Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Trisha Yearwood

The commercial that advertised this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was probably the most entertaining one I've seen for the program.  Trisha Yearwood said she didn't know what she might find — murder, intrigue, or circus performers.  She sounded like a person with a good sense of humor, so I had been looking forward to seeing how the episode turned out.  The opening monologue from the narrator mentioned loss, criminals, and perseverance, so it appeared it was going to lean toward the murder and intrigue angle rather than the circus.

The overview of Yearwood explains she is from a small town in Georgia and is a successful country music artist.  She has had nine #1 hits and has won three Grammy Awards.  In 2008 she published her first cookbook and in 2012 began a program on Food Network called Trisha's Southern Kitchen.  Her husband is country singer Garth Brooks, she has three stepdaughters, and the family has two homes, one in Oklahoma and one in Nashville.

Yearwood begins her narrative by saying she is from Monticello, Georgia.  Her father was a banker and her mother was a schoolteacher.  In a small town everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone (I know about that, having lived in Niceville, Florida), which she didn't appreciate until she moved.  Then she learned how special that was.  At five years old she already knew she wanted to be a singer, and her parents encouraged her dream.  Both of her parents have passed away; she knows about her mother's side of the family, but not so much about her father's.

Yearwood's father was an only child.  His mother, Grandma Elizabeth Winslett, lived with the family since Yearwood was a teenager but wouldn't tell stories about her side of the family.  Now Yearwood wants to learn more about her father's side of the family and particularly wants to find her first immigrant ancestor.  That's actually kind of a vague goal — any line of the family?  the earliest from all family lines? — but because the only ancestor mentioned had been her grandmother, it was a good guess it would be from that side.  Then we got the quote from the commercial:  "There could be murder, there could be intrigue, there could be circus performers. . . . I have no idea what to expect."  It's a great line.

Yearwood does not start off talking with a family member or even making the almost obligatory personal foray onto Ancestry.com.  She goes to the Nashville Public Library and meets genealogist Kyle Betit (an Ancestry.com employee, who apparently actually specializes in Irish research), pronounced "Beatty."  She tells him her grandmother was from Eatonton, Georgia.  He says he has built a tree he wants her to look at on (of course) Ancestry.com.  Yearwood is very human; she says she needs her glasses to read the screen.

The Winslett family tree shows that Elizabeth was born March 17, 1908 in Putnam County, Georgia.  The tree continues with Yearwood's great-grandfather Cary Winslett — Yearwood says that her grandmother had mentioned him — great-great-grandfather Thomas Jefferson Winslett, third great-grandfather Seaborn Winslett, fourth great-grandfather Jonathan Winslett, and fifth great-grandfather Samuel Winslett, who was born in 1744 in Binsted, Hampshire, England and died in 1829 in Georgia.  During all of this, Yearwood is shown writing notes, which was nice to see.  But we've already reached the immigrant ancestor!  What will we do to fill the rest of the hour?

Betit has Yearwood click on Samuel's name.  His entry shows that he was baptized on December 28, 1744 in Hampshire.  Yearwood asks why Samuel would have migrated, what kind of trade the family practiced, and how he ended up where he did.  Betit says that now that Yearwood knows where in England her ancestor was from she should go to England and find out why.  (Why not, it isn't coming out of his pocket.)  Yearwood is very excited "to find out on the first day of my journey" her immigrant ancestor (as with Cindy Crawford, a journey that was months in the making; could the behind-the-scenes research team get just a little on-screen acknowledgment here?).

And Yearwood flies to England, knowing only her immigrant ancestor's birth year and hometown.  At the Hampshire Records Office she finds genealogist Les Mitchinson, who tells her that for 1744 they will need to look in parish registers to find more information.  He sits her down in front of a laptop computer and puts in a CD.  The screen shows a search page and says Hampshire Genealogical Society.  Yearwood types in Samuel, but instead of letting her type Winslett for the last name, Mitchinson says that names could be spelled in different ways and suggests she type only "Wins" (gee, maybe he's already done this search ...),  And amazingly enough, up pops an entry for the baptism of Samuel "Winslut" on December 28, 1744.  His parents were John and Mary Winslut, which Yearwood astutely deduces are her sixth great-grandparents.

