Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Bill Paxton

Slowly but surely working my way through the last two episodes of this season of Who Do You Think You Are?  Only one more after this!  It's rewatching to catch details that gets me every time.

The opening voice-over for the Bill Paxton episode says that he would uncover a war hero — we hear Paxton saying the word "spy" — bloody battles, and the shocking truth about an ancestor.  We then hear that he is a celebrated actor and director with an outstanding career spanning four decades, and that he has starred in some of the most celebrated films of all time.  The only films they mention, however, are Apollo 13 and Titanic.  (I haven't seen Apollo 13, but I have seen Titanic, and let's face it, it was not well known for the quality of its acting or script.)  He also appeared in HBO's Big Love and a mini series, The Hatfields and the McCoys, for which he earned an Emmy nomination.  I was surprised they didn't mention The Terminator, Aliens, or Predator 2, probably much better known movies, but the film I always think of first for Paxton is the vampire cult classic Near Dark, a favorite of a former housemate of mine.

Paxon and his wife, Louise, live in Southern California with their children, James and Lydia.  We see Lydia in passing for a very short scene, and that's it for family member appearances.

Paxton says he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and that his parents are Mary Lou Gray and John Paxton (who was in three movies with his son).  Paxton had a close relationship with his father, who died three years before the episode was filmed.  They shared many of the same interests:  theater, books, movies, and history.  Paxton credits his success to his father.

Because he was so close to his father, Paxton already knows quite a bit about that side of the family.  He had a great-great-grandfather who was a Confederate general and a great-grandfather who was an attorney in Independence, Missouri.  He's hoping to learn more about that side and maybe to gather strength from what he finds.  He also hopes he discovers some "savory bits" (ah, don't we all).

For the third time in seven episodes, the celebrity begins by meeting a researcher at the downtown (main) branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.  (Maybe the show sent out a casting call in the L.A. area?)  Paxton connects with employee Kyle Betit, who earlier this season worked with Josh Groban.  Paxton has told Betit he wants to learn more about the roles his family played in history.

Betit has done some initial research and hands Paxton one of the famous "here's your family, already done" tree rolls.  He insists that Paxton be the one to unroll it, though.  He also says that he found the tree to be pretty impressive, but he's an Ancestry employee, so it's hard to tell if that's his real opinion.  The tree goes back to at least one 5th-great-grandfather, but he's on the Paxton line, and we have no way of knowing how much of the information in the tree was already known to Paxton from his family's prior research.

Paxton starts reading the names in the Paxton line, starting with himself.  His father, John, was born July 14, 1920 in Missouri and died November 17, 2011 in California.  Paxton comments that "he passed, it'll be three years next month", so we know this was shot in October 2014.  Next is grandfather Frank Paxton, born June 10, 1887 in Missouri, died May 16, 1951 in Missouri.  Great-grandfather John Gallatin Paxton was born September 17, 1859 in Virginia and died September 24, 1928 in Missouri.  He was the attorney in Independence.  Second-great-grandfather Elisha Franklin Paxton, the Confederate general, was born 1828 in Virginia and died March 4, 1863 in Virginia (at the Battle of Chancellorsville).  Third-great-grandfather Elisha Paxton was born about 1784 in Virginia and died November 24, 1867 in Virginia.  Fourth-great-grandfather William Paxton was born about 1733 and died in 1795 in Virginia.  The last name is John Paxton, Bill Paxton's fifth-great-grandfather, who was born about 1692 and died about 1746 in Pennsylvania.  No women's names are shown as we travel up the Paxton line.

