Zooey Deschanel connects with a woman who defied convention to stand up against slavery — and is inspired to encourage the next generation of strong women.
“This journey makes me want to be a better person and you can’t put a price on being inspired.”
Self-proclaimed “gung-ho” feminist Zooey Deschanel had always heard that her spitfire grandmother Ann Orr came from a long line of Quakers and abolitionists. Now she wants to know the facts.
A visit with her parents provides Zooey with her first clue: the name of her great-great-grandmother, Martha Pownall, and confirmation that the Pownalls had ties to the antislavery movement.
Zooey heads to the Pownalls’ home state of Pennsylvania, a hotbed of abolitionism in the mid-1800s, to meet with a Quaker historian who has found her 5x great-grandparents, Elinor and Thomas Henderson, in Lancaster County. Elinor was a Quaker, but Thomas was not. However, Zooey learns that Quakers were encouraged to marry for love and follow their own convictions.
To learn more about the pair — and their daughter Sarah, a name Zooey’s grandmother had mentioned — Zooey searches Ancestry.com. And what she discovers in the 1800 Pennsylvania Septennial Census is shocking: Thomas owned a slave.
Disappointed, Zooey now has more questions than answers. If Thomas owned a slave, how did his descendants end up involved in abolition? Whether it was Elinor’s influence or a state law that called for a gradual abolition of slavery, tax lists in the following years show that Thomas no longer had any slaves. This may have contributed to his wife being readmitted to the Society of Friends in 1802.
Her next stop is Swarthmore College to search the world’s largest collection of Quaker documents. There she discovers that Sarah adopted her mother’s Quaker faith and finds her listed in minutes from a Monthly Meeting in 1848 as a member of an antislavery committee. Another document shows the committee calling for the boycotting of goods produced by slave labor.
Here is Zooey’s first documented family link to the abolitionist movement. But just how deeply was Sarah involved?
All the way, according to records at the Lancaster Historical Society. Levi and Sarah Henderson Pownall’s farm housed a stop on the Underground Railroad, and on September 11, 1851, it turned into a battleground when Edward Gorsuch came from Maryland to retrieve three fugitive slaves. The fugitives resisted, and Gorsuch was killed. With Gorsuch’s wounded son in their home, Sarah and her family hid two of the fugitives in the same house, then smuggled them out and on their way to Canada.
The fugitives’ victory in the Christiana Resistance (or Riot) and reactions to it inflamed passions on both sides, including those of Gorsuch’s friend John Wilkes Booth.
In the end, the Pownalls prove even more heroic than Zooey could have imagined. One final document brings Sarah into sharper focus: a picture of her dressed in plain Quaker garb. From four generations away, Zooey can look into the kind face of her new hero.
Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:
Also, try searching wills, land records and tax lists at Ancestry.com to get an idea of your ancestors and the times they lived in.
Learn more about Zooey’s journey or watch the full episode on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Tuesdays 9|8c on TLC.
Previous Who Do You Think You Are? Episodes from Season 4:
About Kristie Wells
Kristie is Ancestry's Head of Global Social Media and Online Support Community and is responsible for developing and managing the company's social media and social business offerings worldwide. She works with a team of community managers, genealogists and social content developers to help educate Ancestry's existing customers, inspire new family historians and expand awareness into new social audiences and communities. She has a deep love of family history and is currently trying to break through the brick wall of her Christophier line (that was supposedly French and Catalan, but it seems was really the Christopher's from Iowa) and to one day prove where the heck William Wells of Southhold, NY (b. 1608) was really born.