Mitchinson then has Yearwood search for other children by using the Winslut spelling and Binsted as the search terms.  Mitchinson says he will look for more information in marriage and burial registers.  Yearwood finds three more children, all boys older than Samuel — James, William, and John Winslut.  When Mitchinson returns Yearwood announces her discovery and says she can assume that the boys are all siblings, but Mitchinson says only that it is more than likely that is the case.

Mitchinson returned with registers, where he has found an entry.  The books are the original records, which go back to the 18th century, and they do not use gloves.  (I'm definitely starting to think the gloves versus no gloves is based on the individual repository's rules.)  In a register of burials, for the year running from Easter of 1753 to Easter of 1754, there is an entry for Mary "Winslat", wife of John, on May 3, 1753.  Yearwood says that Samuel would have been 7 to 8 years old.  Apparently they teach math differently in Georgia, because the way I do it, 1753 – 1744 is 9, possibly 8 years old.

Mitchinson then shows another burial.  This one is for John "Winslat", on April 3, 1759.  This time Yearwood says that Samuel would have been about 14 years old, which is a little better.  So the four boys were orphaned after the death of their father in 1759.  Yearwood comments that they were just "young boys", but John, the oldest, would have been about 20, which was probably considered an adult at the time.  Mitchinson says that no other events are listed for the family in the county, so they must have moved out of the parish.  The next logical step is to search in other counties for them.  Surrey and Sussex are nearby, so he suggests checking them.

Searching for Winslett in the West Sussex Records Office online database produces a hit on Shilinglee for MSS 3/29:  "Action in the King's Bench, concerning Deer stealing at Shillinglee" by Samuel, James, and John Winslet.  (Where did brother William go?)  Yearwood comments, "I think we can pretty much rule out that I'm going to find royalty" but that it's more interesting this way (she really does have a sense of humor).  Mitchinson tells her that Shilinglee still stands and that he will call a colleague to look at records there.  As she leaves, Yearwood says she has so much information in her head she doesn't know where to start.  (Heaven knows how she would handle it if she were actually doing the research.)  She can empathize with the Winslett boys on losing their parents.  She lost her parents as an adult and found it devastating; they lost theirs as children, so they had to grow up fast.

The Deer Tower
Yearwood meets Dr. Emma Griffin, a professor of 18th-century English history at the University of East Anglia, at the Shillinglee Estate in West Sussex, in "The Deer Tower."  Yearwood says she wants to know what happened with her ancestor.  Griffin points out that where they are sitting has been converted but was the original Deer Tower, which was at the center of the hunting area for the estate.

Griffin has pulled several documents from the Sussex Records Office.  The first states that the deer stealing incident took place on Lord Winterton's property on June 18, 1765.  Yearwood says that Samuel was about 19 years old; by my math, he was 20 or 21.  Two brace and a half of fat bucks were killed (a brace is a pair of deer, so that's five total) and they were looking for the thieves.  A reward of 30 guineas and a complete pardon were offered by Lord Winterton.  It must have been a serious crime, because the reward is equivalent to a year's wages.

Griffin explains that deer had significant symbolic importance at the time.  People couldn't buy venison at the market.  Deer were owned only by wealthy, elite landowners and were protected under the Black Act.  Poaching deer was punishable by death.  Going out to the commercial, we see a different document that has in the margin, "Let them be severally hanged by the neck until they be dead."  We know Samuel survived, because he died in Georgia, but it isn't looking good.

The second document Griffin has is dated June 22, 1765 (which Yearwood says is "a couple weeks" after the first one; time must fly for her, because by my count it was four days).  Thomas and James White confessed to poaching the deer and implicated the three Winslett brothers and another young man.  Thomas and James were both illiterate, as evidenced by the X's they made as their marks on the confession.  They apparently came forward only to claim the reward and the pardon, and blamed the worst parts of the crime on the others.

The third document is undated.  John Newman took the Winsletts to Horsham Gaol and was supposed to listen to anything they said.  Samuel said he hoped that he would not be hanged but if he was he had no wife, child, father, or mother to cry for him, so it didn't matter.  Yearwood is struck by the despair and desolation Samuel felt.  She feels sorry for him, even though he had committed a crime.  She knows he survived, but wants to know how and asks Griffin if there are more documents.  Griffin replies that no more are in Sussex; Yearwood will have to go to the National Archives (I refuse to capitalize "the" for them; it's just too pretentious) because it was a serious crime.