After revisiting the names of his ancestors, Paxton says that he knows he has a family connection to the Civil War but wants to find someone in the American Revolution.  Three of his fourth-great-grandfathers were alive and of appropriate ages during 1775–1783, the years of the war:  William Paxton; Frank Wyatt, born 1757, died 1824 in Kentucky; and Benjamin Sharp (who married Hannah Fulkerson, born 1769, died unknown), born 1762 in Pennsylvania, died unknown.  The question is, did any of them serve?  When they show these names on the family tree floating in the sky, we finally see more women's names.  John Gallatin Paxton married Mary Neil Gentry, whose mother was Mary Neil Wyatt.  Her father was John Wyatt; his father was Francis Wyatt (as opposed to Frank, as he is shown in the family tree scroll).  John Wyatt was married to Attossa Pinkney Sharp, whose father was Benjamin Sharp.

In one of those rare occurrences on WDYTYA, the first computer site we visit is not  Betit suggests Paxton use the Ancestor Search on the Daughters of the American Revolution site.  Paxton appears to be familiar with the name of the organization and knows it is in Washington, D.C.  He uses his spiffy iPad to look first for William Paxton and then Frank Wyatt, both of whom give results of "No ancestor records found."  (This doesn't necessarily mean those men didn't serve in the Revolutionary War.  It could simply mean that no one has applied for membership in DAR and proven service by either man.  In fact, the Wikipedia page for Elisha Franklin Paxton says that William Paxton was an American Revolutionary War veteran but gives no further information.)  When he enters Benjamin Sharp's name, however, he is successful and says service Virginia, rank private, and spy — and then we cut away to a commercial.  When we return, the narrator says Paxton has "just discovered a record" about an ancestor, which is absolutely not correct.  What Paxton found was an index entry with transcribed notes, nothing more.  And when you find transcribed information, you should always look for the original document.

What they don't mention on the program is that a search for Benjamin Sharp actually gives two results.  The second one is Paxton's ancestor.  The first one includes a notice to treat as a new ancestor, which means he was used by someone in the past for membership in DAR, but since then there's some question about his service, and anyone wishing to claim him as her Revolutionary War ancestor must reprove his service before membership can be approved.

That said, now that he has found the entry, Paxton of course wants to track down more information.  He notes that Sharp died in 1842 in Warren County, Missouri, where John Paxton was from, and asks Betit where he should go next.  The surprise is that Betit tells him he needs to go, not to Missouri, but to the DAR library, where the people there should be able to help him find some more documents about Sharp's life and service.  Yes, the average person would probably just write to DAR, but on TLC and Ancestry's budgets, it's easy to fly across the country.

In the interlude, Paxton says that he knew his father's side goes back to the late 17th century in this country and that he had family alive during the American Revolution, but didn't know anything about Sharp.  Now he's wondering for whom Sharp was a spy.

As he drives around Washington, Paxton says he loves D.C.  His first trip there was in 1968 with his father and he has good memories.  As he arrives at the DAR library, he comments that it has one of the largest collections of genealogical documents relating to Revolutionary War patriots.  He is going to meet historian Jake Ruddiman (of Wake Forest University in North Carolina), whom he has asked to find information on Benjamin Sharp.  Ruddiman wastes no time in laying a folder on the table in front of Paxton.  In it is what appears to be a letter (but we are told is a deposition) written by Benjamin Sharp.  Dated May 7, 1833 in Montgomery County, Missouri, Sharp was making an official record of his military service during the war.  He was about 71 years old at the time and a resident of Warren County.

Paxton reads excerpts from the document, which is shown in short shots on screen.  In June or July of 1776 Sharp was living in Washington County, Virginia.  He volunteered with Captain Andrew Colville at Black's Fort (now Abingdon, Virginia).  He was about 14 years old.

Ruddiman interjects that Sharp was serving with a Virginia militia group, which would have consisted of family members and neighbors.  Militia were local men tied to their town or county, who defended their homes and land when the war came to them.  This was in contrast to the Continental Army, which was composed of men serving with George Washington who went to the British to fight against them.  At times, militia might fight with the Continental Army, if the army came to their area.

