GATES: I'm Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Welcome to "Finding Your Roots."
In this episode, we'll meet actors Claire Danes and Jeff Daniels.
Two Americans whose family trees are filled with primal scenes from our nation's past.
DANIELS: "Captured by the enemy at Gettysburg."
DANIELS: You're growing up in a hurry on that day.
DANES: That's astonishing.
These are really dramatic stories.
I feel very humbled by all of them.
GATES: To uncover their roots, we've used every tool available.
Genealogists combed through the paper trail their ancestors left behind, while DNA experts utilized the latest advances in genetic analysis to reveal secrets hundreds of years old.
And we've compiled everything into a book of life.
A record of all of our discoveries.
GATES: That's right.
DANES: That's amazing.
GATES: And a window into the hidden past.
This document is from the year 1656.
DANES: Wow, that's very moving, actually.
It's like the most vital stuff, right?
DANIELS: Salem Witch Trials?
GATES: You got it.
GATES: My two guests have family trees that stretch back to this nation's founding, and well beyond.
In this episode, the stories of their ancestors will transport them into this shared past, challenging their preconceptions, and inspiring them to look at themselves in a new way.
(theme music plays) ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ GATES: Claire Danes is a human dynamo.
From her breakout in the cult hit "My So-Called Life", to her renaissance in the smash "Homeland", Claire has shown the ability to work in any genre, and embody any character.
Surveying it all, one might think she was born to be a star, and, in a sense, she was.
Claire grew up in New York City's SoHo neighborhood in the 1980s, a cultural hotbed, galleries and theaters lined the streets just outside her doors.
More importantly, behind those doors were Claire's parents, a visual artist and a photographer, providing a steady stream of inspiration and support.
DANES: Oh, look how sweet they are.
GATES: They are.
DANES: I love my parents.
GATES: Do you think that growing up around artists particularly shaped the person you became?
GATES: How so?
DANES: They're just really creative people and, uh, that, I mean, we didn't really have religion.
We had art, right?
DANES: And we would go to museums like we went to church kind of, right?
GATES: That's nice.
DANES: It was nice, and they were loose and open and exploratory, and we lived in a loft, and all of our furniture was borrowed from what the factories were, um, uh, expelling, right?
And so, it was, it was raw, and at, you know, when I was really little, all I wanted was to be like my cousins in New Jersey... GATES: Oh, of course.
DANES: On a cul-de-sac, and, you know.
DANES: So I was sort of embarrassed by... GATES: Right.
DANES: All of our found furniture.
And then it was only later that I realized what a huge gift that was.
GATES: Safe in this nurturing environment, Claire's artistic spirit blossomed.
She was studying acting and dance before she was ten, and while the arts were a hobby for many children, Claire was no ordinary child.
When the city opened a new middle school for young performers, she was among the first to enroll.
That experience changed her life.
DANES: I met other professional actors, and... GATES: This was sixth and seventh grade?
DANES: And so, discovered from them what a headshot was, what an agent was, and how to kind of procure them.
And actually, my best friend, Ariel, uh, whose mom is a choreographer, uh, had done a student film... GATES: Mm-hmm.
DANES: And that same director was going to make another student film, and, uh, asked Tamar, her mother, if she had any refer... you know, she had anybody in mind who might be good.
She recommended me.
She was like my first agent.
And so I did this little movie and had just the best time ever, you know?
It was, it was profound for me.
Um, and um... GATES: A star is born.
But people responded and I started going on auditions, rollerblading from audition to audition... As a kid, a sweaty mess, and started getting jobs.
DANES: And I just always knew, innately and, and inexplicably, that this was, I, that this was it for me.
GATES: Claire's instincts would prove correct beyond anything she possibly could have imagined.
By the time she was 14, she was starring in "My So-Called Life", which is still routinely cited as one of the best TV shows ever made.
Just four years later, she was among the most sought-after actors in Hollywood.
A dizzying ascent that brought an array of challenges.
But Claire was up to the task.
What kept you grounded?
DANES: Well, my parents.
Um, my family.
Um, and, and that we were all being kind of initiated together was very helpful.
DANES: But I think it did take us by surprise.
DANES: You know, suddenly a limo was pulling up to take my dad and me to LA to screentest for something.
It'd be like, "What is this?!"
DANES: So none of us were prepared.
DANES: And they were very, very generous to give so much of themselves to me and this wild adventure.
I'm forever grateful.
GATES: They believed in you.
DANES: They did.
DANES: I mean, yeah.
I owe everything to them.
GATES: My second guest is Jeff Daniels.
A star of both stage and screen, Jeff has won two Emmys and been nominated for three Tonys, including one for his magisterial performance in Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird"... All told, Jeff's been in the limelight for more than four decades.
