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The Infamous Tombstone of Jonathan Pease
by James Pylant on 

One of the funny epitaphs Louis S. Schafer shared in his book, Tombstones of Your Ancestors, is that of a man buried in Nantucket, Massachusetts:

Under the sod
Under these trees
Lies the body of
Jonathan Pease
He is not here
But only his pod
He has shelled out his peas
And gone to his God

Has anyone seen Jonathan Pease's grave marker?
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by James Pylant on 

When newspaper editor Ward Newton recalled the Fourth of July celebrations of his Michigan childhood, he thought of formal ceremonies where patriotic speeches were made and readings were given from the Declaration of Independence. “It is far different now,” Newton said in 1902. That year, while attending the Independence Day celebration at the resort town of Mineral Wells, Texas, he saw the first train arrive with about 500 people that morning from the nearby town of Weatherford. They flooded the saloons and by the time the next train arrived at 11:20 a.m., ten kegs of lager had been emptied. “There was no band of brass; there was no American eagle; there was no Declaration of Independence,” Newton complained. Instead, he saw a party before him, one that offered plenty to eat, plenty to drink, a place to dance, and “the ugliest crowd of girls” he had ever seen.

The city marshal had his hands full that day breaking up fights, shoving troublemakers and drunks into jail while the mayor—too busy to enjoy the holiday—sat in his office and assessed fines. Meanwhile, Newton saw prohibitionists come to the event in full force. “They tried to drink up all the beer, but there were a few quarts left in the last keg when the time came to pull out.”

James Pylant, Texas Gothic: Fame, Crime & Crazy Water (Stephenville, Texas: Jacobus Books, 2014), pp. 45-46.

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by James Pylant on 

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Tom Lea Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Tom Lea in Roots. In the original miniseries, the character’s name was called “Tom Moore.” (Photo by Steve Dietl © 2016)

“The two most important days in a man’s life are the day he is born and the day he understands why,” we hear as Kunta Kinte is shown awakening to find himself lying on his back, chained in the dark entrails of a slave ship. It’s a powerful opening scene in what the History Channel calls a “reimagining” of Roots, the groundbreaking TV miniseries. Based on Alex Haley’s bestseller, Roots: The Saga of An American Family, the 1977 miniseries won nine Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award—an intimidating legacy for a remake.

Kunta Kinte’s original portrayer, LeVar Burton, is executive co-producer of the new version of Roots. The role he originated (but shared with John Amos playing him as an older man) is depicted in the new miniseries by Malachi Kirby, who does a fine job in that role, though he does not attempt to imitate Burton’s Kunta.

There are other differences, too. The original miniseries changed the names of some of the characters in Haley’s novel, but the 2016 version sticks to the real names—at least to an extent. As the first episode unfolds, Kunta is kidnapped in Africa, transported to the American colonies, and sold to the Wallers, whose surname was changed to Reynolds in the 1977 version. The name change may have been due to taking license by creating a scene in which “Mrs. Reynolds” has an affair with her brother-in-law, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Missy Ann. That scene does not appear in the new miniseries, though Kunta is shown angrily accusing his slave master of fathering Missy Ann.

Four writers contributed to the teleplay for new Roots. The second episode depicts Kizzie—Kunta’s daughter—giving birth to George (later known as Chicken George), the product of a rape committed by Tom Lea, played by 38-year-old Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In the original miniseries, Lea’s portrayer (renamed Tom Moore) was Chuck Connors, who was then in his mid-50s. The scriptwriter has Meyers’s Lea holding Kizzie’s newborn while proclaiming, “I’m going to name you after my daddy. What do you think about that? George Lea the second.”

George Lea?

In a letter written by Tom (or Thomas) Lea’s son William in 1880, he identifies his father as the son of Major Lea.1 In the third episode, the script also calls Tom Lea’s wife “Patricia” when her name was actually Sally.2 “What the hell you know about children—since you can’t have none?” Lea asks his wife. Mrs. Lea, in fact, was the mother of at least four children.3 Yet Haley’s book was not without controversy, the author having been sued for plagiarism and drawing criticism for relying on family tradition over documentary evidence.4

Remaking a much-beloved, critically acclaimed film is tricky. Some will like the “reimagining” of Roots, others will not. The 1977 miniseries galvanized Americans—prying open eyes to the barbarism of slavery and the reality that white masters commonly fathered the offspring of enslaved African mothers. It also introduced a generation to genealogy, shifting away from the traditional view of it as the pursuit of the elite and thereby accessible to anyone.

Roots airs on the History Channel over four consecutive nights at 9 p.m. beginning Monday, May 30.


  1. “Caswell County Family Tree,” online database ( : accessed 26 May 2016), includes a transcription of a letter from William Lee, Caswell County, N.C., to John M. Lea, Esq., Nashville, Tenn., 23 January 1880.
  2. Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “Roots and the New ‘Faction’: A Legitimate Tool for Clio?” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89 (January 1981): 5—26, specifically 15; digital image at Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways ( : accessed 25 May 2016).
  3. Ibid., 15-16.
  4. Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35-49, specifically 38 and 46.

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by James Pylant on 

Lea Michele sits in a hearing room at Ellis Island—perhaps on the same bench where her great-grandmother sat while awaiting questioning from immigration inspectors. (Photo: Courtesy of TLC.)

