How genealogy got me watching historical drama on TV

Yes, it’s true, genealogy has subtly altered some of my television viewing habits. Historical drama isn’t something that’s ever really been on my radar. I’ve given the genre a few goes over the years and, well, found it wanting: characters that are given contemporary ideologies, beliefs and societal notions, really bad accents and actors/writers/directors just not in tune with how the world they were portraying really worked. It’s nit picking on my part to be sure. And, yes, I get that it’s entertainment. But still…

It all started with the History Channel’s historical drama series, Vikings – a new discovery. I actually found this gem online when I was researching the history of one of my own Roane & Matthews family’s Viking ancestors, Thorfinn “Skullcleaver” Torf-Einarsson (890 – 960), Jarl of Orkney (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorfinn_Torf-Einarsson). He’s one of my 34th great grandfathers. Apparently, he was a badass even by Viking standards – and those were some tough standards! He was immortalized in the ancient Orkneyinga saga (History of the Earls of Orkney) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkneyinga_saga . He even has an English ale named after him: Skull Splitter (http://www.sinclairbreweries.co.uk/index.php)

History Channel's The Vikings tv series

Anyway, I came across Vikings and decided to give it a go. Just for fun. I was hooked. I still am. I can suspend my disbelief just enough to imagine the world my Viking ancestors lived in. Even better, this series kills two birds with one stone, as it were. It covers the period when the Norse people began invading eastern England in earnest. So I get to see that world from my Saxon ancestors’ perspective as well – specifically those ancestors who lived in the old kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex.

Yes, the characters are suspiciously well-scrubbed most of the time, there’s our modern notion of ‘romantic love’ and there’s a bounty of attractiveness. However, what it does – and does rather well – is set up the cultural differences and opposing world views of both the Vikings and the Saxons. In other words, the series does an excellent job of depicting the sense of cultural ‘otherness’ – and all the strangeness and tensions that are experienced when two very different cultures meet, and clash. And, of course, how it portrays the stark, hurly burly, axe-wielding world of the eponymous farmer-warriors.

The fact that I can actually name ancestors who were alive in the historical era being depicted makes viewing even more compelling.

Book of Negroes banner image

I’ve just watched the last episode from the Book of Negroes series. And what a poignant, moving and somewhat emotional roller-coaster of a viewing experience it’s been. Again, the strength of this experience has been rooted in my ancestors’ experience during the American Revolution – specifically, the experience of my African-descended ancestors who were enslaved and free. From Jemimah Sheffey, who was born into slavery in the Virginia of 1770 to free families like the Goins, the Drews, the Christians, the Liggons, the Chavises and the Cleavers; I could catch a glimpse of their world.

The series explores the notion of freedom, specifically from the viewpoint of Aminata Diallo, one of the strongest multidimensional female characters to grace the small screen in quite some time. I could easily transfer her thoughts, hopes and dreams of freedom and imagine what my own ancestors might have thought.

Like Vikings, there is dramatic license to be sure. It is television after all, and meant to entertain as much as educate. Dramatized it may have been, however, one of its strengths was the stark portrayal of the precarious and hostile world free people of colour lived their lives within. It’s a subject not much discussed.

Of all my colonial era black ancestors known so far, I thought mostly of my 4x great grandmother, Jemimah. Around 5 years old when the American Revolution broke out, she wouldn’t see freedom until she was nearly 90 at the close of the Civil War. She was arguably old enough when the Revolutionary War happened to remember it. Growing up, she more than likely heard tales of promises made, dreams of and prayers for freedom offered by that revolution from slaves of her parent’s generation.

What did such thoughts and hopes mean to her and to those from her world? This series raised more questions than it answered. Which, to me, is the mark of a great series.

History Channel's Sons of Liberty series banner

Sticking with the subject of the American Revolution, the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty has also been compulsory viewing. I’m spoiled for choice in terms of ancestors who were actually part of this fight.

I’ve thought about Johann Adam Sheffey, my 5x great grandfather. He left the war-ravaged Sudwestpfalz Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany and arrived in Philadelphia on 20 September 1764 aboard the Sarah.

Image showing Johann Adam Sheffey's arrival in the US in 1764.

Johann Adam Sheffey’s arrival in Philadelphia. The name has been spelt in a variety of ways, including Scheffy, Schaff ,Scheffe and Sheoffe. Johann Adam arrived with his Kiefer, Kettering and Lohr cousins, who were also on the Sarah. This image is taken from: A Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French and Other Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727-1776: With a Statement of the Names of Ships, Whence They Sailed, and the Date of Their Arrival at Philadelphia, Chronologically Arranged, Together with the Necessary Historical and Other Notes, Also, an Appendix Containing Lists of More Than One Thousand German and French Names in New York Prior to 1712 (Google eBook) by Israel Daniel Rupp
Leary, Stuart & Company, 1896

He and his family would find themselves in the midst of yet another war in less than a decade. Whatever his thoughts about leaving one war torn country only to find himself in another, he enlisted early.

However, since the series deals more with the American colonial social elite and their perspective, I naturally think more about my Roane, Matthews and Josey ancestors. And, of course, I’ve thought about that Revolutionary War luminary in my direct line – Patrick Henry, my 6x great grandfather. I think about the how and why these families chose the colonial side over the British side. To-date, I have yet to find any members of these families who chose to fight with the British. Before the outbreak of revolution, they had all been proudly British. Indeed, their stature was due in no small measure to their family connections and history back in Britain. It’s a subject the series doesn’t really explore, but an interesting question for me to ponder nonetheless.

Patrick Henry certainly left a wealth of his thoughts and beliefs from every stage of the rebellion through to the eventual culmination of the war. I have a firm handle on him and I can see those thoughts echoed in the portrayal of the main protagonists in the series. My 7th great-grandfather, Colonel William Roane, left his in various letters. I haven’t seen any letters or journals from my colonial Josey and Matthews ancestors. Their personal thoughts, hopes and beliefs about the fight for liberty remain unknown. All I know is they fought.

The series depicts the messy and chaotic embers of the revolution. The split in pubic opinion and beliefs, the rhetoric, the economics and politics of colonials versus Parliament, the raw emotions – all of these are deftly captured and dramatized.

Genealogy has made history more interesting, relevant and real for me than any history class I’ve ever taken. History becomes more interesting and direct when you can name ancestors who had a personal stake during pivotal moments in time. So, while these shows are entertainment and dramatizations – and not the real thing – they do offer an interesting glimpse into a past that people in my family tree lived through and experienced.

If any of these series are relevant to you in this context, definitely check them out. See what you make of the worlds your ancestors lived in.

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1 Comment

Filed under ancestry, family history, genealogy, Roane family, Sheffey family

One response to “How genealogy got me watching historical drama on TV

  1. Shannon Watts

    Yet another great gem of a find! Thanks cousin! Keep up the most excellent work!

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