Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - McAdams Sisters

The third episode from this season of TLC's Who Do You Think You Are? featured the McAdams sisters, Rachel and Kayleen.  Rachel is an actress originally known for her work in Mean Girls; her breakthrough role is considered to be The Notebook.  We're told that she is now a sought-after lead actress (I've still never heard of her).  Kayleen is a "talented and trusted" make-up artist.  (Was their mother a stage mom?)

The teaser said that Rachel and Kayleen will be following their mother's roots through England and Canada.  Some phrases made me think from the beginning that the family might have been Loyalists:  "relatives uprooted by the brutalities of war", "painful choice they had to make", and "harrowing circumstances behind their Canadian roots."

We learn that the McAdams girls grew up in Ontario, where Rachel still lives.  They meet in New York City, apparently where Kayleen lives, but that is not stated.  Rachel is the older sister, and they have a younger brother.  Rachel says that Kayleen is the detective (a good trait for a genealogist!), while Kayleen says that Rachel is a romantic.

Lance Frederick McAdams, their father, was born in Canada, one of ten children.  The girls are close to his side of the family and know a fair amount about them.  They don't know that much about their mother's side.  Sandra Kay Gale's parents both died in their early 30's, so apparently Rachel and Kayleen never knew them.  (I know from personal experience how much that can affect family knowledge.  Both my Sellers great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather died young, and many myths were attached to that family line until I spent several years uncovering the facts.)

Sandra's parents were Harold Gowan Gale and Eileen Bell.  The sisters know Gale was in the Air Force and had something to do with planes during World War II.  One thinks he was a pilot, and the other thinks he was a mechanic.  They want to research this part of their family so they can learn about their roots and how they ended up in Canada.  They also want to find the information to share with their mother.

We never see Mom on screen, but they call her on the phone and tell her they received the package she sent, saying they "can't wait to open it" (yeah, they put it aside and waited until they called her before they looked inside, even though that's the information that starts the research for the show; how dumb do they think the viewing audience is?).  So they "open" it on air, and inside is a family tree with a scant amount of information.  Their mother tells them that her father was a mechanic, not a pilot.  She says that a photo of an older couple is of her father's parents (the girls' great-grandparents), William and Maud Gale.  They were from Polpero, England, but originally from Plymouth.  William was in the Royal Navy.  Mom's father was born in Plymouth.  And that's all Mom knows.  The girls ask her where they should look for more information, and she suggests going to Plymouth, England.  (Now that's a huge leap!  How about trying to do even a minimal amount of research in Canadian census and vital records first?)

Rachel talks about how she feels incomplete because they can't go that far back on their family line (a lot of people can't relate four generations before they do some research, so she isn't particularly special).  She thinks it's empowering to learn information about her family and feels it's that much richer because she's doing it with her sister.  (Unfortunately, the scripting and the sisters' delivery remain this lame throughout the episode.)

So off they go to Plymouth.  In the Plymouth Central Library they meet professional genealogist Paul Blake, whom they have previously asked to research their family.  Now they ask him whether he has found anything about their great-grandfather's parents.  He tells them he has found a marriage for their great-grandparents.  William Gale married Beatrice Maude Sedgrove on November 16, 1910.  His occupation was listed as engine room artificer, which means he was a mechanic in the Royal Navy.  His father was William Henry Greber Gale (deceased), a captain in the Royal Navy.  Beatrice's father was Arthur Edward Sedgrove (and nothing more is said of him).

They ask if he has found anything else, and we leap straight to the January 2, 1850 birth certificate for William Henry Creber Gale.  His parents were William Gale and Elizabeth Creber.  The father's occupation is listed as servant.  One of the sisters asks what kind of servant.  (Almost all the questions the girls ask during the program sound forced and very scripted, this one being no exception.)  Blake suggests they look on Ancestry, and one of them responds, ""  (Gee, they must watch TV commercials.)  Blake directs them to search in the 1851 England census for William Gale with a keyword of "servant."  (It was nice to learn one can search that way.)  They find Gale working as a footman in Bovysand House in Wembury, a household with many servants.  Even though his son was born only a year earlier, his family is not living with him.  Blake tells them that the house still stands and that they can learn more by going there.