But that's a very long way from where he started.
He grew up in Chelsea, a tiny city in a rural corner of Michigan where he found his calling almost by accident.
DANIELS: The choir teacher I had, she was bored on a Friday afternoon and said, "Let's just do skits.
Jeff, you're a politician who's giving a speech, and your pants are falling down, go ahead."
And with not a clue as to what improv was, I got up there and probably did 3 or 4 minutes.
GATES: That's great.
DANIELS: And the whole class was cracking up.
She went to my parents and said, "Keep an eye on this one, there's something going on."
GATES: But she had to know, already.
She didn't call on you randomly?
DANIELS: That's when she knew.
DANIELS: And then I just got put in musicals.
I was Tevye on "Fiddler on the Roof".
I know, I know.
Uh, Harold Hill.
She, she, she gave me every experience a young actor could possibly want in order to get better by doing.
GATES: While Jeff's teacher may have seen his potential immediately, his parents would need some persuading.
Jeff's father ran a lumber yard in Chelsea, and the expectation was for Jeff to take over the business, it would take some time for his parents to accept that he wanted to go his own way.
Fortunately, the evidence was right in front of them, on the local stage.
DANIELS: You know, you do two weekends in a high school musical, and then you come home on a Friday night, and you got, you know, and you just did the show, and they were in the audience again, and it was like dissecting the football game that you played in.
I thought that song went really well.
I thought that one scene where you have with Dodger, Artful Dodger, I just thought that was terrific.
He, he, they didn't have a clue as to how to talk it.
But, uh, as I look back, that was them just seeing if I was really, uh, special or at least different enough to try, uh, and I think that's when they decided that if he wants to go, we should let him go.
GATES: Jeff was soon acting at Central Michigan University.
But his path to success was by no means a straight one, and, ironically, he'd be relying on his parents more than he imagined.
During his junior year of college, he dropped out of school after he was invited to join the famed Circle Repertory Company in New York City.
Suddenly, Jeff found himself with a plum role, in the theater capital of the world, where unexpectedly, he bombed.
DANIELS: I got murdered in that play, just crucified.
I shut down creatively.
I just, it was just fear.
I'm out of a cornfield in Michigan.
And now I'm what?
In a play with the New York Times going... this?
GATES: What kept you from going back to Central?
DANIELS: I remember calling home.
I would call on Sunday nights, collect, and I told them, I said, "I don't think this is working out, I don't want to be here."
And they could hear it.
And dad was on one line, and he said, "Well, you know, it's not easy, and uh, you might, you might have a point, you know?
You might, maybe you gave it a try, and you know, of course, the lumber yard's here, but I'm not saying that.
I'm just saying that, you know, I mean, if, if, you have options.
And you know?"
GATES: That's a good dad.
DANIELS: "I mean, at the end of the day, it's your decision, but Marge, what do you think?"
She said: "Find a way to stay."
And she hung up.
Well, god bless her.
She, she saved my career.
GATES: Jeff and Claire both exude a deep sense of security that flows out of their tightly-knit childhood homes.
But as we turned to their roots, I soon discovered that their families, as bonded as they may have been, had lost track of some incredible history.
It was time to bring that history back to light.
I started with Claire Danes.
Her paternal grandmother, Claire Tomowske, died of a brain aneurysm when she just was just 42 years old, and while Claire bears her grandmother's name, she knows very little about her life.
In the archives of the Washington State University libraries, we discovered that the two had a shared a passion: theater.
Indeed, Claire's grandmother wrote a master's thesis on Shakespeare.
What's it like for you to see that?
DANES: Uh, profound.
That's really, really meaningful.
It, it just is.
I mean, I, I mean, obviously I'm named after her and, uh, I wonder about her a lot.
I've, I have a portrait of her that my parents loaned me... GATES: Mm-hmm.
DANES: And I stare at it all the time, you know?
"Who were you?"
DANES: But I think we would get along.
DANES: I think we have common interests.
GATES: And no one ever mentioned this?
GATES: I wonder, do you think your father knew?
GATES: The connection between Claire and her grandmother was even deeper than it first appeared, as evidenced by two newspaper articles we found from 1939, written while her grandmother was still in school... DANES: "Claire Tomowske, a graduate student, is directing."
GATES: And that one?
"Former Spokane Girl Chosen for Play Role.
Claire Tomowske Danes has been selected to supervise the construction of the costumes for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."
Mrs. Danes has been outstanding in the technical field of the theater while working toward her master's degree."
Oh my goodness.
GATES: How about that?
Um, that's very moving, actually.
(cries) DANES: It's really, it's really amazing.
It's very provocative, all this.
GATES: It is.
It's like the most vital stuff, right?
GATES: Oh, it is.
And it's right there in your family tree.
It's just remarkable.
