Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Reba McEntire

I am obviously way behind on my schedule this week!  Too many things to do prevented me from writing this sooner.  But I did see the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Reba McEntire.  I was looking forward to it, as I am a big country music fan and enjoy her songs very much.  But the program was disappointing in several ways.

The opening overview described McEntire as the queen of country and the best-selling country artist of all time.  Her husband is Narvel Blackstock, and she has a son named Shelby.  Her family background is Oklahoma cowboys, and she credits growing up in the man's world of ranching and rodeo for preparing her for running her own businesses.  When she wrote her autobiography she learned about her father's side of the family, but not her mother's.  McEntire said she wanted to go as far back as possible and learn about the first person who came to North America.  Then she said something that came out very oddly:  In some parts of Europe, such as Ireland and Scotland, she felt "at home", but in England she felt "on guard."  It sounded like really bad scripting, but I guess that could have been her honest sentiment.  Considering how WDYTYA drops hints like sledgehammers, this pretty much meant that she was going to go to England.

McEntire began her journey by going to visit her parents' ranch in Stringtown, Oklahoma.  Her father did not appear in the program and was not mentioned at all in the present tense.  This seemed odd, considering how much he seemed to have been a part of McEntire's life, but nothing was said about him having passed away or her parents being divorced.  McEntire spoke of her maternal grandmother, Reba Estelle Brassfield Smith, and how she was doing the research for her mother, who had moved to Nashville to support her desire to pursue a career in country music.

Jackie, McEntire's mother, showed some photos.  One was of McEntire's father, Clark, who was a work champion steer roper.  Another showed Reba Brassfield Smith holding Reba McEntire when she was a baby.  Then she showed a photo of her grandparents, B. W. and Susie Brassfield, with their children, including Reba.  Jackie mentioned that B. W. had died of tuberculosis.  She said the family had had a store because B. W. had not been able to do physical work.  I'd like to know who was doing all the lifting and stocking, because running a store was definitely physical!  Jackie also mentioned that they had been in Monroe County, Mississippi.

McEntire brought out a laptop computer and told her mother she was going to look online with a "little thing called", which sounded incredibly hokey.  She found Reba Brassfield in Monroe County in 1910 as a 6-year-old girl with her widowed mother, Susie.  Even though a year had not been stated for the photo of the Brassville family, McEntire said that B. W. had died not long after the photo had been taken.  She then tried looking for B. W. in the 1900 census (at least that was logical).  She didn't find him, but I found an index entry for the marriage of B. W. Brassfield and Susan Raper using her same search.  You'd think that would be worth mentioning?  Apparently not, because McEntire said, "He's not here," and her mother replied, "You'll just have to go down there and look."  McEntire said in a voice-over that she had hit a "bit of a dead end in our online search."  Say what?  You can't find something on your first attempt, so it's already a dead end?  Geez, it took me less than five minutes to find him in the 1900 census (the B apparently was for Barney).

So off McEntire went to the Evans Memorial Library in Aberdeen, Mississippi (which is in Monroe County, even though they didn't say so) to meet with a genealogist.  While she was waiting she paged through a book of early 1900's obituaries but didn't find B. W.  She said again she was at a dead end; that's right, one lack of results and it's a dead end again.  But I guess it is a dead end if you don't actually try.

Then the genealogist, Josh Taylor, walked up.  Last season, while he was still with the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, he researched Ashley Judd's family.  He was credited as D. Joshua Taylor and wore a suit for that segment; he was decidedly less formal-looking in this episode.  I don't know if this episode was filmed before Taylor started working for BrightSolid, a competitor with for commercial presentation of censuses online.  He told McEntire that it had taken a little work to find her relatives, and then laughed and said it had actually taken a lot of work.  Instead of showing or even discussing any of the that work, however, he merely unrolled a scroll (which was the same style as the one he had for Judd) which showed McEntire's family going back to her fourth great-grandfather George Brasfield.  Poof!  It's magic!  Ask for your family tree and it shall appear.  Documentation?  Don't be silly.

Taylor told McEntire that her great-grandfather B. W. Brasfield had died September 12, 1906, that he had been a farmer (but nothing was said of the fact that this disagreed with the family information about a store), and that he did not have an obituary.  There was a little bit of discussion on the different spelling of the family name, but it didn't address the fact that spelling consistently simply wasn't expected.  George was apparently born about 1765 in Wake County, North Carolina.  Passing mention was made of the fact that he was born before the American Revolution and would have grown up during the war, but nothing else was said about that.  McEntire asked if Taylor hadn't been able to pinpoint the town Brasfield was from.  Taylor said that interesting things had happened in Wake County and maybe she ought to visit.  Along with the poor scripting, the segment seemed very stilted and forced.

