Actor Chris O’Donnell sees Who Do You Think You Are? as a chance to both honor and learn about his beloved late father, William O’Donnell, “the quintessential family man,” and his side of the family. He turns to his niece Tory, an amateur genealogist, to get started.
Chris’ grandmother Sarah Regina McCabe’s baptism certificate provides them with a name they haven’t heard in family lore: Sarah’s mother, Mary McEnnis. A search on Ancestry.com gives them their next clue: Mary with her parents, Michael and Eliza of St. Louis, in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.
Tory also uncovers a reference on the Missouri History Museum website to a memoir Michael McEnnis wrote about a devastating cholera epidemic in St. Louis in 1849.
Chris follows this exciting lead to St. Louis, where he reads Michael’s heartbreaking account. Michael explains how he had volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American War, but his family’s own tragic circumstances during the epidemic caused him to request a discharge to go home and “take charge.” Chris is amazed to see a photograph of his great-great-grandfather included with the account.
Curious about Michael’s service in the war, Chris heads to Washington, D.C., where he finds his ancestor’s muster rolls and learns that Michael went “absent on furlough” a few months after his enrollment. Intrigued, Chris searches Fold3.com and sees Michael’s actual discharge letter.
But there’s even more incredible proof of Michael’s service: his actual army sabre, donated to the Smithsonian, and an article from 1911 describing the family’s “fighting stock,” including a man named George McNeir, Chris’ 4x great-grandfather. George is mentioned as a 9th generation American who fought in the War of 1812 as a lieutenant in the Sea Fencibles at the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
This clue takes Chris to the National Archives and then to Maryland to learn more about George McNeir. In military documents, the 1810 census on Ancestry.com, court documents and a city directory, Chris finds another ancestor striking a balance between the duty to country and family.
After seeing his tailoring business suffer after the war started, George joined the local naval militia, the Sea Fencibles. By the fall of 1814, George’s pressing family needs led to his own request for a discharge — but only after he stood by a cannon at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. There, on the morning of September 14, after enduring twenty-five hours of shelling, he would have seen the fort raise the huge flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the “Star Spangled Banner.”
In his father’s fathers, Chris recognizes a trait he saw in his dad and that has guided his own life through the glitz of Hollywood and fame: family first.
“Who wouldn’t be so proud to hear this about your family? They’re amazing stories.”
What can you discover about your own family legacy in records? City directories can tie your story to a location. And military collections on Ancestry.com and Fold3 can give you more insight on those who were called to duty.
Learn more about Chris’ journey by watching 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.
Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:
Given his very Irish surname, Chris O’Donnell was sure that most of his paternal ancestors were pretty recent immigrants from Ireland. He was surprised to learn that he has American roots that go back 13 generations. One ancestor was even an eyewitness to an iconic American event.
Chris’ journey started in St. Louis where we found the McEnnis family in census records. Chris’ great-great grandfather, Michael Joseph McEnnis, was a grocer who was born in Maryland. He was living with his wife Eliza and their four children in St Louis in 1860.
Armed with this information, we searched for other sources to give us a more detailed picture of the McEnnis family and found Michael McEnnis mentioned in a compiled history entitled McNair, McNear, and McNeir Genealogies at Ancestry.com. From this book published in 1923, we learned that Michael was a veteran of the Mexican War which led us to search for his military service records.
The compiled history also listed Michael’s parents and grandparents along with his extended family. Many of the men in the family served in the military. Michael’s grandfather, George McNeir served during the War of 1812 “taking part in the defense of Fort McHenry.”
George was there during the bombardment of the fort and was a personal witness the next morning to find that the Star Spangled Banner was still there flying over “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Compiled histories can hold a wealth of information and clues. Check out the Stories, Memories, and Histories at Ancestry.com to discover more about your own family.
Who Do You Think You Are? Episodes from Season 4:
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