DANES: It really is.
It really is.
GATES: It was hiding in the branches.
Um, "The Cherry Orchard", talking of branches, yeah.
I had the release.
GATES: You're Claire, Jr. DANES: Yeah.
DANES: Hot damn.
GATES: I think it's cool.
DANES: It's so cool.
GATES: This branch of Claire's tree had more surprises in store.
Moving back one generation, we came to two people who were completely unknown to her.
Have you ever seen those photos before?
GATES: You're looking at your grandmother's parents.
GATES: You just met your great-grandparents.
GATES: Elva May Bittner and... DANES: Elva?
DANES: That's a wild name!
GATES: Elva May.
DANES: Elva May.
GATES: Elva May Bittner and Ernest Tomowske.
Do you see any family resemblance?
I see my dad's eyes in Ernie.
And, that pointy chin.
DANES: That's my pointy chin.
GATES: I'm looking at it.
GATES: As it turns out, Elva and Ernest were a fascinating pair, soon after marrying, Ernest founded the first advertising agency in Spokane, Washington then grew it into a national business.
Along the way, he got help from his wife and daughter Claire, both of whom worked as copywriters at the firm.
But then tragedy stuck.
Ernest passed away in 1936, when he was just 48 years old, and Elva was left to pick up the pieces of her family, and its business, at a time when women were largely excluded from corporate America.
It was a daunting challenge, but Elva met it head-on.
DANES: "Tomowske Advertising Agency, Spokane, now headed by Mrs. Elva Tomowske as president and general manager following the death of the founder of the firm."
GATES: Elva took over... DANES: Wow.
GATES: As president of the company.
DANES: That can't have been... GATES: Common.
Not in the 1930s?
DANES: These are some impressive broads.
GATES: Your great-grandmother was way ahead of her time.
DANES: That's amazing.
GATES: What's it like to learn this?
DANES: Um, uh, I'm, I'm, I'm like, kvelling.
DANES: No, I do, I feel, um, yeah, what a, what a wonderful thing to have inherited.
GATES: Under Elva's watch, the agency continued to prosper, she ran it for more than a decade before handing over the reins and retiring to Hawaii, where she lived to be 79 years old, and passed on a sizable estate.
Do you feel a connection to Elva?
I mean, you know what?
It's interesting, my dad, my mom always says, "Your dad's a better feminist than I am!"
But he really loves women and he really respects women, and, uh, I, I knew that in my bones, right?
DANES: So, this is interesting in relationship to that.
Like, I can see how that was probably true in, you know, his family and, and the families that preceded them, right?
It was in the air.
DANES: It was in the air.
DANES: Yeah, which is...wonderful.
GATES: Much like Claire, Jeff Daniels was about to find an inspiring story hidden in his father's family tree.
It begins with his great-great-grandfather, a man named Melvin Storms.
Melvin was born around 1841, so he was prime age to fight when the Civil War broke out.
Jeff, who played famed Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the film "Gettysburg", has a keen interest in the war, and was eager to see whether his ancestor served.
We found our answer in the national archives.
DANIELS: "Volunteer enlistment, I, Melvin W. Storm, State of Michigan, Town of Nankin, born in Chicago, Illinois, aged 21 years, do hereby acknowledge to have volunteered this 11th day of August, 1862, to serve as a soldier in the Army of the United States of America for a period of three years."
GATES: Your great-great-grandfather volunteered to defend the Union.
Way to be.
GATES: Can you imagine going off to war at the age of 21 and volunteering to do it?
DANIELS: No, but it was different, and when doing Gettysburg, it was the same thing with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, is that this, there were no sports teams.
DANIELS: There were no, this is what guys did to be thought of as heroic.
DANIELS: Yes, maybe to defend it, and all that, and maybe Lincoln was going "We need people," but this is where you go off to be a hero.
DANIELS: And then you come back a hero.
DANIELS: That was a call, I can be somebody.
GATES: Melvin wasn't the only member of his family to feel this call, his younger brother Abram also volunteered.
But their dreams of glory would soon collide with cold reality.
In December of 1862, Melvin's regiment fought in the battle of Fredericksburg, one of the worst Union defeats of the entire war, a bloodbath that claimed over 12,000 casualties.
Jeff had seen the battle recreated up close when he played Chamberlain, giving him some idea of what his ancestor endured.
DANIELS: You know, you're shooting a movie.
So, there's, you know, that, factor that in, but I remember the cannons.
DANIELS: Uh, they had real cannons, and they were on a hill, seemingly a mile away, maybe half a mile.
When they went off, you could feel the concussive pfffm thing come through.
GATES: Oh wow.
(explosion sounds) DANIELS: And we're just shooting a movie.
GATES: That was likely the first time Melvin saw combat, and this would not be the last time.
