Posted by Ancestry Team on August 14, 2013 in Who Do You Think You Are?



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 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:

We all have heroes in our family tree. If you know where your hero lived, state census records on can help. Or, you can find fascinating details in stories, memories, and histories.

Also, try searching wills, land records and tax lists at 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 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:




  1. Nina Smeds

    Please can somebody help me to cancel my account? I took a free trial and now I can’t end it!
    I live in Finland and cannot call the helpdesk and there is no e-mailaddress for Contact.
    Best regards
    Nina S

  2. Julie Dickson

    This was an interesting story and I love the show. I was glad that it was picked up after NBC canceled it. I do think, though, that they threw in a reference to John Wilkes Booth just for entertainment value. He was only 12 or 13 when the riot happened so I wouldn’t think he’d have been a “friend” of Gorsuch.

  3. Cathy Kesseler

    I really enjoyed the episode. I wish they would do a follow up on what happened to the Parker family that rented land on the farm and was part of the Christiana rebellion.

  4. Margo Pomeroy

    I am also related to The Pownall family. Abigail Pownall who married William Paxson Is my line, Abigail is the sister of George who married Hannah Hutchinson who are the Ancestors of Zooey Dechannel. I have one problem. I am unable to find a marriage for Martha Elizabeth Pownall daughter of Levi and Sarah Henderson Pownall, who is supposed to be married to Joseph Orr. She seems to be unmarried in the 1850, 1860 and 1870 census living with her father Levi and 30, 40 and 60 years old. Can any one help me understand this? I must have an error somewhere as Martha is the connection to the Pownall family in this weeks show for Zooey. These census would mean she did not marry.

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  6. Kay

    Christina Applegate’s search was very interesting, but this was the most interesting episode this season. Zooey had knowledge of her family from her grandmother, and was very versed on the facts. She seemed to be very proud of the women before her and it is a shame she could not share with her grandmother.

  7. I am also related to The family Tree.I really enjoyed the episode. I really enjoyed the episode. I wish they would do a follow up on what happened to the Parker family that rented land on the farm and was part of the Christiana rebellion.

  8. One thing that should have been made clearer in the episode is that Quakers, including William Penn, did indeed own slaves. (ZD was shocked when seeing a slave on a Quaker family’s census entry and the “expert” failed to correct the starlet’s assumption that he/she must have been an escaped slave, etc.) The first Quaker abolitionists, in fact, went to meetings far and wide speaking out vociferously about the issue. Eventually, the Friends did come around and the rest is history!

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