On Who Do You Think You Are?, actress Lea Michele pursues the little-known history of the Veissys, her father’s grandmother’s side of the family. “Her paternal ancestors were mysterious about what circumstances they had to overcome to come to the U.S.,” executive producer Dan Bucatinsky told me recently. Indeed, what unfolds is a fascinating story of her Jewish great-grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island, where she was detained until an inquiry by immigration inspectors would decide her fate. Lea Michele—a native New Yorker—says, “I saw New York in a whole different light.”

This episode airs Sunday, May 1, at 9 p.m. (ET) on TLC.

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by James Pylant on 

PHOTO CAPTION: Chris Noth studies historical maps of the neighborhood where his McGuire ancestors lived at the time of the Great Chicago Fire. (Photo: Courtesy of TLC.)

Chris Noth lost his father at a young age, leaving few details about his paternal roots. “You can only get the stories if they live long enough to tell them,” says Noth. He was under the impression that his grandmother came from an Irish family named McGuire. Beginning his search in Chicago, Noth is surprised to learn that his family lived in that city at the time of the devastating 1871 fire that destroyed the McGuires’ neighborhood. Genealogists traced the actor’s roots to County Cavan, Ireland, where Noth visits to learn about the choices made his immigrant ancestor to overcome obstacles.

This episode airs Sunday, May 1, at 8 p.m. (ET) on TLC.

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by James Pylant on 

Molly Ringwald, with historian Erik Thomson, examines a document during a visit to her ancestor’s church in Väsby, Sweden (Photo: Courtesy of TLC).

Molly Ringwald came from a close family, but on Sunday night’s Who Do You Think You Are? she admits to never having felt connected to her Swedish roots. “I’m just curious to know anything about that line,” she says. Her great-grandfather, Edwin Jenson (1885—1965), came to the U.S. from Sweden with his parents at age three. Jenson’s death certificate identifies his parents as Gustav and Carolina, which is corroborated with other records, including a 1900 census schedule in Nebraska. The Sixteen Candles actress travels to Sweden and visits the Regional State Archives in Lund, where she examines Gustav and Carolina’s marriage license and Carolina’s baptismal record, as well as her ancestors’ parish church in Väsby. But Ringwald also learns that how their struggles with tragedy and poverty led to the family’s immigration to America.

Who Do You Think You Are? airs Sunday, April 24, on TLC at 9 p.m. (ET).

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RUMORS OF ROYALTY: The Man Who Would Not Be King
by James Pylant on 

Here’s what Genealogy George—our Facebook mascot—might have looked like if an oft-told story about his father had been true. “He ran away from home and was a stowaway on a ship coming to America,” the story goes. “He was the son of a rich king in England, and an heir to his father’s fortune. He married and had a family in this country, never having contact with his family back home.” George’s son, the teller of this tall tale, sent an inquiry about the whereabouts of his grandfather’s inheritance that had been placed in “vaults” in England. Not surprisingly, he never received a reply.

In truth, George’s roots were firmly planted in American soil generations before his 1825 birth in South Carolina. His direct paternal ancestor had crossed the Atlantic nearly 200 years earlier.

Do you have rumors of royalty in your family tree? See our review of Patricia Ann Scherzinger’s Colonial Americans of Royal and Noble Descent: Alleged, Proven, and Disproven.

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by James Pylant on 

Who Do You Think You Are? airs on Sun., Apr. 10 at 9 p.m. (ET) on TLC. “I take his story from this day forward everywhere I go,” says Scott Foley after learning about an ancestor's persecution during the Salem Witch Trials.

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My Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother, the Family Historian
by James Pylant on 

The first known appearance of Elizabeth Donald’s name is in 1803, the year that she and her son, Hezekiah Donald, were granted administration of the estate of her husband, James Donald, in Chester County, South Carolina. She is found as the head of a household on the rolls of the 1810, 1820, and 1830 census schedules, but after that, her name disappears.

Little is known of Elizabeth’s life, especially her background. Some online family trees—without attribution—identify her maiden name as Johnston. Ironically, we do know one snippet of information about Elizabeth: she had an interest in preserving family history.

“I have from our Grandmother all of the traditions of the Early dispersion of the family,” wrote Dr. Alexander Donald of Mobile, Alabama, to his cousin, Robert Donald, in 1867. Apparently, Elizabeth told to Alexander when he was in his teens about her father-in-law who was also named Alexander Donald. The senior Alexander, an immigrant from Scotland, “wore the Plaid & Bonnet of Blue after he came to America, even until the time of his death,” his namesake reported.

Dr. Alexander Donald’s letter to his cousin indicates an intention to revise a “my Book of Geneology.” What became of that project is unknown; the only published record we’ve found so far is his one-page typeset sheet entitled “Genealogy,” published in Opelousas, Louisiana, in 1877. “Take care of this sheet; it may serve as a reference,” it states. “It has been produced from memory.” This “traditional statement” is a list of the descendants of immigrant Alexander Donald, all drawn from Dr. Donald’s personal knowledge of the names and localities of relatives within the past four generations. Unfortunately, it does not identify the Donald wives—even Elizabeth, the grandmother and keeper of family traditions.

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by James Pylant on 

Relative Race Episode 5 from BYUtv on Vimeo.

Here's a sneak peek at Relative Race, airing on Sun., March 27, at 8 p.m. (ET) on BYUtv. It’s also accessible by live stream or watch on demand.
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