Yearwood says that if she didn't know his history, she would think of Samuel as a common criminal.  What she knows of her family is that they were people of good character and that it had to come from something good.  She really wants to believe that Samuel changed at some point.

Yearwood's next stop is the National Archives in Kew.  There, they use the conservator's gloves.  The researcher is James Horn, a historian with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  He shows Yearwood records from the Assizes, which were the highest courts, presided over by the highest justices.  Twice a year they went on circuit around the country to handle cases; he has found a record from the summer circuit.  I didn't see a date, but now we see the document with the marginal note of "Let them be severally hanged by the neck until they be dead."  But in another place on the document is a note of "Reprieved" for Samuel and John.  (What happened to James?)  Quite reaonably, Yearwood wants to know why.

Horn has another record, this one from February 19, 1766 in Whitehall.  James and Samuel had been given royal mercy and were to be transported to the colonies and plantations in the Americas, with a sentence of 14 years.  The sentences of all the convicted prisoners that day were changed to transportation.  The Transportation Act of 1718 made it common for criminals to be sent to the Americas, where a cheap manual labor force was needed.  (After the American Revolution, criminals were transported to Australia.  And apparently the act was not repealed until 1993!)  They would have been transported in chains and auctioned off to businessmen and plantation owners when they arrived in North America.  They would then have become the property of the winning bidders.  Yearwood laments that Samuel would have been merely a 20-year-old boy; my math says 21 or 22.

Horn discusses what kind of owners they would have had when they arrived.  Many owners were harsh, and the transportees had no rights.  Their alternatives weren't that great, though — it was transportation or hanging.  So it did give Samuel a new life.

Yearwood wants to know where Samuel landed.  Horn explains that convicts are hard to trace and that her best course may be to go where he ended up:  Georgia.  Yearwood goes back home to Georgia to learn where her family started in North America.  In her voiceover as she leaves she says she is rooting for Samuel.  He had had obstacle after obstacle since he had been born but then got a reprieve.  (A little exaggerated perhaps; nothing was said about his life before his mother passed away, or at least not that survived the editing process.)  Being transported saved him.

In Georgia Yearwood goes to the Georgia State Archives, which seems to share a building with the National Archives at Atlanta (which is actually in Morrow), because the sign lists both of them.  Joshua Haynes, a researcher of early Georgia history (his dissertation was "Patrolling the Border: Theft and Violence on the Creek-Georgia Frontier, 1770–1796", which was appropriate for this segment) is on hand to assist Yearwood.  He says the first step in researching records from the period is to look at registered land grants.  In November 1770, four years after Samuel had arrived, George III granted him 100 acres of land in Riceboro, in Liberty County.  It doesn't look as though Samuel served his complete 14-year sentence; convicts couldn't own land.  Haynes can't tell Yearwood what happened, but it's unlikely his sentence was commuted, so maybe Samuel had escaped from his owner.  However he did it, Samuel went from being a convicted poacher about to be hung to a landowner a mere four years later.  And James, the third brother, now drops out — no more mention is made of him.

Yearwood asks why the king was giving away land.  Georgian settlers had recently forced the Creek Indians to give up their land and pushed them out of the area, and people were needed to make the land productive.  The king was handing out land to just about anyone who asked for it.  It was a great way to make a new start and escape one's past, because no one was checking credentials.

1748 map of Georgia,
by Emanuel Bowen
Yearwood wants to know if there's anything after that, and Haynes says there is one more document, from May 17, 1784.   (Yearwood's math has improved; she says Samuel was about 40 years old.) Samuel acquired 287 1/2 acres in Washington County.  Yearwood comments that Samuel then had almost 400 acres, which is a big assumption; it's 14 years after the first grant, and there's nothing said as to whether he still owned it.  She also says there has to be a catch, becuase it's Samuel.  Haynes shows her a 1748 map of the area (see map on the left) and says it's close to the landscape Samuel would have recognized (36 years later?  I would have guessed there would be significant changes during those 36 years, but it must have been the closest map to the right time they could find).  Haynes explains that between the Oconee and Ogeechee rivers was Creek country.  The Creeks had tried to stay neutral but the colonists forced them out.  They didn't want to let go of the land, so the land was contested.  Samuel had just acquired land in the "Wild West" of Georgia.  The Creeks looked at Samuel and his neighbors as threats, border jumpers, and squatters on the land.