Bovisand (current spelling) House and all the servants make the sisters think of Downton Abbey and they actually have an idea of what a footman is.  (Yes, they do watch television.)  They're excited that the house is still standing and want to learn about their ancestor's life as a servant.  They wonder why his wife and child aren't with him, though.

At the entrance to Bovisand House (now part of a tourist experience as Bovisand Lodge Estate) they are met by Dr. Pamela Cox, a social historian at the University of Essex.  She explains that the footman would not only have answered the door but would have managed the front of the house.  The girls admire the view from the many windows.  Dr. Cox points out that on the census the footman is the top male servant and the next person listed after the governess, an indication of his status.  He would have been in charge of other servants and things such as the china, glassware, and silver.  He also would have been at the constant call of his employers.  The narrator mentions that the footman would have been the physical representative of the house, and therefore height and looks were important factors in who was chosen for the coveted position, which had good wages and was well respected.

The sisters ask where he lived.  Cox explains he lived in Bovisand House, upstairs in the servants' quarters.  The next question is where his wife was.  She wasn't listed in the census at the house with him, but that was normal for the time.  They search for Elizabeth and young William and find them living in a village about 25 miles away.  Gale would probably have seen his family about once a month maximum.  The village was a long way from the house, and Gale didn't have any days off on a regular basis.  He worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  He wasn't involved in his son's life, because his duty was to his employer, not his family.

Next the girls want to know how the couple met.  Cox shows them the 1841 census with William and Elizabeth, both 20 years old, working for the same Nowland family (but not yet at Bovisand House).  Elizabeth was also a servant.  So after spending every day together for several years while they were working, after they married, they had to live separately.  Kayleen asks about William in the 1861 census (how in the world could she have come up with that question on her own?), and Cox tells them William didn't live that long.  She shows them his death certificate, dated May 27, 1860; he was only 40 years old when he died.  The cause of death was delirium tremens.  Cox explains that was not an uncommon occurrence at the time, as alcohol was readily available to the servants.  The sisters ask what happened to Elizabeth, but Cox says that is all she can tell them.  (The researchers totally lost track of the woman after 1851??  I found her in 1861 and 1871 with almost no effort.)  They thank her and leave the house.

Now the sisters have more answers, but those answers have led to more questions.  They stroll on the grounds around the house and think about how William Gale might have walked on the same path, and that maybe William and Elizabeth walked there while they were courting.  They talk about how William had a tough life and made sacrifices for his family, but I think they were looking at his life from a very modern perspective; he probably wouldn't have considered living apart from his wife and baby to be a sacrifice, because it was the accepted thing to do at the time.  William had a short life but made his family proud and provided a better life for them.  But they still don't know how their family ended up in Canada.  So what's the next step?  Go to Ottawa!  (Even though they're from Ontario ....)

In Ottawa they say that they have more names but need stories to go with them.  They meet with Joseph Shumway (apparently's most flexible genealogist-for-hire) in an unidentified location that looks like a modernist office building.  (Rent-a-desk?)  He has a fancy printed family tree (no calligraphy this time) taking their family back six generations from them (following three women's lines, no less):  Eileen Maude Bell's parents were Andrew Bell and Ethel Josephine Foote; Ethel's parents were William Foote and Carmina Maude McDonald; Carmina's parents were Joseph Blackman McDonald and Emma Peters; and Joseph's parents were Alexander McDonald and Charlotte Gray (the sisters' 4th-great-grandparents).  (So we've totally abandoned the Gale family at this point.)  Shumway points out that the birthdates of the oldest generation are approximate to the period of the American Revolutionary War.

Up to that oldest generation, everyone was born in Ontario, but birthplaces aren't listed for Alexander McDonald and Charlotte Gray.  So the sisters want to know where they were from.  Instead of answering directly, Shumway says he has a document from 1824 and that the girls have to wear white gloves to handle it.  (Why in the world would they use an original document like that outside of an archive?!)  It is a petition for a land grant filed by Charlotte (Gray) McDonald in July 1824.  She filed the petition based on her status as the daughter of James Gray (whom the girls immediately note would be their 5th-great-grandfather) of the Johnstown District of UE Loyalists.  Shumway says that UE stands for United Empire and that the Loyalists were those colonists who sided with the crown during the Revolutionary War.  The girls ask what made someone a Loyalist, and Shumway explains that it was someone who fought for or provided service, shelter, or food to the crown during the war.

