WDYTYA – 3×04 – Reba McEntire – The Nitpicker’s Version

This season of Who Do You Think You Are? has improved over the previous. It seems they’re going for a little more realism in the episodes, admitting that it is a lot of work and sometimes even showing a record search with no results. Just as the previous episode did, Reba McEntire’s episode did not disappoint in this way.

Typical But Still Lucky

During the introduction, Reba spoke about writing her autobiography, saying that she learned more about her father’s side of the family at the time, but not her mother’s. “I guess I just didn’t ask enough questions.” Most genealogists have this problem, with not remembering everything they were told when younger and not knowing the right questions to ask before the people with the answers are gone from our lives. Reba was lucky because her mother was still alive, so she got a start on her search by visiting the McEntire Ranch in Stringtown, Oklahoma.

She said that she’d like to go back as far back as possible and wanted to know her first ancestor in America. I love how she had to honk at the cows on the way and they kept that in the final cut of the episode.

Her mother, Jackie, had a picture of Reba Brassfield, her own grandmother and Reba’s namesake. Jackie added that all of her kids were named for grandparents. Another picture that Reba hadn’t seen before showed Reba Brassfield with her parents, B.W. and Susie.

To The Web Site

Someone else mentioned this somewhere, but I wonder how much instruction the celebrities are getting before they film. For the ones who seem to do their own research, or at least part of it without obvious guidance, they must be told to go to Ancestry, the sponsor, and there are always useful results. So either they do this more often and the negative result searches aren’t shown on camera, or there is some guidance for them to not waste time with those searches.

Searching for her namesake, Reba Brassfield, she found the 1910 census showing Reba at age six with her widowed mother Susie, older sister, and younger brother. I couldn’t make out the names because of the handwriting. She then went back to the 1900 census to find B.W. Brassfield, Susie’s husband. She found a lot of Brassfields in Mississippi, but not him. Jackie was the one who told Reba to go down to Monroe County and find them.

To Aberdeen, Mississippi

At the Evans Memorial Library, in the voiceover, Reba said she wanted to start the search on her own before the genealogist arrived. She searched through a book of obituaries, but still didn’t find B.W. She found some other Brassfields though. I wish she would have stopped to read about the others. They could have been other relatives, and likely were (especially after already seeing the end of the episode). If she found a sibling, B.W. might have been mentioned, as I’ve seen siblings listed often in obituaries.

Again, without finding the record she wanted, she gave up a little bit too quickly for me. First, the census could have been a mess and she just had to search Ancestry differently to find the family. He could have been misspelled in the census or in the transcription. How much did she try to find him spelled only with one S, or IE reversed, or a number of other options? Then, not everyone had an obituary. She thought she had a dead end already and didn’t know what else to do.

Genealogist D. Joshua Taylor arrived to help her out, carrying a scroll in his hand.

“It took a little bit of work. That’s a lie, it took a lot of work.” I think someone’s been reading our comments. :-) I love the stories and I love the discoveries, but sometimes they have to remind the viewers that it’s not as easy as it looks, that it does take a fair amount of work, and that the expert genealogist or historian is not always waiting for you with all the information you need already researched. This is especially true for the next part, which we’ve seen in other episodes, where we suddenly jump back several generations. It takes some time to add that many people.

Unrolling the scroll, Reba was presented with a Brasfield Family Tree. Josh explained that B.W. went by this single S spelling, and that records were usually written by someone else who might spell it differently too. He also mentioned that the family were farmers and probably couldn’t afford an obituary.

Again, they went straight back on the male line of the Brasfield family only. We can hope that they did much more than that behind the scenes and either didn’t find a story worthy of prime time or just focused on that one. The person at the top of the chart, George Brasfield, was born in Wake County, North Carolina about 1765.

It’s interesting that Reba said she wasn’t expecting to go so far back. She was expecting to go one generation back to B.W.’s parents and then she was presented with three back. Did she not watch this show before? It’s very common for them to do this. Especially mentioning that B.W. was a farmer, how much interesting at TV-worthy information could they find for him? But she also mentioned at the beginning that she wanted to find the first person who was in America, so they needed to go back further for that.

Josh pointed out that George was born before the American Revolution and would have grown up during the war. He also said that interesting things were happening in Wake County, suggesting that Reba go there to learn more.

