All three guests—Ben Affleck, Khandi Alexander and Benjamin Jealous—in last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” had connections to the Civil War and to the American Revolution, highlighting the contradictions in a country that supported the ideals of the American Revolution yet allowed slavery to continue.
Revolutionary War pension files were the source for most information on the ancestors’ Revolutionary War service. Laws making pensions available to most veterans or their dependents weren’t passed until years after the war, when the ranks of those eligible to apply were rapidly thinning.
Revolutionary War pension applications are on microfilm at the National Archives and the Family History Library. In addition, the records are digitized and available on subscription sites Ancestry.com and Fold3. FamilySearch.org has a free index you can search, then you’ll link to Fold3 to see the record.
Learn more about military pension records for the American Revolution, War of 1812 and the Civil War in our Pension Records Workbook, available from Family Tree Shop.
Here’s a rundown of this episode’s genealogy finds:
- Ben Affleck, a Boston native, actor and producer, discovered he has a third-great-grandfather Almon Bruce French who was active in the Spiritualist movement that took hold of the country in the latter 19th century. He believed he was a medium and would travel around conducting seances so Civil War widows and orphans could “communicate” with their deceased loved ones.
His sixth-great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War under Gen. George Washington in the summer of 1776. Gates also revealed that Affleck is 10th cousins once removed with his good friend and fellow Bostonian Matt Damon (Affleck seemed surprised, but this link was actually uncovered several years ago).
- Khandi Alexander, an actor, knew nothing of her family history, which Gates pointed out is common in African-American families who chose to forget the painful experiences of slavery and segregation. She’d never even seen a picture of her grandfather, who she learned died as a young man in an industrial explosion in Florida. The newspapers called it an accident, but his family suspected it was rigged by employees who didn’t want a black supervisor.
Alexander’s second-great-grandfather, born a slave, was the son of an unidentified black slave and a white slaveowner. Through that man, Alexander is descended from a man who served in the American Revolution and went on to own 85 slaves on a large plantation.
Her DNA test showed she’s about three-quarters African, and a more-specific analysis pinpointed the areas in Africa where her DNA originates.
- Benjamin Jealous, a civil rights activist and past president of the NAACP, is a descendant of Peter G. Morgan, an African-American who was born into slavery, took advantage of the rare opportunity to learn a trade, and earned enough to purchase his own freedom just before the Civil War. He received special permission to remain in Virginia (the law there stated that freed slaves had to leave the state), and claimed ownership of his wife and daughters as slaves to help protect them from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. He freed them with a moving manumission statement in 1864.
In his white father’s family, Jealous has eight ancestors known to have served in the American Revolution, including a 16-year-old who played the fife at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Jealous’ DNA test revealed he is 80 percent European and about 18 percent African.
And keep an eye on the show’s Genealogy Blog, where genetic genealogist CeCe Moore is providing more information about the show’s DNA testing strategy and the results revealed on air.