This week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are features Angie Harmon, probably best known for her role in the television series, Law and Order.
Angie’s adventure begins at her kitchen table in Charlotte, NC, with a package she receives from her father, Larry, that includes a photo of her great-grandparents. Like many people, up until this time, Angie only knew the names of her grandparents and not much more.
Angie becomes deeply curious (I think the genealogy bug bit her) and she sets out on her adventure to discover her ancestry.
Unlike many of us, Angie started her adventure close to home, meeting professional genealogist, Joseph Schumway at the Genealogy Library at Charlotte Museum of History. Thanks to Joseph’s magic wand, Angie’s tree was able to magically grow to reveal her 5x great grandfather Michael Harmon. I want one of those magic wands….just saying.
Angie discovers that Michael was the first immigrant ancestor on the Harmon side, and to her surprise, from Germany, arriving on December 23, 1772. Of course, then Angie needs to visit a different location to continue.
Angie arrives at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to meet with Colonial Historian Jim Horn. Angie pours over the immigration document and finds an entry that details a transaction binding Michael Harmon as an indentured servant! Jim explains that a primary motivator for a poor young man like Michael to agree to servitude would have been the potential opportunity to eventually buy land, which was near impossible in his homeland. Looking through the details of the agreement, Angie sees that Michael was required to assist a tanner for 5 years and 7 months, which was grueling work. Angie then deduces Michael would’ve been released from servitude in 1778, right in the middle of the Revolutionary War! Angie discovers an online record that shows Michael enlisting with the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment on May 10, 1777. Jim suggests she meet with Scott Stephenson, a Revolutionary War Historian, to learn about her ancestor’s time in the war.
I actually found this part very interesting because it delved a bit into how indentured servitude in the US worked. That is a much-overlooked method of immigration. Many indentured servants didn’t survive, so we don’t know about them today. Those that did simply went on with their lives after their indenture and didn’t seem to dwell on that time. It’s a piece of oral history that hasn’t made its way to current for many lines. It was simply a means to an end. One way to end a servitude early was to enlist to serve in the war – although I’m not so sure that wasn’t akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Furthermore, I didn’t realize that there were additional records for indentured servitude in at least some cases. Angie may simply have been very lucky, but I need to go and check on my own indentured servant ancestors.
At the Free Library of Philadelphia, Scott Stephenson tells Angie that Michael entered the war at an unfortunate time; the British had just captured Philadelphia, America’s capital at the time. After that, things didn’t get better for the Patriots. Scott hands Angie a paystub for her 5x great grandfather that is marked “Camp near Valley Forge, May 7, 1778.” Angie is excited to discover that her ancestor camped at Valley Forge under the command of George Washington! Scott explains that Valley Forge is the site of a winter encampment that was one of the lowest points for the Continental Army during the war. He suggests that they visit Valley Forge for themselves.
I could tell by Angie’s demeanor at this point that she didn’t know what “Valley Forge” meant historically – what those men suffered through. But she would shortly.
At Valley Forge, Angie gets a feel for what her ancestor endured as she and Scott visit the site on which Michael Harmon lived. Inside a hut that replicates where Michael would have stayed through that treacherous winter, Scott explains the brotherhood that formed during those very trying times, with little food and clothing and disease rampant, but that by Spring a remarkable renewal happened. General Washington brought the acclaimed General von Steuben to Valley Forge to develop a unified code and train the men so they would be capable of going toe to toe with the British.
I found George Washington’s commentary to the men enlightening: “The fate of millions unborn depends on what we do here today.” I don’t know if Washington was visionary or simply trying to inspire his cold, hungry men, but regardless it worked and it was indeed, prophetic.
It was at Valley Forge that I could tell that Angie truly felt what her ancestor was felling, as best we can across more than 200 years. She said, “I can step in the same steps he did.” Yes, Angie, you can.
Angie wants to know what happened to Michael after Valley Forge. Scott sends her to the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, PA, which houses many of the soldier’s records for the Revolutionary War.
