-grandparents' farm and wonders how violent or dramatic the events were.  She thinks Sarah was probably involved somehow (gee, maybe because she's seen the script?).

Deschanel goes to the Pownall farm in Christiana, Pennsylvania, where she is met by historian and author Fergus M. Bordewich in the middle of a field.  He tells her the Parker house used to be where they are standing and that the Pownall home was about a quarter of a mile away.  He explains that Parker led what was essentially an Underground Railroad militia group determined not to allow anyone to be taken back into slavery.  The issue had become particularly contentious since the U.S. Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it the responsibility of all citizens and the government to assist in returning fugitive slaves.  Accused runaways could not be represented in court, and many freemen were taken also.  Anyone who refused to help or who harbored fugitives could be prosecuted and imprisoned.

The Christiana event took place on September 11, 1851 (something different to associate with that day).  A Maryland slave owner named Edward Gorsuch had traced two runaway slaves to the Parker home.  He organized a posse to go to the house and recapture the slaves.  Deschanel wonders about Sarah's involvement, and Bordewich reads from an account written after the Civil War (History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, starting on page 107).  The author wrote that Sarah Pownall spoke with William Parker and tried to convince him not to resort to "force of arms" but to flee to Canada if a confrontation ensued.  Parker said he would fight, because the laws of the country protected white men but not blacks.

When Gorsuch and his posse arrived at Parker's home, Eliza Parker blew on a horn to call for help.  Several people from the area came to help them, and a battle took place on the Pownalls' property.  Gorsuch was killed; his son was critically injured.  Policemen who had come as part of the posse ran away.  The fugitives were not captured, but the Pownalls were probably horrifed at the battle on their land.

Newspapers across the country reported the incident.  President Fillmore was told the government needed to act.  A reign of terror came over Lancaster County, where "Negroes were hunted like partridges."  Blacks were dragged from their homes and arrested; white abolitionists were also brought in by the authorities.  Deschanel and Bordewich discuss how people like William and Eliza Parker emancipated themselves without waiting for Abraham Lincoln, and they did it with the assistance of people like Sarah Pownall.

Deschanel wants to know what the Pownalls did then.  Bordewich tells her they should go to Moores Memorial Library (in Christiana) to find out.  As Deschanel leaves the farm she talks about how shocking it is to think that such a violent turning point leading up to the Civil War happened on her ancestors' property.  At this point she thinks she has a pretty good understanding of what Sarah was like.  She believes Sarah would probably help William Parker, but she hopes there's evidence to prove it (of course there is!).

At the library the conservator's gloves come out again.  Bordewich says he has asked the librarian to pull some documents for them to look at.  The first is "Some Recollections of a Long and Unsuccessful Life" by George Steele (the relevant parts of which are available online).  Steele later became the Pownalls' son-in-law.  He wrote about the fighting at the Parker house and then how the Pownalls took Gorsuch's injured son into their home to care for him.  This makes sense in light of their religious beliefs.

Steele goes on to describe how Parker and his brother-in-law came to the Pownall house looking for help to escape.  The Pownalls coordinated putting some food together, disguising the two men, and getting them out of the house safely.  Some time after the two men left, a letter addressed to Elizabeth Pownall, the daughter who married Steele, was found under the front door.  The message inside said that Parker was safe in Canada.

Deschanel comments that this was a heroic operation.  Bordewich points out that all of this was done while the area was under "hostile occupation" due to repurcussions of the incident.  It occurs to Deschanel that the Pownalls must have done this type of thing before to be able to accomplish what they did under the constrained circumstances, which Bordewich says is proof that they were deeply involved in the Underground Railroad (proof? that's a bit of a stretch).  Deschanel is impressed that a woman at that time could be so brave and political, and excited that it's her family.

Then she wonders what happened in Christiana in the aftermath of the riot and what happened to the Pownalls.  Bordewich tells her that 38 neighbors, both black and white, were arrested for "treason for making war against the United States", but not the Pownalls.  Only one of the accused was actually put on trial, and he was acquitted in 15 minutes.  The federal prosecutors were humiliated and dropped the rest of the charges, so everyone went free.

But one friend of the Gorsuch family was so affected by the situation that it helped embitter him against the federal government.  John Wilkes Booth was so angered by the injustice against his friends and that no one paid for it that it fed his hatred, which eventually led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The narrator's voiceover says the Christiana event "angered a notorious man", which is not accurate, because in 1851 Booth wasn't yet notorious; he was just an actor.