Paxton continues to read the deposition.  Sharp said he was a spy, and the deposition said "ranging."  He was at Glade Hollows Fort.  Ruddiman explains he was probably a scout and tracked enemy movements on the roads and trails.  It was an important role, because if the British surprised the local people, they could die.  Ruddiman adds that Sharp's position was important but dangerous, and that Sharp was expendable because he was young, unmarried, and had no children and no farm.  It would be tragic for his family, but if he died, it would not have been very disruptive to the community.

In 1778 or 1779, Sharp wrote, his detachment took several Tories.  This prompts a discussion about how the men knew who was a Tory.  Ruddiman admits that it was by roughing people up, often at sword point.

Sharp wrote that in 1780, Colonel (Charles) McDowell of North Carolina was driven by British and Tories over the mountains.  Sharp volunteered in early September and marched with other men to the Carolinas.  They overtook the British and Tories in South Carolina at Kings Mountain.

The narrator says that Patriot militiamen began in Virginia (the map shows them leaving from Abingdon, which was still Black's Fort at the time) and marched more than 200 miles over two weeks, on foot and horseback, to Kings Mountain in South Carolina.  The men, including Sharp, walked the last 24 hours in rain, arriving in October 1780.

Ruddiman explains that Kings Mountain was a pivotal battle of the Revolution in the South.  Even though he just read it in the deposition, Paxton asks where Kings Mountain is and is told South Carolina.  Ruddiman adds that the battle site has been preserved as a national military park and that Paxton needs to go there.

As he leaves, Paxton says he wishes his father were there because he would have enjoyed hearing about the history connected with the family.  He is astounded at the first-hand account he's just read and really feels his ancestor talking to him across time.  He hopes to find details about the battle and learn how it started and ended and how many casualties there were (all the gory details).  Now he is off to Blacksburg, South Carolina, the location of Kings Mountain National Military Park.

As Paxton drives to Kings Mountain, he sees a welcome sign (not the one shown on the program) and apparently reads, "Enjoy your visit," which he follows with, "I will.  I had a relative who was here!"  At the park he is looking at one of the informational signs when Chris Revels, the Chief Park Ranger, walks up and asks if he can show Paxton the battlefield.  Revels tells Paxton that at the time of the battle here the war had been going on for a few years, and this battle came at a brutal point.

The narrator returns, telling us that after having suffered several defeats in the north, the British had moved their efforts to the south, where they recruited Loyalists to fight with them.  They then won significant victories and played havoc with the Continental Army.  British Major Patrick Ferguson, leading a group of Southern Loyalists, threatened to attack frontier Patriots.  Southern Patriots planned their own attack.  The militiamen, including Sharp, confronted Ferguson and his men at Kings Mountain in a battle that changed the course of the war.

Revels calls the battle the first civil war in this country, with American versus American, about 1,000 men on each side.  He confirms that Sharp marched about 220 miles to get here from Virginia.  He points out that he and Paxton are standing on a ridge crest to the left of where Colonel (William) Campbell and Benjamin Sharp would have come up the ridge.  Paxton, of course, decides that means they are standing on the exact spot the men came up the ridge.  The Patriots (Revels says Americans, but since he's already told us that both sides were Americans, that doesn't help to identify which side he means, does it?) made three charges uphill, so it must have been a bloody battle.  Then Revels says he has a first-hand account of the battle, if Paxton is interested in reading it.  Coincidentally, it's by Sharp.

Sharp's account (click the "next result" link at the top) was first published in American Pioneer in February 1843; it was written when he was about 80 years old.  He mentioned the low gap the men had come through, which is now the road up which Revels and Paxton walked to reach the crest.  Sharp talked about how the Patriots surrounded the British and Loyalists, and Sharp's militia led the charge.  Major Ferguson, when he realized his side would lose, essentially committed suicide by breaking his sword and charging into the midst of the Patriots.  Shortly after that the British surrendered.  The battle lasted about an hour.  After the battle it was near sundown, and the men camped on the battlefield, among the dead and dying.  Sharp's signature is at the end of the article.