To Raleigh, North Carolina

The chart stated that George was born in Wake County, but it didn’t mention the city. Raleigh is in Wake County, where Reba went to the State Archives, meeting with historian Philip Otterness. Phil mentioned that Raleigh was not there at the time and they decided to carve it out of farmland. A map from 1817 with the plan for the city was examined. Each block of land was labeled for who owned it (I assume it was ownership), and she found George Brasfield. She asked what was on the land and Phil had the land records ready, even though the book was dated 1846-1849. The book was dated after George had died, but talked about the land he had.

She found where it mentioned Brasfield’s Old Tavern and was thrilled to find that her ancestor owned a bar. She had mentioned earlier how she feels comfortable in Ireland and Scotland but not in England. Finding an ancestor with a bar she figured was why she was always comfortable singing in Honky Tonks.

Reba had some great questions in this episode. She wanted to know about her ancestor’s life. Figuring that owning a business meant he had some money, she asked if he owned other properties. Phil then produced the tax records for 1781-1860. The pages in the folders were falling apart; I hope they’ve been scanned. He wasn’t found on the first list she checked; the second she was shown looking at showed that he owned 1615 3/4 acres. They did not explain why he was listed as “Esq”. Reba then asked what the next columns were. “W Poll” showed white adult male individuals, then she had to ask what “B Poll” stood for, which was black men and women between 12 and 52. She seemed a little shocked that he had ten slaves. They didn’t mentioned that the next two columns listed Stud Horses and Taverns, of which George was showing one tavern.

Another thing they skipped over was the next column over, a large space, which said very clearly “Taken by Geo Brasfield Esq”, so he was the person who recorded the information on that part of the document, and he had very nice handwriting. What did esquire mean back then and was it related to the fact that he recorded the tax information? They didn’t go there.

Upon finding he was a slave owner, her first thought was to find out if he was a good slave owner, if he treated them well. Throughout the episode, Reba was very concerned with the individuals and became emotional about their lives, hundreds of years later.

At the end of the scene, we can also see that David Brasfield Jr is listed two names down from George. I couldn’t tell if he owned 100 acres or 1000. This is another case where WDYTYA goes straight back in the research instead of sideways, never checking for siblings. While they might find good information, sometimes there are missing documents and siblings must be researched to fill in the gaps. Another reason to research sideways is to find relatives. You can’t find your cousins if you don’t know who else was related to the family.

Sometimes Slaves, Sometimes Owners

Forty miles north, she visited the Granville County Court House for more information, meeting with historian Harry Watson. It was interesting that during her voiceover about George being a slave owner, they showed her driving past cotton plants.

Harry said that the first place to start was in newspapers. Using GenealogyBank, but mostly cropping the site name out of the picture, she searched for George. They found one article about a runaway slave that George had encountered. From different courthouses, Harry had a folder of papers, showing bills of sale for slaves. She was shocked to find that he sold a three year old on one page. The record of deeds, in a big book, showed a 14 month old slave, but Reba didn’t read enough on air for us to know if she was being bought or sold by George.

Reba was shocked to find her ancestor trading in children. She stepped outside and took some notes in a notebook during a voiceover. I hadn’t seen the notebook before in this episode, or hadn’t noticed it. As I’ve said on previous reviews, I like when we see the celebrity take notes. It shows that they have enough interest to really remember everything, instead of just collecting the copies or the fancy chart drawn for them at the end.

Harry suggested she visit an historian colleague of his, Warren R. Hofstra at the Essex County Courthouse in Tappahannock, Virginia. She was still searching for the first ancestor who arrived in America. Warren pointed out that Brasfield was a rare name, and two generations back was another George. Between the two Georges, on the family chart, was David. So that David Jr. found on the tax record was very possibly the brother of her 1765-born George.

A 1721 land deed showed that George bought 300 acres of land for 1500 pounds of tobacco. Again with good questions, Reba asked where he got his money and if he owned any more land.

In a book of court orders for 1695-1699 in Essex County, they found George listed at nine years old as an indentured servant. She still wanted to know more, asking where his parents were. Back on the computer, they found a list of immigrants in a Google book. They had more interesting spelling in the book, find George Brasfeild, but also that he had  “eleaven yeares” to serve. She commented that they changed the spelling several times, but who’s to say if that’s true? It could have been a typo, messy handwriting not transcribed correctly, or he could have been illiterate and someone else had to spell it for him and got it wrong. She noted the discrepancy in age, but Warren suggested they added an extra year to his labors, saying he was younger on the other document.