But off McEntire went to Raleigh, North Carolina, which is in Wake County.  She met with Phil Otterness, a North Carolina historian and a professor at Warren Wilson College.  He showed her a plan for the city of Raleigh with George Brasfield listed on lot #15.  Land records from 1846-1849 indicated George had died and dealt with the Brasfield old tavern lot.  Then, in property tax lists from 1781-1860, George Brasfield was listed in 1810 as owning more than 1,600 acress and 10 black slaves.  This startled McEntire, who wanted to know if Brasfield had treated his slaves well.  Otterness told her more records about slaves were available at the Granville County courthouse and she could find more information there.

On her way to the courthouse McEntire talked about how finding out that her ancestor had been a slave owner was giving her a different perspective on that time in history.  At the courthouse she met with another North Carolina historian, Harry Watson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  They looked on the computer (on, though the company name was not shown; don't want to advertise for competitors) and found a newspaper notice from 1820 about a runaway slave named Willie Trip (see the clipping on the left).  (They couldn't have found it by searching for George Brassfield, because his name is Geo. in the article.)  Brasfield tried to stop him from escaping.  Watson then told McEntire "it turns out we have some records" and showed bills of sale and deeds for several individuals, including a 20-year-old girl with her child, a 3-year-old, and a 14-month-old girl.  McEntire acknowledged that her ancestor had been a slave trader and that slavery was a part of many people's pasts.  She said she wanted a time machine so she could go back in time to talk with Brassfield, but then said she had found out all she could about him.  It seemed rather an abrupt cut-off, making me wonder if additional information had been even less pleasant.

Recently a friend and I were discussing what WDYTYA? would do when research discovered that a celebrity's ancestor had owned slaves.  I think the program dealt with it well.  There was no attempt to sugarcoat it, not even the fact that Brassfield had obviously bought and sold slaves.  It would have been very easy not to show those records, and the entire subject could have been bypassed.

McEntire again mused about finding her earliest ancestor who had come to North America.  She went to Tappahannock, Virginia to meet with Warren Hofstra, a Virginia historian at Shenandoah University, who had extended her family back another two generations.  Her sixth great-grandfather George Brassfield was a party in a land deed from May 16, 1721, in which he paid Richard Carver 1,500 pounds of tobacco for 300 acres of land.  McEntire wanted to know if the family had been wealthy, but Hofstra told her he had worked for it.  He then showed her a book of court orders of Essex County from 1695-1699 in which her ancestor appeared as an indentured servant at 9 years old, bound to Bernard Gaines.  Watson explained that the indenture was a contract to pay for the expenses of bringing young Brassfield to Virginia from England.  Indentured servitude is considered by some to be the first type of American slavery.  Indentured servants often worked with black slaves in the fields and were bound to their "employers" until the age of 21, when they could earn their freedom.  Gaines farmed tobacco, so Brassfield would have helped in the fields and it would have been hard work.  Hofstra said that less than half of indentured servants survived their contracts.

McEntire then wanted to know where Brassfield had come from.  A search in Google Books found a George "Brasfeild" in List of Emigrants to America from Liverpool, 1697-1707 (I wonder how long it took the research team to find that entry).  Brasfield arrived in 1698 and was listed as being "Eleaven" years old, so it looked as though his indenture might have shaved a year or so off his age to keep him a servant longer.  Several other children were on the ship with Brasfield, and McEntire wondered where their parents were.  No hometown was listed for Brasfield, but many of the other children were from Cheshire County, England, so Hofstra suggested looking there for him.

McEntire headed off to Chester, England.  She wondered if George Brassfield's origins explained why she felt so weird when she went to England.  She met at the Cheshire Archive with Brett Langston.  He showed her a computerized index of Cheshire parish records, in which they found Georgius Brasfield (and three additional Brasfields, whom they did not discuss!  what happened to whole family research?!).  Brasfield was baptized June 17, 1688; the birth date was not recorded but probably was within a couple of months before that.  His father was listed as Thomas Bracefield of Maccalsfield.  Thomas' marriage to Abigail (no maiden name!) was shown, and then Thomas' burial on June 30, 1720, many years after George's trip in 1698.  The last record produced showed that Thomas' wife Abigail had been buried in 1696.  McEntire wondered how Thomas could have sent his son so far away when he was so young and whether there had been no money to take care of him.

From Chester McEntire went to St. Michael's Church in Macclesfield, also in Cheshire.  (I noticed that although she had driven herself around to the various research spots in the U.S., she was a passenger in the vehicle going to Macclesfield.)  At the church she met James Horn of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a historian specializing in indentured servitude.  He explained that apprenticeships were expensive and that George would not have had many opportunities or much of a future at home in Macclesfield.  His father would have arranged the indentured servitude to give him a chance at a better fate.  George had done well; he would never have had a chance to own 300 acres of land in England.  Horn mentioned that as far as research had shown, all Brassfields in the U.S. were descended from George.