So after the war, Loyalists in Canada petitioned for land grants as compensation for their service.  Obviously, children of Loyalists were allowed to have land grants, as Charlotte filed a petition.  But what happened to James Gray?  Shumway tells the sisters to go to the City of Ottawa Archives, which has a large collection of Loyalist materials.

As they leave the odd little building, the sisters say how proud they are of their Loyalist connection.  Canada struggles with its identity and is sometimes viewed as the United States' little brother.  They have strong roots with the crown.  (But Kayleen lives in New York ....)

At the James Bartleman Centre of the City of Ottawa Archives, Rachel and Kayleen meet Dr. Alan Taylor, a historian of Colonial America from the University of Virginia.  The sisters tell Taylor that they know their ancestor James Gray was a Loyalist but don't know "how his life unfolded" (they really talk this way?).  Taylor tells them that the first appearance of Gray in a historical record is in a "List of Families Calling Themselves Loyalists", who were quartered at St. Jean in 1778.  St. Jean was a fort and refugee encampment.  The list is similar to an early census and shows the family consisted of one male adult, one female adult, and two children and that they came from Lake Champlain.  Taylor points out that Lake Champlain lies primarily in the U.S., on the New York–Vermont border.

The girls ask what life would have been like in the colonies for the Grays.  Taylor explains they were probably farmers and recent settlers, likely in a settlement less than ten years old.  They would have had the experience of turning a forest into farmland with only hand tools and maybe some oxen.  The war breaking out meant they had to decide which side to support.  That problem became more urgent when the British army lost to the colonists at Saratoga.  Loyalists feared they would become the targets of Patriot mobs, so many took their families to refugee camps in Canada.  Taylor produces a 1777 map of the British colonies in North America and shows how close Lake Champlain is to St. Jean and the Canadian border.  One of the sisters asks about the pressures Loyalists would be facing in their day-to-day lives, and Taylor shows another list, "Return of Loyalists Receiving Provisions" from 1779.  This shows Mrs. Gray and two boys, but not James Gray.  The second page says that James Gray had enlisted in Petter's Corps as a private, so we repeat the earlier theme of a family being separated.

Suddenly, Taylor says that they best thing for the girls to do is go to the site of one of the former refugee camps (total non sequitur).  Apparently there is still something in St. Jean, so that's where they'll go.  It was interesting to note that Rachel drove and Taylor sat in the back seat of the car.

At Ville de Saint-Jean sur Richelieu Taylor directs Rachel to turn left off the road, and they arrive at an empty field (it looks like an agricultural area).  One of the sisters asks if the whole area would have been the camp, and Taylor responds, "In this vicinity," meaning that the field where they're standing is actually meaningless.  Taylor goes on to explain that four refugee camps were in the valley with more than 1,000 people, more than 600 of whom were children.  Women were busy caring for the children and had a rough time of it.  Their shelters would have been rudimentary, consisting of tents, boards, and possibly dugouts.  Apparently the housing was next to latrines, but I think there was some poor editing, because what we ended up with was the comment, "And they're living right next to these latrines," with no lead-in.  But living next to latrines created an environment ripe for disease.

When asked how long the Gray family was at the camp, Taylor produces another document, "Return of Distressed, Unincorporated Loyalists" from March 24, 1783.  Mrs. Gray is still listed, but the two children with her are now a boy over 6 and a girl under 6.  Between 1779 and 1783 it appears that Mrs. Gray (I guess they never figured out her name?) had a baby girl but one of the boys died, possibly of disease.  Taylor points out that more people died in the camps than on the battlefields.  It's possible that the girl in the 1783 list was Charlotte.

