Actor, director and producer Tony Goldwyn, probably best known for his drama, Scandal, has a remarkable Hollywood pedigree. What few people may know is that on his mother’s side, he hails from a celebrated stage and screen family – his grandfather was Sidney Howard, best known for writing the screenplay for Gone With the Wind. Tony acknowledges that he knows nothing about the Howard side and anything he can learn about Howard’s ancestry would be a boon.
With the help of a genealogist, and an instantly appearing pedigree chart, Tony pushes past his two times great grandfather Lawrence Coe and finds his three times great grandparents Nathaniel and Mary Coe living in Albany, New York in the mid 1800’s, where Nathaniel was a politician in the state assembly.
One tool Tony made a lot of use of, that I don’t and perhaps should think of more often, is www.newspapers.com.
At the NY State Library in Albany, Tony learns that his 3 times great grandfather Nathaniel Coe proposed ‘anti-Seduction’ legislation which concerned issues surrounding pre-or extra-marital sex and prostitution.
I found this to be very interesting if initially a bit confusing. As the historian explained, typically, when a female was “seduced,” willingly or unwillingly, she was marked as “damaged goods” and especially if she bore a child out of wedlock, not marriageable material. In essence, the woman bore the brunt of the scandal and the male skipped off scot free. The inferred link to prostitution was that there were few professions where a woman could support herself and a child, and by then, probably children as in plural – so the woman had few options. So while this legislation initially sounded like it was penalizing women, it wasn’t, it was actually holding the males involved responsible for at least their part of the “immoral” behavior. In fact, there was an entire “anti-sedition” crusade. Who knew?
Curious about why his ancestor focused on this social issue specifically, Tony decides to head to Nathaniel’s hometown of Nunda, NY to see if the explanation for his 3x GGF’s concerns about “seduction” lie there.
In Nunda, Tony finds out that Nathaniel hosted a meeting of the Female Moral Reform Society at his home in 1837. A social historian explains that this undoubtedly indicates Nathaniel’s wife Mary’s membership in the organization. A newspaper article reveals that Mary was “a radical” activist in her community, suggesting that the two shared a passion for this cause and formed a productive, well-suited partnership.
Tony also learns that Mary and Nathaniel were revivalist Baptists, joining much of the country at that time in an Evangelical resurgence. Baptists in particular were concerned with moral reform and the purification of society.
Wondering why a late-middle aged couple would leave New York for the frontier, Tony is surprised to learn that in 1852, Nathaniel became a U.S. Postal Agent across the country in Oregon via Presidential appointment.
Tony heads to Oregon, where he finds that as a U.S. Postal Agent, Nathaniel was responsible for laying out the infrastructure of the developing Postal Service as the U.S. expanded westward. Nathaniel, Tony learns, was on the cutting edge of modernization as a frontier agent – with all the prestige that implies.
You know when the archivist comes out with your boxes on a cart, that you’ve made a haul. Sure enough, the Nathaniel Coe Collection holds original letters and documents, including a scrapbook from the Coe estate. I am SOOO envious.
Through original letters written by Mary Coe, Tony discovers that not only did Mary make an arduous journey around the nation via ship, crossing as the Isthmus of Panama, to join her husband in Oregon, but that after arriving, his three times great grandparents had to flee their home as the Indian Wars broke out around them.
Tony is startled to learn that his ancestor may not have been as progressive as he thought. Reading a letter written by Nathaniel, Tony sees that Nathaniel believed the Indians were hell-bent on exterminating all white settlers, and that any resistance by the Indians to American “progress” and expansion westward justified removing them or exterminating them. This unfortunate European attitude and policy was referred to as Manifest Destiny and was thinly disguised as a religious belief that God had ordained the Europeans to possess the Native lands. Fortunately, Tony visits with a historian that presents both sides of the picture in a chapter of expansion that is none too pretty.
Finally, Tony finds an article detailing Mary & Nathaniel Coe’s importance in the region – they helped establish the still thriving city of Hood River in Oregon, after Mary had the name changed from Dog River.
At the Oregon State Archives, Tony discovers that Nathaniel left all of his property to his wife. He learns just how rare that would have been, legally, for a man with grown male heirs, and Tony considers the unique relationship that his three times great grandparents must have enjoyed.
Tony discovers that the graves of Nathaniel and Mary still exist at the aptly named Mountain View Cemetery in Hood River, and makes the pilgrimage to pay his respects to Hood River’s founding couple at their gravesite.
Nathaniel and Mary Coe lived an impressive and very long life. Mary, the radical, didn’t die until she was in her 90s after having crossed the country, the long way, and establishing homes in two different locations, one being an unsettled frontier.
Reflecting upon his experience Tony says that as he looks back over the landscape of his ancestors, he “can begin to see it in the genes,” meaning their strength, determination and character. He can also see their descendants, his closer ancestors, following the same pattern of husbands and wives as equal and indispensable partners.
Who will like this episode? Anyone with a New York background or an interest in Democrat vs Whig politics – the westward movement or the social history of that timeframe. After the move west, the Yakima war and Native people. Anyone with any history in the Cascade Valley, the Dalles or Hood River, Oregon or with an interest in the Westward expansion.
My ancestors never ventured that far west, so I found the information about the settlement of the west in the 1850s extremely interesting.
Here’s a sneak peek.
Tony’s segment airs Sunday, April 5 at 10/9c on TLC.
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