Saturday, February 5, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 8: Vanessa Williams

Last year, I began providing an analysis of the various episodes of the US version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” The US show is an adaptation of the British series that ran for seven seasons. Australia has its own version which just ended its third season. While I was fortunate enough to see all seven shows last year, I never got around to writing about the two final episodes that featured Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee. Perhaps, I’ll go back and do this, but as for now, I am going to attempt to chronicle each episode this season.

Well tonight the second season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” debuted and like last season, this year’s lineup appears to be every bit as good as the episodes last spring. Tonight’s show featured Vanessa L. Williams who made history as the first African-American Miss America in 1984. Her goal was to discover someone in her ancestry that made strides in their own right much like she has. If you watched the show, she discovered two men in her father’s ancestry that did just that – both beyond her wildest dreams. These two men had very accomplished lives in 19th century America.

A Soldier in Blue

Her first discovery came from not far from her childhood home in the town of Oyster Bay, Long Island. It was here in a family cemetery plot she paid attention to a headstone for her great-great grandfather David Carll. As she learned Carll was a private in Company I, 26th US Colored Infantry. Just nine days after the approval for men of African descent to enlist in the Union Army, Carll enlisted and received his bounty of $300.00.

While they didn’t specify this in the show, $300 was equivalent to 30 months salary for an unskilled laborer. In today’s equivalent, that would equate to about $34,800 in today’s purchasing power. While that was a high bounty compared to most, I have seen upwards of $600 in my research. In this one instance, the soldier was paid a third upon enlistment and the remainder was disbursed in two installments. Carll took his bounty and utilized $200 to buy property – a wise investment both then and now.

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, Williams was able to see this ancestor face-to-face as a tintype of the soldier in his uniform was sent to Bureau of Pensions along with his application for a Civil War pension in 1890. The researcher at NARA said she had never encountered a tintype in her search of pensions and I am wondering if she ever found any photographs.

In my perusal of around 480 Civil War pensions, I found three soldier’s photos. Two were from the war years and one was from much later. The two war photographs I discovered were carte-de-vistas while the later photo was a half-tone print of the aged soldier on his personal stationary. Three out of 480 pension records show how rare a find it really was. Williams admitted that this ancestor and her brother Chris had physical similarities.

In addition, Williams learned that the final detail of the 26th USCT was to liberate slaves in and around Beaufort, South Carolina. Her ancestor, who was born a free man of color, was provided the opportunity to liberate his enslaved brothers in the state where the Civil War began four years previous.

From Plantation to Politics

As the show moved to its second half-hour, Vanessa met with her father’s brother in Baltimore. Her uncle was able to shed light on her Williams’ lineage. She became aware that her grandfather’s mother had passed when he was about two years of age. An obituary led her to find another very interesting ancestor – William A. Field – another great-great grandfather.

As interesting or even more interesting is the story of this ancestor as Ms. Williams was going to discover. William Field, who was born into slavery and also used the spelling of “Feilds” for his surname, was elected to single term to the Tennessee legislature and twice as a magistrate in Shelby County, TN. Additionally, he was a public school teacher as well. The state capitol in Nashville provided her a photo of this great-great grandfather. Certainly, she attained a goldmine of information on her ancestry.

Following Field’s death, the Shelby County Court Quarter Session for October 1898 issued a resolution to memorialize their colleague, William A. Field. Vanessa had the opportunity to read this proclamation and one particular section brought tears to her eyes: “While he has not left large earthly riches to his afflicted family, he has bequeathed them a legacy more precious than gold, more imperishable than monumental brass, a spotless name.” The testimony of her great-great grandfather reminded her of her own late father, Milton A. Williams, Jr. Mr. Williams died in 2006.

Out of her 16 great-great grandparents, Vanessa Williams found two who changed the course of history and their legacy continued with their progeny. This should give us all hope that if we look far enough into our own history, we should be able to find greatness among those who have come before us. Because of the generations that passed, we may not be aware of our ancestors’ accomplishments.

Finding my Own Special Ancestor

In my own family, I found my very important ancestor: William Owston who was born into a farming family in Ganton, East Riding, Yorkshire, England in 1778. William left the farming life for more adventurous pursuits as a merchant sailor. Little did he realize what would transpire as his first entry into military service as he and his fellow crewmates were pressed into service while at sea. For the next several years, he served as a midshipman and a gunner’s mate on the HMS Driver.

Returning to merchant service in Scarborough, England, he would be hired by the Royal Navy to pilot vessels – one of which was the HMS Vanguard during the second Battle of Copenhagen. During his service as a contract employee for the navy, he was captured by the French and was imprisoned in Verdun, France. Escaping from prison, he traversed the fields of Belgium and Holland at night being safeguarded by his Masonic brethren.

After safe passage to England, he returned to the merchant service where he would apply to become a Master in the Royal Navy. Following the passing of the navigation exams which required him to pilot a ship in the treacherous waters around the Isle of Wight, William was assigned to the HMS Princess Charlotte (which would become the HMS Andromache).

In 1812, the Andromache sailed off the coast of San Sebastian, Spain where he and his crewmates disembarked and participated in hand-to-hand combat as they stormed the castle. Later assigned to the HMS Superb, a ship of the third rate, Owston traveled to North America to participate in the second conflict with the United States.

Although the Superb saw little action as the flagship of the North Atlantic fleet, its men participated in the blockade of Nantucket Island and the burning of Wareham, MA.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the Superb headed home where it became the flagship of the Channel Fleet in 1815.

During July of that year, Napoleon surrendered to the fleet and was presented aboard the Superb where he had brunch with the ward room officers which included William Owston. Although later attached to a larger ship, the HMS St. George, the ceasing of hostilities with France, required a downsizing of the Royal Navy. William was put on half-pay and was subject to recall if his King and country needed his service.

In 1820, he traveled to Canada where he and his eldest son, Thomas, received land grants for their service in the Royal Navy. In Canada, he participated in discussions on the assignment of the capital of the newly formed Province of Canada in 1842. He also served as a lighthouse commissioner overseeing operations of the Gull Island Lighthouse in Lake Ontario. As an act of the Crown, Owston was awarded the Naval General Service medal in 1847 for his participation at the Battle of San Sebastian.
In 1857, he left a legacy of eight children and their progeny who have distinguished themselves as artists, authors, soldiers, sailors, entrepreneurs, educators, musicians, and ministers. None of his exploits were known by me until I searched searching for his story in history. Let me challenge you to find your ancestor of renown and you may be fortunate as Vanessa Williams and find two.