Revels says that about 28 men died on the Patriot side and 225 on the British.  Thomas Jefferson called the battle the turning point of success in the American Revolution.

Paxton wants to know what happened to Sharp after the battle.  He was only 18 years old at the time, and he had a lot of life left.  Revels says that Paxton can probably find some answers at the Library of Virginia, the home of the Virginia State Archives, and tells him that the archives are in Richmond.  As the two men walk off in different directions, I noticed that Revels has the book in his hands.  What, they couldn't afford a copy to give to Paxton?

It was somewhere around here that I got tired of hearing Paxton say "amazing."  I counted:  nine times in the episode.  He needs to find a new word.

In this interlude, Paxton admits he's very emotional about what he has learned.  He's proud of his ancestor and knows his father would have been also.  He thinks about Sharp's experiences at the age of 18 and can't conceive of his own son, who is 20, doing similar things.  Learning about his ancestor's experiences is really bringing the American Revolution alive for him (which is a great thing!).  Now he wants to know what Sharp did with the rest of his life.

Maybe Paxton understands how the celebrities on this show are led around, because he says, "So you guessed it — I'm off to Richmond, Virginia," to introduce the next segment.  The more he learns about Sharp, the more he wants to learn.  He's convinced that Sharp's life continued to be remarkable.

At the Library of Virginia, Paxton meets Gregg Kimball, one of the library's historians.  Kimball says that he found Sharp in southwestern Virginia and has a document from the executive papers of James Monroe (the one who became president) when he was Virginia's governor.  Paxton finds Sharp's name among the 60 or so on the document, which is a list of commissioners appointed to oversee the 1800 presidential election.  The candidates in the election were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Sharp was then about 38 years old (I guess they didn't have any interesting documents to show for the 20 years in between) and had a prestigious position.  He was working on the state level in politics, and Monroe would probably have known who he was.

The next item Kimball brings out is an 1804–1805 attendance book for the Virginia General Assembly.  He directs Paxton to look in Lee County, where Benjamin Sharp, Esq. is listed.  He had moved up a little more in status and was then a member of the House of Delegates, the lower house in the Virginia state legislature.  Kimball points out that Sharp probably was an independent landowner and a man of some means; all assembly members were substantial landowners.

Paxton wants to know if the library has records of Sharp's personal property or land transactions (wanting to know just how much he owned?).  Kimball says indeed they do, and the two move to a microfilm reader.  First Kimball has Paxton scroll to the year 1804, the year Sharp was in the assembly.  He then has Paxton note what the row labels are so that he'll be able to interpret the numbers later.  The categories Paxton writes down are number of white males over 16, number of blacks over 12, number of blacks over 16, and number of horses/mares/mules.  Paxton understands that blacks would refer to slaves but not why there's a differentiation between age 12 and 16; Kimball explains that they were taxed at different rates, children versus adults.  Kimball does not have Paxton write down the categories of retail store license, ordinary license, stud horses, and rates of covering per season, so I figured Sharp wasn't going to have been taxed on any of those.  But he did have him write down the two slave categories, so I knew what I was expecting to see.

And indeed, when Paxton finds Sharp's entry on the tax list, it includes 2 white males over 16, 1 black over 12, 4 blacks over 16, and 9 horses/mares/mules, though the animals are never discussed.  When Kimball confirms that the five blacks listed were slaves, Paxton says, "Unbelievable."  Kimball adds that Sharp could have owned more slaves — women and children younger than 12 — who wouldn't appear on the list because they weren't taxed.  Paxton:  "Well, that's unfortunate."  From a modern perspective, this is horrible, and now this man whom he has considered to be so great doesn't seem quite as nice.  But he then adds, "Good and bad, it's your history."  At least he's honest about it and didn't ask the producers to take that part out, à la Ben Affleck.