We know that Samuel was 85 when he died, so he survived being in Indian territory.  Yearwood asks the obvious question of how.  Haynes doesn't answer but says he has found the land that Samuel got in 1784.  They're going to take a road trip.

In her voiceover Yearwood says how it's ironic that Samuel became a big landowner and was lord of his own manor.  Since he had been oppressed when he was poor, she hopes that he didn't oppress the Creeks.  Samuel had a knack for going from one volatile situation to another.  (Has she considered that the common factor in all of this was him?)

Yearwood drives herself and Haynes to Washington County.  The land where Samuel settled is only about 30 miles from Monticello, where Yearwood grew up.  The family apparently didn't stray far.

Then Haynes tells Yearwood he actually has one more document.  This one is from September 3, 1831 in Greene County.  Samuel made a deposition in court for a deprivation claim, which was done when property had been taken.  Samuel stated one of his mares had been stolen by Creeks about June or July of 1778.  (The transcription which Yearwood is reading actually says 1878, which Haynes explains is incorrect.  Why in the world did they not edit that out?)  In March 1779 the Creeks took and destroyed food and furniture.  From October 1787 to April 1788 he lost cattle and other livestock to them.  His claim was for thefts over about 10 years.  The question of why he was making this claim in 1821, more than 30 years after the last theft, wasn't brought up, though I'm certainly curious about it.  He died a few years later, in 1829.

I noticed that Samuel signed the deposition with his mark, an X; he had remained illiterate.  Haynes brings this to the attention of Yearwood.  Even though Samuel never learned to read or write, he became a wealthy landowner anyway.

Yearwood acknowledges the irony that Samuel had been caught and tried for stealing and then swore out a deposition about the Creek thefts.  Haynes says that while Samuel's property was taken, it was not his entire estate.  He was kind of on the cusp of being an elite planter.  (That statement to me implied that Samuel had owned slaves, so I looked; in the 1820 census for Greene County, a Samuel Winslett has 22 slaves.  Not a topic for this episode, apparently.)
Samuel Winslett in Greene County, Georgia, 1820 census; enumerated slaves are in the red box
Yearwood wants to know how long Samuel lived on the land in Washington County.  Haynes tells her he was there up to a few years before he died.  One of his last transactions was selling the land and moving to Eatonton in Putnam County, where Grandma Elizabeth had been from.

In her closing comments, Yearwood talks about how we draw strength and character from what comes before us.  In Samuel she sees resilience, strength, and courage.  He did what he had to out of necessity and was a man who made the most of his opportunities.  (Well, that's certainly putting a good spin on it.)  She hasn't done anything remotely as dangerous as what Samuel did, but feels it was brave of her to dream to be a singer when she didn't know anyone who had done anything like that.  She feels that the inner desire to make that happen she got mostly from her parents, but a little probably came from Samuel.

Yearwood must be a very forgiving person, because even though she kept learning about questionable things that Samuel Winslett had done, she was able to view them in a positive light.  I can see excusing the poaching, but then he apparently escaped from his owner after transportation, had to have lied to get land, and became an oppressive landowner like Lord Winterton.  And they didn't even address the slave-owning issue on air.  Yearwood said she wanted to believe that Samuel had changed, but I didn't see evidence of it.  Even taking into account that he was a man of his time, I question whether he did everything out of necessity.

One thing that particularly struck me was why Samuel would have filed the deprivations claim in 1821, so many years after the events in question.  Perhaps it had something to do with efforts to move the Creeks and other Indians west, but having no context for it makes Samuel look like a grasping, petty individual.  Another possibility is that he was desperate for money at the time, but were people able to collect on judgments made against the Creeks?  Or did compensation come from a governmental body?

I also found it interesting that Yearwood's unanswered questions were kept in the episode.  She asked about where Samuel arrived in North America, what happened to his 14-year sentence, and how he survived being in the contested Creek territory.  It would be nice to think it was done deliberately to show that answers can't always be found, but I doubt it, because that wasn't brought up.  It was more like the questions were just glossed over.  It's also possible that the questions were answered but those parts didn't make it on air.  Who knows?  Kind of like what happened to Samuel's three brothers, those of us on this side of the television are simply left wondering about the rest of the story.

Finally, Yearwood didn't bring any family members into the experience with her.  She started and ended alone, and there was no discussion about sharing the information with others.  Was that because Samuel wasn't quite the model of an upstanding citizen?

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