Again Reba was getting very personal about it, wondering where his mother was. Warren noted where many of the other kids on the boat were from, so he sent her to Chester, England to find out more.

Crossing The Ocean

Some episodes immediately jump to other countries, this one took a while longer. At the Cheshire County Records Office, she met with Brett Langston to find more. They started with computerized records, so she searched for his baptism record, where she found Georgius, Thomas, Silentia, and Anna. All but Anna showed Macc for residence, also, they were spelled Brassfield again, with the double S.

“It’s amazing how you can just find somebody.” Yes, Reba, after a lot of people have put a lot of effort into indexing to make it easy. Actually, it is easy to find people, but it’s difficult to find the people in between to connect them all together, because some records are indexed and others are not.

Brett went to get the baptism record, “and a few more things besides”. Well, there were three others listed in the index for baptisms.

He asked her to wear gloves because she was wearing nail polish. That’s one I hadn’t heard of before.

With George’s baptism, she knew that Thomas of Macclesfield was his father. Reba immediately wanted to know when he was born and what was his mother’s name.

The record was from 17 June 1688. With that date, the index made more sense for the column “dated” which contained seven digits, apparently skipping the 1000 in the year. Therefore, George was baptized 17 June 1688, Thomas 17 November 1691, Silentia 12 May 1695, and Anna 9 October 1702. So apparently the indexed Thomas was not his father.

Brett brought out an old parchment to find the marriage for Thomas to Abbigall, and I think it said Binnow for her surname. Reba read the name as Abigail; was it just spelled differently but pronounced the same as our modern spelling? She asked if there was a death record for the parents. A register from 1720 showed Thomas buried 30 June 1720. Another death register for 1696 listed Abigal (with that spelling).

Reba was still perplexed with a father sending his son away at nine or ten years old, saying she couldn’t even send Shelby to summer camp.

Brett sent her to Macclesfield to find out more.

So Many Questions

With all of the great questions she had asked, did she ask about the other Brassfields that had shown up next to her ancestors in the records? What about those other three baptisms? With Abigail’s death in 1696, they obviously weren’t her kids, but did Thomas remarry and have more kids after sending George away or were they cousins to George? After all, the 1691 was Thomas, so was it Thomas Jr.? These are questions that are not answered in the episode.

At Saint Michael’s Church, she met James Horn, an historian of indentured servitude, “who has been working on the Brassfield family”. I prefer that they admit the person has been researching rather than implying the celebrity is there to ask questions and the historian just happens to know everything being asked. James explained that George didn’t have many good options, where indentured servitude was his best chance at a good future, that he would never have been a land owner otherwise. James asked Reba about what happened to George as if he didn’t know, but then went on to tell her that 150 years later in America, there were 100s of Brassfields in America who were all descended from George.

From this, I would conclude that she has a lot of cousins out there, both in America and England. How far did the off-camera research go into the extended family? If it was my own research, I would have gathered all of it and found how it tied back in to my own family if I could.

They stepped outside to see where Thomas and Abigail were buried and they were stepping on gravestones laid out on the ground. That seems like an unusual set-up to me, especially where they zoomed in and showed them wearing down. Walking on them can only make them wear down faster. Reba stepped out into the grassy area where James said her ancestors would have been buried, where she spoke to Thomas and thanked him for sending George to America.

And she finally found somewhere in England where she felt good about being there.

Back At The Ranch

Returning to her family ranch, she shared the story with her mother.


Every time they bring more reality into the show, I love it even more. I know they want to tell the good stories, but pointing out that it took a lot of work to get to the people and the stories, and showing sometimes how records are not always found when you expect them makes it much more realistic. If the purpose is to interest people in doing their own genealogy research, then those people have to understand that it’s not always about flying across the country or around the world and finding someone who gives you all the answers when you arrive. Sometimes it’s hard to find more, but you have to not give up when your first attempt to find information fails. Everyone hits blocks in their research, but they have to understand that everyone does and they should just keep working on it.

This is the fourth article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei
  3. Blair Underwood

The URL for this article is http://idogenealogy.com/blog/2012/03/16/wdytya-3×04-nitpickers/.

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