McEntire wanted to know where Thomas and Abigail were buried.  Horn walked with her to the courtyard, where large flagstones had many names on them.  These were rich people, and the flagstones were effectively their tombstones.  Poor people were buried in the grassy area in the center of the courtyard.  They might have had wood markers which had disintegrated over time, or perhaps no marker at all, and there was nothing to indicate their exact burial places, meaning there was no way to really know whether Thomas or Abigail was buried there.  McEntire suddenly had a change of heart and felt sympathy for Thomas Bracefield.  She did a complete turn-around and called him a "strong man" who had lost his wife but been brave enough to send his son away for a better opportunity.  (What about the other three children that appeared in the baptismal register?!)  She asked forgiveness for being mad at him and decided she had a good feeling now in England, that she felt loved and protected.

McEntire returned to the ranch in Oklahoma to tell her mother what she had learned about the family.  Jackie was very calm and had almost no reaction to anything McEntire said.  It looked as though she had already been told everything ahead of time, since I don't think she didn't care.  It was a pretty anticlimactic ending.

So my predictions are still at 100% percent!  Though McEntire did go to England, the episode discussed her family in context of several historical times in the U.S. -- indentured servitude, the Revolutionary War, and slavery.

Something odd at the end of the program was the teaser for next week's episode.  For some reason the celebrity was not named.  Maybe they're trying to decide who would be more timely?


  1. I really enjoy reading your articles on "Who do you think you are" each week. You always answer the questions about the show that I am curious about. As my family historian, I am always searching for new ways to find information. So thanks for always commenting. I'm sure there are more people than me, always looking forward to read your reviews. - Julie

  2. Thank you so much, Julie. It is great to hear that you enjoy my posts and that they are helpful to you.

  3. Living in Wake County, near an area known has "Brassfield", I was surprised nothing was mentioned or shown of this area they did not even visit the cemetery.

    I have been doing my family research for 30 years and nothing is as easy as they show. I am still looking for one grandfathers birthplace. My husbands family has been easier since they have been in US since 1700's. but the repetive use of first names can be a challenge.

  4. It's possible that the cemetery was part of the research that didn't make it past the edits to get on air. They shoot lots more footage than can be squeezed into the approximately 42 minutes or so actually alloted to the program--the rest being taken up by commercials--especially since they repeat scenes going into and out of commercials. Unfortunately, they don't really put a lot of "extras" online, so we'll probably never know. Maybe you could write to McEntire and ask her.

    And absolutely yes, nothing is as easy as they pretend it is. Anyone who has done real research knows that to be true. But the program is about entertainment, not education.

  5. Hi Janice,
    as an amateur genealogist who works in Chester, Cheshire I use the Cheshire Parish Register Project database a lot. It's free and online at
    If you search on 'BRASSF' on the baptism database, there are actually 5 entries as Brassfield is misspelled on one entry. Some of these are no doubr Georges siblings - what happened to them?

  6. Hi, David,
    Thanks for the useful link! I agree, some of them probably are George's siblings, but WDYTYA doesn't generally show research of collateral lines unless it will fill in blanks in the main ancestral lines. It's possible the show's producers looked up information on the siblings and gave that information to McEntire privately.

  7. Hello Janice, The interesting thing is that George Brassfield born in Macclesfield, England, is my 6 times great grandfather, and I have information on him and his parents since 2002 gotten through the Brassfield family website. They made it look like it was so hard to track the info on WDYTYA. But it is very easy to find information on the Brassfield line.

    1. I agree, it was not difficult to find a lot of the information on the Brassfields. But it is hard if you give up so easily, as McEntire did, because she kept hitting "dead ends" immediately. :)

  8. I guess it adds to the drama of the programme if Reba can't find information. Having done family research on my family (the common surname of Campbell) in Cumbria, England, I used the Mormon website, Family Search, and then when I went to the UK in July, 2013 I confirmed most of this part of the family tree. It's a very interesting pastime.

    1. Hi, Gavin,

      For those of us who actually do research, not finding records also adds to the realism, I think. I envy you your reseach trip to the UK. I hope to be able to do that some day and learn more about that part of my family. It's good to hear you were able to confirm information about your family.


  9. Reba Mcentire came across as sickeningly fake. Trying to make crocodile tears when she found out one of her rich white ancestors was a slave trader who owned at least 10 slaves and sold and traded many more. It was very freaky watching her trying to look sad while her plastic surgery stretched nightmare face kept that bizarre smile no matter what expression she was trying to make. Never been a Reba fan, but even less of one now. This show is nothing more than self serving free publicity for people with lagging careers.

    1. Not everyone will enjoy every episode, certainly. I don't know that she came across that badly to me. Some of the other celebrities have been far worse. And some of the celebrities definitely have quite active careers even now.


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