Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 5 - Brooke Shields

Friday night, I finally saw the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TV. I’ve been watching it on Hulu of late, but had the chance the fifth episode with Brooke Shields when it aired. It was another interesting show that help her explore the personality of her grandmother as well as trace her father’s roots back to Italy and then to France where she was related to Bourbon royalty. Like the other shows, I found several things to which I could relate. Here’s the show in case you missed it.

Family Feuds

As we learned from the opening minutes of the show, Brooke had an overwhelming disdain for her maternal grandmother due to her strained relationship with Brooke’s mother. While I have never had animosity towards an ancestor, there were those in my family that did. In 1978, I traveled to Akron, Ohio to begin my search. It was the city that my grandfather’s three full siblings had migrated to in the 1910s and 1920s.

The first to travel west from Pittsburgh was my grandfather’s sister,  Her husband had taken a job at Akron's Pittsburgh Plate Glass operation and this necessitated a family relocation. I knew that my grandmother had some difficulty with her sister-in-law, but never knew much about my great aunt's personality until I met her two eldest children -- her daughters. Her children clued me in on a number of strained family relationships that their mother had with others in the family.

Probably the greatest negative feelings she had were aimed towards her own father. At the time, I only knew his name: Newton French Owston and that was it. Others with whom I had met that year had helped me piece together what had happened. When my great-grandmother died at the age of 39 in East Hartford, CT, my great-grandfather, a railroad engineer, couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn't) take care of his four children. They were Martha (aged 19), George (aged 15), Charles (aged 13), and Ovington (aged 8).  Another child, Essie, had been born to the couple but she died of scarlet fever at age two.

The details of what actually occurred between the children and their father are not known, nor will they probably ever be. They were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Sarah Ann Merriman, in McKeesport, PA. According to probate court records, Sarah became their guardian and there were accounts set up in the children’s names. Martha was only under guardianship for a short time due to her age, but the others would continue until they reached the age of majority.

While I cannot prove it, I believe that Newton, their father, must have contributed to their account, as there was money for the children’s care; however, the source of this funding was never revealed in the documentation. While I have heard that he never saw his children, I believe he must have as records indicate that he knew Martha’s surname from her first marriage – a marriage that only lasted nearly eight years due to her husband’s accidental death.

According to Martha’s daughters, she never forgave her father for “abandoning” her and her siblings. It wasn’t long after his first wife’s death that Newton remarried. While I have not yet discovered an exact date of marriage for Newton French Owston and his second wife, Mary Agnes Donovan, this was another point of contention.

Needless to say, only one child reconnected with the father and that was the youngest, Ovington, who visited him in 1927 and 1928 just prior to the father's death that resulted from an accidental fall. 

Back to Newark, NJ

The starting point for Brooke's understanding of her maternal line was in Newark, NJ where her mother and grandmother had originated. This reconnection that occurred with a look at public records would help Brooke find some meaning in her own grandmother’s attitude.

In my searching in 1988, a key turn of events was my visiting the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, NJ and finding a name and address in a will from 1948. The lady was my third cousin once removed and she had a wealth of information about our elusive common ancestor, William Owston. This information allowed me to take my ancestry across the ocean and provided several other missing links.

Childhood Mortality

The information Brooke discovered in Newark was that her grandmother had two younger siblings of which Brooke was unaware. One of these children died infancy. In addition, Brooke's great grandmother had died young and Brooke’s grandmother, being the oldest, had to become a mother to her younger brother and sister.

Tragically, the younger brother died from an accidental drowning at age 13. No doubt, this experience of losing a brother had a profound effect upon her grandmother who was the boy’s surrogate parent. Brooke began to empathize with the plight of her grandmother and how this somehow contributed to her grandmother’s own attitude.

The loss of a child is a terrible event and I can only imagine how it must affect a family with the loss. Both of my grandmothers lost children. My dad’s mother lost two: her first child, Roy, who was two months and five years of age and her fourth child, Gertrude, who was 4 months old. I really don’t know how it affected her, but I am sure it did.

My maternal grandmother lost her fourth child, Johnny, who died at age three from an accidental poisoning. Being that she was the only grandparent that I knew, I am well acquainted with this story. My mom said she never smiled in a photo after her brother died. My oldest brother who was her first grandson became her favorite and no doubt due in part to his uncanny resemblance to her little boy. The experience changed her forever.

A Change of Nationality

As Brooke was aware, her father’s family came from Italian aristocracy; however, as she delved into her paternal ancestry, she found a brick wall. Through original documents, genealogists were able to assist her in discovering that her family actually originated in France and was well documented there.

In my maternal lineage, my great-grandmother was born in Germany. While she learned English here, the family spoke German at home until World War I. Tracing my second great grandfather’s family, the Maneval line is well documented and can be traced back to Embrun, Dauphiné, France. The patriarch of the family, Pierre Maneval (or Manevalle) was one of numerous Vaudois or Waldenses that escaped from persecution by settling in the former Duchy of Würtemberg, which had become a Protestant haven.

In the 1690s, Victor Amadeus II, the Duke of Savoy, and grandson of Brooke Shields ancestor Christine Marie of France, turned on the Waldenses (and my ancestors) and hastened their retreat into Switzerland and eventually into Würtemberg. Because of Pierre's relocation due to religious persecution qualifies him as a Huguenot and allows his descendants to apply for membership in one of the several Huguenot societies.

Royal Blood

In the final segment of the episode, it was revealed to Brooke that she had a royal bloodline stretching back to the Bourbon dynasty of France. It was also mentioned that she had several canonized saints in her lineage.

It really makes me wonder how many of us with European ancestry have royal blood. I would say that with as many ancestors we would have that most European descendant has a King or Queen in our background. A couple of years ago, I found that three of my ancestral lines that collapse into two and eventually one descend from John de Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and son of King Edward III of England.

As I researched this line from Edward III, I could count a total of 60 kings and queens in my ancestry through and including Edward III. This included Capetian and Carolingian dynasties of France and hence the eventual same ancestors as Brooke Shields. Our common ancestor is Louis IX of France, which is my 28th great grandfather (several times) and that makes Brooke my 29th cousin. I won’t be waiting an invitation to her home and neither will I be waiting for the opportunity to ascend the throne of a European kingdom.

In addition, much was made on Brooke being descended from a canonized saint. Specifically, the saint was Louis IX or St. Louis. As stated above, St. Louis is my ancestor as well and there are seven other known canonized saints in my ancestry – some of these Brooke also shares. I still contend that royal blood in at least one ancestral line is probably not that unusual for the typical European descendant, but it does provide us some bragging rights. Now, back to practicing drinking tea with my pinky raised.


While Brooke Shield’s search for her ancestors is fascinating, it is not unlike most of us in our search for who we are. I think this is what is banking on with the sponsorship of this program. If Brooke Shields, Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, and Sarah Jessica Parker can do it, you and I can as well. There will be a 3 week wait for the next episodes; however, NBC is running the Sarah Jessica Parker show this coming week.

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