As a nation of immigrants, Americans are often fascinated with the past and their origins. Online technology tools, like ancestry.com, make digging into the past—and one’s personal history—much more accessible. Professor Warren Hofstra recently advised two Nashville stars—Tim McGraw and Reba McEntyre—as they learned more about their Virginian ancestors in the NBC–TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Hofstra found himself walking side by side with McGraw at the former site of McGraw’s German ancestor Jost Hite, who lived off Route 11 in Springdale, Va. Hofstra helped McGraw examine Hite’s deeds and tour the scenic Shenandoah Valley to see his land.
“The challenge was to bring Tim McGraw to the site Jost Hite first occupied when he came to the Shenandoah Valley,” said Hofstra. “It was [originally] a big German house with a central chimney. It’s now tumbled down into a pile of ruins. My challenge was to engage Tim in the site and help to him experience it as it would have been in the 1750s, when Jost Hite lived there. I found accounts of Jost Hite sitting in his doorway—the road was only a few feet from the house—and greeting people as they passed by.”
Hoftstra later accompanied McGraw to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where the journal of young George Washington, then a surveyor, dated March 14, 1748, told of how Washington and his companions lodged at the home of Captain John Hite, Jost Hite’s son. McGraw, a George Washington fan since childhood, was delighted to find his ancestor had once rubbed shoulders with our nation’s first president.
In another episode in the series, Hofstra met with Nashville star Reba McEntyre at the Essex County Court House in Tappahannok, Va., to help her investigate a 1721 land deed of her ancestor George Brasfield, her six-time great-grandfather on her mother’s side of the family. Brasfield was the first ancestor of McEntyre’s to immigrate to the colonies from England. He left his family and his country as a nine year-old indentured servant. After Brasfield had served his indenture, he acquired 300 acres of land in Essex County, Va., for 1,500 pounds of tobacco, later becoming a prominent landowner. McEntyre eventually learned her ancestor, who would have had limited chances to own land in England, had earned his freedom—and through courage, grit and determination—provided opportunities for his progeny, including McEntyre, to achieve the American dream.
“Living history and thinking historically is all about people finding out who they are and where they come from,” said Hofstra. “The greatest challenge in teaching history to university students lies in cultivating their empathy for the people of the past and their life experiences, that when woven together, create a truly American history. Creating fiction out of solid historical evidence is one of the best ways I know of feeling how it might have been in the ‘foreign country’ we call history.”
Note: NBC–TV’s “Who Do You Think You Are” episode featuring Tim McGraw aired Feb. 11, 2011; the episode featuring Reba McEntyre aired March 2, 2012. To view these episodes online, visit http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/.