Whether they talked more and it was edited out we don't know, but that was the extent of the slavery discussion in the segment.  Paxton wonders where he should go from there and recalls that Sharp died at the age of 71 (from the information we have at this point, he was actually about 80) in Warren County, Missouri.  Then was another one of those comments that makes me think he gets the joke:  "So something tells me I'm going to Missouri now."  Kimball concurs, and Paxton leaves.

This interlude is a little more somber.  Paxton recalls how his father told him that all idols have feet of clay; everyone has foibles.  Learning that Sharp owned slaves seems to have thrown him off, and he admits he hasn't had a chance to process the information yet.  But in Missouri he figures he'll find out the rest of the story.

Paxton is happy to be in Missouri, the land of his father, and his father, and his father before him.  He's heading to the town where Sharp spent the last part of his life.  He's going to meet historian Gary Kremer, who has already let Paxton know that he found a significant document about Sharp.

Kremer greets Paxton at the Warren County Historical Society.  Kremer starts out by saying that some of the great social history documents available to researchers are probate records.  He then brings out Sharp's original will, dated June 19, 1845, not long before Sharp died (which means that the death date in the DAR database is off!).  Paxton compliments the beautiful handwriting (which looked really similar to the writing in the 1833 affidavit we saw near the beginning of the episode, but it didn't generate any comments then) before beginning to read.  Sharp wanted to have his estate divided equally among his children.  He also wrote, "My faithful servants, Bill and Judy, shall not be separated, but shall be left in the possession of all the livestock that may belong to them."  Servants in this instance is a euphemism for slaves.

Now we get some heavy-duty rationalization of Sharp's mores.  Kremer admits that Sharp still believed in the institution of slavery but emphasizes that he obviously cared about Bill and Judy, because he wanted them to be taken care of.  He wanted them to have land; he included a clause in the will stating that they were not to be sold against their will to strangers but should stay with Sharp's children.  He asked his descendants who inherited his slaves to treat them with humanity.  But guess what?  He didn't say anything (or at least we sure didn't hear anything in the episode) about actually freeing them.  So personally, I'm not buying the rationalization.  I don't think Paxton did, either; his comment was, "[T]hat's a tough one there."  Major understatement, Mr. Paxton.

To his credit, though, he again does not apologize for his ancestor.  He finds it disturbing to learn that his ancestor owned other human beings.  He does not understand how they could have been so blind.  This segues into a broader discussion, led by Kremer, of how even "enlightened" men of the period — Jefferson, Washington — owned slaves and the conclusion that slavery would end up tearing the country apart.

Kremer has no more documents on Sharp, but he "suggests" to Paxton that maybe they should try to trace Bill and Judy.  He says they can look at the 1850 census and "perhaps" find them and learn what their status is.  Paxton quite reasonably says they don't know Bill and Judy's last names.  Unfortunately, Kremer adds, "It's very likely — not a certainty . . . that they might have taken the Sharp name?"  Well, no, Mr. Kremer, it isn't that likely in most circumstances.  Shame on you for continuing to spread this misinformation, when modern scholarship has indicated that the majority of former slaves did not take their former owners' names.  But TLC and Ancestry have to pretend that these records are just being discovered, when in fact the researchers behind the scenes found them months ago.  And that means you have to give Paxton a reason to search on the names you already know they're listed under.  Feh.

The only positive thing to say about this part is that the ubiquitous search (I am convinced that a celebrity will not be approved if there's no document on the site) did not appear until 48 minutes into the hour.  Kremer has Paxton search for William Sharp (why not Bill?  oh, because that's not how he's listed) in Warren County.  There are two results, both born in Virginia, one about 1780 and the other about 1811.  Though either man is plausible, Kremer has Paxton choose the one born in 1780, saying that would be about the right age.  We haven't heard anything prior to this about how old Bill was, however, or exactly when Sharp came to Missouri.  Surprise, surprise, we see Bill and Judy, now William and Judith, listed in the census of free inhabitants; Bill is a farmer.  We know they're the right people because they are mulattoes (the only people on the page who are not white, in fact).  The fact that both of them were born in Virginia means they came as slaves with Sharp when he moved from Virginia to Missouri.