After telling Deschanel about Booth, Bordewich hands her another folder and says, "Open this," with no other comment.  Inside is a photograph of Sarah Pownall (it looked like it was probably a photograph of a painting, which should have been explained; I would certainly have liked to learn when the painting was made and what the occasion was).  Deschanel says she has real respect for Sarah, whom she thinks of as a hero, and that she admires her intelligence and bravery.  Bordewich (a little heavy-handed in the moral department) says that the Pownalls followed a higher law that required them to act as they did rather than do something that was legal but morally wrong.  But the actions of the Pownalls and of others in the abolitionist movement did help lead to the free country that we have now.

Deschanel remembers from the calligraphed family tree that Sarah died in September 1852, about a year after the Christiana incident.  Bordewich tells her that they don't know how she died.  It could be that the stress of what they were doing contributed.  (I noticed on the family tree that Sarah's mother, Elinor, died only a year later, in 1853, so I was wondering if maybe they both had the same illness or something.)  Bordewich says he does have a map of Sadsbury cemetery, which is only a few minutes' drive from the library, and Deschanel says she will go to pay her respects.  She's sad that Sarah died before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, because she didn't get to see that in her lifetime.

At the cemetery she stops at Sarah's stone, which reads "Sarah Wife of Levi Pownall."  It and the other stones around it are all clean and well trimmed.  (My first thought was that the cemetery was cleaned up for the program, but then I thought about it and realized a Friends cemetery probably is well maintained.  Certainly the photos on the cemetery Web site indicate that.)

The episode closes with Deschanel thinking about how she sees qualities of Sarah in Granny.  She is amazed and impressed at how politically involved Sarah was.  She's inspired by what she has learned and wasn't prepared for how moving it would be to learn about Sarah.  And she never imagined that she came from such heroes.

I was surprised that the wrap-up didn't include the family members we saw at the beginning (two episodes in a row now).  The research again held together pretty well, though it would have been nice to see the slave-owning Thomas Henderson substantiated better.  This family appears to have been written about quite a bit, though, and there are very good records for practicing Quakers, so it isn't too surprising that it came together well.  The producers must have been very happy to have a celebrity to tie into this interesting part of history.

An unexpected side effect of Who Do You Think You Are? moving to TLC is that now I see commercials for other TLC programs.  I had heard of Honey Boo Boo before but had never seen anything about it.  Now that I've seen several advertisements, I'm truly afraid that people I know watch it on a regular basis.


  1. "...many viewers believe that the show represents a normal research experience, and having them wear gloves will mitigate hordes of people going into repositories and pawing everything in sight."

    It's also possible that if people see that "gloves are required!!" to do research on original source document, they'll stay home and only look on Ancestry.com - which of course has everything you'll ever need to do all your own family history research! You don't need white gloves to use a computer.

    1. Ooh, even more cynical than my take on it. But I see your point. Another possibility indeed.

  2. Regarding the Booth remarks on the show -- he was only 13 years old and still a school boy when the Christiana Resistance incident happened. I would like to have seen more back up for the claim that the incident embittered him for life. As a Civil War nerd I wanted to see more about the ancestor named Ellen Brinton since General George McClellan's middle name was Brinton -- is Zooey Deschenel maybe related to him as well?

    1. Excellent point about Booth's age! I had not checked to see when he was born. Perhaps it was actually his father who was a friend of Gorsuch. I recall from an episode of "History Detectives" that the elder Booth was very much against Lincoln for part of his life and at one time threatened him.

      As for Brinton, the Wikipedia entry on McLellan lists his mother as "Elizabeth Sophia Steinmetz Brinton McClellan (1800–1889), daughter of a leading Pennsylvania family", so it's certainly possible there's a connection to Ellen Brinton. Want to volunteer to do the research and send the results to Deschanel? :)

    2. Hello Janice! Thank you! This is very rich; there's a good bit of info here.
      There's lots I could say; but

    3. ...for now I'll toss out that I'm looking for any/all info I can find about Eliz

    4. Which "Eliz" are you looking for? You seem to be having a problem with your messages being cut off.

  3. That was Andrew Jackson who was threatened by the older Booth as shown by the letter on History Detectives. He died in 1852 before Lincoln was President.
    We'll let Ancestry.com do the research on the Brinton family for her!

    1. Thanks for the correction. It's been a while since I saw that episode.

      So the elder Booth died when John Wilkes was only 14?

  4. I believe Thomas Gorsuch, Edward's youngest son, was in prep school. After his father's death, which he viewed as murder, he was most embittered and confided in his best friend, John Wilkes Booth. It was just an early brick in the wall of Booth's pathology.

    1. I don't see a problem classifying the death as murder. But it is fascinating that John Wilkes Booth was in Thomas Gorsuch's FAN (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors) Club.


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