Angie meets with Historian Major Sean Sculley, where a letter from a General that reveals Michael and his entire Pennsylvania line mutinied! – that was unexpected! Things are getting juicy now!
Major Sculley explains that the troops were fed up with the lack of food and clothing – and they weren’t receiving promised payment, either. Not to mention, they weren’t being allowed to leave when their enlistment was up AND the new recruits were being paid more, plus an enlistment bounty. It’s no wonder they were unhappy. According to a letter from that timeframe, the soldiers “had suffered every kind of misery.”
Angie’s curious to know how it played out, and Sean hands her another letter. Angie discovers that British spies offered to meet their demands and take Michael’s line over to their side! Angie’s dying to know if Michael changed allegiances and Sean explains that the soldiers were merely fighting for their rights and had no interest in switching sides. Eventually the U.S. army met their terms, and the soldiers were able to leave service if they chose. Reading a compiled regiment list, Angie finds that Michael’s war service ended after the mutiny.
Angie reflects upon not only his military service, but his servitude and coming to the colonies knowing he would be sold into servitude. She says that she has always wondered where her personal resiliency came from, and now she knows. And of course, I’m left wondering if there is a resiliency gene. Are those traits passed from generation to generation genetically, culturally, or are they simply forged in the fire of the moment?
Angie wants to know what her ancestor did after leaving the army, so Sean passes her a tax record. In it, Angie discovers that in 1795, Michael owned 130 acres of land at Doctors Fork in Mercer County, Kentucky! Angie wonders how he finally became a land owner? And of course, Sean suggests she go to Mercer County to find out.
Angie arrives at the Harrodsburg Historical Society in Mercer County, Kentucky to meet with local historian Amalie Preston. To find out about Michael’s life in Kentucky, Angie searches for his will, and of course she finds one and miraculously, the will book is laying right on the table. In it, she discovers that Michael owned multiple plantations, had married and named 7 children in his will! Wondering how he got the money for the land, Angie looks into Michael’s inventory list, which shows that Michael appears to have used the skills from his indenture to open a tanning business. Angie then finds her ancestor’s land on an old map, and Amalie tells her she made arrangements with the current owners if she would like to see it. Angie agrees and heads out to see her ancestral land.
Angie and her daughters who have joined her for this part of the journey pull up to a farmhouse where the current owner… are you ready for this…another Harmon, greets her. Amazingly, this land is still in the Harmon family 200+ years later. Angie’s cousin invites her to take a look around the land to see where it all started. Angie heads up a hillside to fully survey all that Michael Harmon accomplished. One must admit, it’s a beautiful, traditional fall Kentucky farm scene.
Standing on Michael’s land, Angie says, “All of that fighting, all of that suffering, all of that hardship – was for this.” Yes, Michael got his land, although he didn’t live terribly long and died with underage children. Yet, he clearly accomplished the American dream…land…a family…freedom – a legacy he literally passed to his descendants.
Angie’s commentary about how whole this process made her feel really rang a bell with me. I was glad to hear her say, “This gives me new light into the rest of my life and how I’m going to live it.”
My one regret with this episode was that there is an absolutely perfect opportunity for Y DNA testing. I realize that Ancestry is sponsoring this series, and that they no longer offer Y DNA tests, but DNA testing is an important part of genealogy today. In fact, having Michael’s Harmon Y DNA proven through two lines, Angie’s father and Angie’s cousin, could help secure Michael’s descendants membership in organizations like the DAR and SAR. I hope that even though DNA testing isn’t part of the episode, that someone explains this opportunity to Angie and her Harmon cousin.
Who will enjoy this episode? Anyone who is interested in the Revolutionary War, and in particular, if your ancestor was at Valley Forge, you won’t want to miss this episode. If your ancestor served in the Pennsylvania line between 1777 and 1781, this is for you. And of course, if you have a contact with Mercer County, KY, this is a wonderful opportunity to see a lovely hilltop view of Mercer County in the fall. It’s a great feel-good genealogy story.
Would you like a sneak peek?
Watch the full episode Sunday, March 22, 2015 at 10/9c on TLC.