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Monday, April 30, 2012

LINES OF DISTINCTION: ROB LOWE ON WDYTYA

Back in March I attended the 2012 New England Family History Conference,
and one of the sessions was one by Michael Potaski on "Finding Obscure
Family History Ancestors". Now I have many ancestors who fought in the
Revolutionary War but I have others from that period who I have not been
able to find any record that they served, so I was hoping to pick up some tips.
Then Mr Potaski mentioned something that surprised me. He mentioned that
there were other ways for a person to qualify for DAR or SAR membership
besides having an ancestor who fought in the war: ancestors who contributed
 money and supplies, or who served in some government capacity during
the Revolution, for example.

That night when I went back over the notes I'd taken that day I thought about what
Michael had said and as a historian realized it made sense. By supporting the
Revolution financially or by taking part in the new government, you were commiting
treason against the British Crown. You might not be facing the British army on the
field of battle, but you were still placing yourself in harm's way. In the early years
when things weren't going well for the Continental Army, there was always the
possibility that the crown would put down the rebellion, and then there would be a
reckoning. There were records with your name on them showing you had given
money to the King's  enemies, or had been part of the rebel government. Loyalists
would let the British troops know who the rebel sympathizers in town might be.
So for the first few years of the Revolution civilian supporters were in a different
sort of danger, but still in danger nevertheless.  So I could see why descendants
of such non combatants might qualify for membership in the Daughters of the
American Revolution or the Sons of the American Revolution.

Then this past Friday came the Rob Lowe episode of "Who Do You Think You Are".
Rob hoped to find that one of his ancestors had fought the British in the Revolution
but was shocked to find out an ancestor had actually been a Hessian soldier who
had been captured after the Battle of Trenton. Johan Christoph Oeste took
advantage of an amnesty offered by the Americans and left the British army to
settle in Pennsylvania. His descendants would know him as "Christopher East". 
Rob Lowe was thrilled at the end of the episode when he was invited to join
the SAR on the basis of Christoph's  payment of a "war tax".

Some viewers were upset by this, and I can understand that. I think somebody
either from the show or the SAR saw how badly Rob Lowe wanted to have an
Revolutionary War patriot for an ancestor and found a way to fulfill that wish.
I also think that desire colored Rob's interpretation of why his ancestor chose
to stay in America rather than return to Germany. The decision was probably
more for economic reasons rather than from a sudden conversion to the
colonists' cause. But I am concerned with how some have now leveled
criticism at the DAR and SAR for allowing membership for descendants
of noncombatants as if their ancestors were somehow less patriotic than
those who fought the British troops. After nearly 250 years, how can we
say whose ancestor was more patriotic? We weren't there. We can't know
what reasons someone might have had for not serving in the Continental
Army. Were my ancestors who went home after Lexington and Concord
less patriotic than my other ancestors who fought at Saratoga and spent
the winter at Valley Forge? Where do we draw the distinction? I don't think
the British would have made any. They would have all been either executed
or perhaps sent off in exile to another colony. Christoph Oeste would
have been executed as both a traitor and deserter.

They were all patriots.  The descendants of merchants and farmers who
gave money, or the officials of towns that supported the Revolution are
just as entitled to feel proud of  their ancestors as those of us whose
ancestors fought on the battlefield. The DAR and SAR are right to
recognize all their contributions to the Revolutionary War.

8 comments:

Anthony said...

I wasn't aware of this fact. Thanks for the information.

Wendy Grant Walter said...

I hope I am not getting myself into hot water by making a distinction here. I absolutely believe that some colonists supported the War in ways other than fighting and absolutely should be allowed to join the DAR or SAR. After all, not everyone could go off and join Washington's Army - some were too old or disabled, some were female, and some did more good by procuring needed supplies, etc.

I guess what I was responding to more than whether non-combatants were deemed patriotic enough to join the SAR or DAR or not was the specific case of Rob Lowe's ancestor, with the caveat that none of us know exactly what the situation was. But as I said in my comment in Judy's blog, it is probable that Oest joined the Hessian army because he was a youngest son with no possiblity of owning land in Germany. When the captured Hessians were given amnesty, I think it is very possible that Oest chose to stay in this country because he had a chance to have better economic success here (land was infinitely more available than in Germany). So I guess what I'm saying is that it is possible that his decision was economic more than anything else. And at some point he was taxed because he did live here. I'm sure he became a fine upstanding citizen (as the newspaper article at the beginning alluded to) but I'm not sure I would call him a Patriot just because he was subject to a tax after his amnesty. He may or may not have been...

However, I really don't care how the DAR or SAR decides who can or can not be a member. Basically, we all have family histories that have made us who were are NOW, and I don't really care what side any of my ancestors were on 250 years ago (although from a family history and historical perspective I am very interested in documenting my ancestors and learning the facts of their lives and the impact these 'facts' have made on how they lived).

Wendy L. Callahan said...

Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly agree, Bill. Our ancestors either stood by the Revolution or they were Loyalists, and I don't feel like we should quibble about who did what. The history of our nation is fascinating and splitting hairs is unnecessary.

Wish I'd seen the episode, but I've missed the entire season this year. The shows aren't available online, since I'm living overseas (again). Oh well, I'll be back in the U.S. next year, and be able to watch faithfully then. :)

Sheri Fenley said...

Bravo Bill! I am a proud member of DAR and have 9 Patriot Ancestors that served in the military or signed an Oath of Allegiance or in one case supplied a side of beef to the troops. They all were part of the effort to win the war.

Constant Belcher said...

Well said, Bill. The irony for me is that finding a Hessian in my family tree would have deepened my connection to the history of that time, rather than fostered a connection to an exclusive membership society that, while not as rarified as it once was when there were fewer generations of descendants, is evidently what mattered more to Lowe's editors.

Family Curator said...

Thank you for your excellent review of this show and for sharing your own thoughts on the DAR-SAR requirements. I think you have hit on a trigger for many immigrants and their descendants.

Anyone who has lived under the rule of an oppressive government knows the insecurity and vulnerability from supporting a rebellion, no matter how large or small. In our modern age we have witnessed the persecution of people for writing news unfavorable to the regime, for shielding soldiers, and for providing supplies to rebel troops. None of these people were necessarily soldiers but all became "traitors" by their actions and risked a great deal if the cause shoUld fail.

It seems only fair to extend to our own American Revolutionary ancestors the same respect we give today to freedom-sympathizers we view on our television.

This is an interesting discussion, Bill. Thanks.

Erica said...

On my mother's side, I have an ancestor who was proud of his SAR membership and his daughter married the grandson of a UEL. On my father's side of the family, I have Connecticut ancestors who joined the SAR and the ancestors of their son-in-law were Quakers in NY who refused to fight and also refused to help George Washington whose troops took over their Meeting House. The celebrated "Washington elm" where GW stopped is about a mile or two from the Quaker Meeting house.

plc718 said...

Well said Bill. To me it doesn't matter why he paid the tax, it matters that he did pay the tax and therefore supported the Patriot cause. It seems pointless to debate his motives. It's interesting to read the comments and consider other perspectives.