Kremer points out to Paxton the significance of Bill and Judy being enumerated on the census of free individuals.  Kremer says that Sharp's sons were fulfilling his mandate by providing protection and watching over Bill and Judy, but this is beyond Sharp's instructions.  Not long after after Benjamin Sharp passed away, someone, most likely one of his descendants, took the extra, humane, step and actually freed Bill and Judy.  Kudos to him.  But couldn't the research team find the manumission document?  I guess it wasn't Paxton's ancestor who did it, because then they surely would have shown it.

Paxton asks what else there is and accuses Kremer of holding out on him.  Kremer admits that Sharp is buried about 20 miles from where they are at the moment.  The grave is on private property, but the owner has given permission for Paxton to visit the gravesite.  Naturally, he wants to see the grave, so that's where he'll head next.

Now Paxton does some rationalizing.  He says how amazing it was to hold his ancestor's original last will and testament and adds that Sharp was a very fair man who was concerned about the people in his life.  That's a big stretch.  Seriously, if he were that concerned and that fair, he would have freed Bill and Judy himself.  Paxton is looking forward to visiting Sharp's grave and standing on land that Sharp once owned.

We see Paxton driving on an unidentified highway, with no signs to indicate where he's headed.  I'm sure if you're from the area you could probably recognize some landmarks, but for the rest of us, the location of Benjamin Sharp's grave will never be known.  I guess they couldn't commandeer the highway they do repositories; at one point a car passed by him going in the other direction.  Next we see Paxton driving down some sort of side road.  Then he is suddenly walking through trees trying to find the gravestones.  He even comments, "Wow, it really is in the woods."  Obviously, the cameramen know where the graves are (did they have to cut a path for the equipment?), but either Paxton wanted to try to find them himself or they were told to let him do so, because he wanders around a little before getting there.  Unlike the new, replaced stones that Tony Goldwyn found, these stones really look to be more than 150 years old.  The text on them is barely readable.  Paxton traces his fingers over the letters:  Benjamin Sharp, died January 1, 1846, and Hannah, whose stone is next to Sharp's.  Paxton has brought some stones from Kings Mountain and places them on Sharp's tombstone, saying, "You are not forgotten."  I found that very touching.

In the outro, Paxton talks about how the journey he has taken during the past week has given him a lot of food for thought, and he becomes philosophical.  Seeing the Sharps' gravestones has brought everything home to him in a different way.  He will make sure his children know the stories of how their ancestors blazed a trail before them and learn that history.  He says his father taught him that prejudice is based on fear and ignorance, a lesson he also wants his children to know, and he wants them to know more about their family history.  People tend to want to hide the less pleasant parts of their history, but it's important to look at those parts also to understand who you are.  It isn't what your ancestors did that defines you, however, but what you do yourself.  Are you going to leave the world a better place than how you found it?

One final note:  Sometimes I find transcripts of television shows online, often generated by closed captioning systems.  A transcript of this episode is here, complete with hmms and ahs.


  1. While the DAR search didn't turn up a William Paxton, the SAR Patriot search did: Ancestor #P-267030

    William Paxton, b: 1732 d: 1795

  2. Thank you for finding this! Apparently someone has proven his Revolutionary War service.

  3. I find this dialogue extremely intriguing. Bill Sharp was a farmer and chairmaker in Warren Co. Missouri. He taught his son William Kuntze how to make chairs. I am a research historian and genealogist with 25 years experience. I have written a book on Kuntze which I hope to publish this year. FYI Most formerly enslaved Africans did indeed take the surname of their former slaveholders.

    1. Hello, True,

      I am looking forward to your book. I am also a researcher and genealogist, with 40 years experience. I based my statement about former slaves and the surnames they took on current quantitative research into the subject and on information from Tony Burroughs. We can agree to disagree.



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