At the time the list was created, the war was winding down, and a month later word reached Canada that a preliminary peace treaty had been signed, recognizing the indepedence of the United States of America.  This would have been demoralizing for Loyalists, who not only were on the losing side of the battle but had to give up any hope that they could return to their former homes.  One of the girls asks what happened to the Gray family next, because they obviously wouldn't want to stay in the refugee camp.  Taylor says the best answers will be at the Archives of Ontario, so that's where they should go.

As they leave the sisters talk about how previously they wouldn't have noticed the field but now know that there are a lot of stories there (but not really!).  They're glad to have learned the stories but know their family went through a lot of pain and hard times.  They say the Gray family was ostracized (eh, not really, at least based on what we saw on air) and were pioneers with strength and conviction.  They couldn't return to where they had lived so needed a new homestead somewhere.  As the car drives away, Taylor is not with them, so I guess he rode back with the production crew.

The next stop is Toronto, where the archives are located.  Going in, the sisters say they hope they find out what happened to James Gray and his family after the war.  They know that Charlotte applied for land in Ontario, and that's about it.  In the archives Jane Errington, a historian of British North America (and Dean of Arts) from the Royal Military College of Canada (not the University of Ontario, as the on-screen credit says), is waiting to meet them.  The girls tell her that they know Mrs. Gray and the two children were in the camp and that James Gray was a Loyalist Ranger, and they want to know what happened to James.  Errington says she has discovered some documents that will help answer that.

The first document is "Disbanded Troops & Loyalists" who were mustered out October 12, 1784, after the war had ended.  James Gray is near the top of the list as a Loyal Ranger.  One woman, one boy under 10, and one girl under 10 were included with him.  So he had reunited with his family, but then what happened to them?  Errington explains that Loyalists had earned a reward by remaining true to the British crown and quickly went to the government and asked it to pay up.

Before bringing out the next document, Errington says the sisters will have to put on purple gloves (these are vinyl; the gloves in the scene with Shumway were cotton).  She then brings out a large survey map of the district of Johnstown and Elizabethtown in Upper Canada (now southern Ontario).  The map lists land grants made to Loyalists in 1784 (before or after the mustering out?).  Errington has the girls hunt for Gray's name, which Kayleen (the detective!) finds first.  Gray received two grants of 200 acres each, so he finally had a place of his own (again).  And not only were his son (nameless, like Gray's wife) and Charlotte eligible to apply for grants of 200 acres, their children also could petition for land grants.  They would have land, but they also had pride, because they were the founding mothers and fathers of Upper Canada.

Kayleen says she had not expected to learn that their family had such deep roots in Canada.  Now they know that their ancestors were Loyalists and early settlers.  She appreciates their loyalty and pride.  Rachel comments on how William Gale and James Gray had to spend time away from their families and how it's important to remember the sacrifices they made.  Now the sisters want to keep the memories of their ancestors alive and share them with their mother.  They seem to be thinking ahead to the future, also, because Rachel says they have that much more to give to their own children.

Obviously, I was underwhelmed by the McAdams sisters in this episode.  I did find the stories interesting, but I was surprised at the large gaps that remained — losing track of Elizabeth Creber Gale so quickly; no first name for Mrs. James Gray.  Those are the types of things I wish they would address more directly in the show, to talk more about the research process.  But I have to keep telling myself that Who Do You Think You Are? is not really about genealogy, it's just entertainment, and as far as is concerned, one of its main purposes is to generate more subscriptions.


  1. My maternal family is from the St. Jean sur Richelieu area, so I watched this episode with some interest. The field where the McAdams sisters ended up is quite typical of the land in that area...flat, cultivated, and large. My relatives were in the surrounding towns from the mid-to-late 1600s, and I had no idea that there were Loyalist camps in the area! Now I want to know more, so in that way, it was an interesting episode.

    The paternal side of my family is from Vermont in the 1700s, (and Massachusetts before that, back to the 1600s) so now I'm wondering if there might be connections between the two family lines that I should uncover!

    I wish they would offer to look up non-celebrity families for the show.

    1. Very cool! Even though they didn't talk about your family specifically, it's great that you were able to learn more about where your family was living from the episode.

      As noncelebrity families, supposedly that's what Genealogy Roadshow is about. As it is in actuality a reality show (that for some reason PBS decided to air), however, I have the impression it doesn't quite measure up the same way.


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