Would you please turn the page?
This is another muster roll for Melvin's regiment.
Would you please read the transcribed section?
DANIELS: Oh, "Melvin H. Storms, private, appears on company muster roll for July and August 1863, present or absent: absent.
Remarks... captured by the enemy at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863."
It ain't fun now.
DANIELS: You're growing up in a hurry on that day.
GATES: Melvin was part of the first set of Union infantry regiments to engage the rebels at Gettysburg.
And we believe he was captured during in the initial fighting.
It was a terrible time to fall into enemy hands, within a month, prisoner exchanges between the north and the south would be suspended indefinitely...
So, this meant that your ancestor stood almost no chance of being exchanged, as would've happened previously, which meant he was being marched South.
You know anything about Confederate prisoner of war camps?
DANIELS: Uh, very little.
GATES: Could you please turn the page?
Would you please read the transcribed section?
DANIELS: "Name: Storms, Melvin H., Company D Regiment 24" GATES: That is your great-great-grandfather and his prison record from Andersonville prison.
DANIELS: That, I've heard of.
GATES: The infamous Andersonville.
DANIELS: A hell on earth.
GATES: Hell on earth in Georgia.
Andersonville was the largest and most brutal of all confederate prisons.
Built to house 10,000 men, its population soon swelled to three times that number.
Conditions were appalling.
When Jeff's ancestor arrived, the confederates were losing the war, and running out of food.
Hunger and disease spread like wildfire through the camp.
A diary written by one of the inmates reads like a passage from Dante's "Inferno"... DANIELS: "Men puff out of human shape and are perfectly horrible to look at.
Philo Lewis died today.
Could not have weighed at the time of his death more than 90 pounds.
May 28, it seems as if everybody were bound to die here.
The scurvy getting hold of me.
My teeth are becoming loose and mouth very sore.
June 4, I have not been dry for nearly a week, raining continually.
Very small rations of poor molasses, cornbread, and bean soup, or bug soup, rather."
What's it like for you to learn that your ancestor was there?
DANIELS: What people go through, and assuming he comes out of this, allows me to be here.
DANIELS: Had he not, nor would I.
DANIELS: And you look at what, in this case, Melvin had to overcome.
Except for soldiers in the military nowadays, people have no idea what people had to go through so that you could be here.
GATES: The death rate at Andersonville was roughly 30%.
Melvin, incredibly, not only survived, he did so alongside his brother Abram, who likely arrived in May of 1864.
The brothers remained together in the camp for almost a year, until prisoner exchanges were resumed in the final weeks of the war.
But this seemingly miraculous story has a complicated ending.
In 1874, less than a decade after returning home, Melvin died of heart disease, leaving his wife Mary and their two young children behind, and when Mary applied for a widow's pension, she was denied, because the government claimed that Melvin's death was caused by an ailment that preceded his service.
DANIELS: "So, we're not going to give you a dime.
GATES: You got it.
DANIELS: Save money where you can save money.
GATES: Can you imagine?
DANIELS: "Thanks for your service."
Now, Mary's got to deal with that.
DANIELS: I mean, what these people had to survive.
GATES: Imagine opening that envelope.
DANIELS: Oh, needing it, hoping for it.
(sighs) GATES: Mary was just 28 years old when she lost Melvin, and she had two young children to raise, including Jeff's great-grandfather Frank, fortunately, she was able to carry on.
In 1880, she remarried, settling down with a farmer in eastern Michigan, not far from where Melvin had grown up.
So, that's, that's uh... GATES: In 1880.
DANIELS: Ten years after Melvin passed?
DANIELS: All right.
So... GATES: He died in 1874, so six years.
DANIELS: It wasn't like the next weekend.
But all right.
GATES: Six years, Six years later.
GATES: She raised her children with her second husband.
DANIELS: Good for her.
DANIELS: There's hope.
Sun came out.
GATES: What's it been like for you to learn this story?
DANIELS: I have a much better understanding, having not served in the military... GATES: Mm-hm.
DANIELS: It makes me have a much better understanding of what the word patriotic actually means, not only in talk or deed but in what you do, what you stand for, and what you go through.
DANIELS: And I, I, I feel uh, uh, closer to them.
You've probably heard this, but I feel like, in a way, I know them... GATES: Mm-hm.
DANIELS: Even though I've never known them, and I think that Gettysburg and the Civil War connection, we could have...
I'd give anything to sit down with Melvin and Abram and talk about the Civil War, and what it means to be patriotic and then just listen.
GATES: Turning from Jeff to back to Claire, I had another story of patriotism and sacrifice to share.
Claire's maternal great-grandfather, a man named Peter Ebbert, died in World War I, leaving behind a wife and an unborn child: Claire's grandmother Catherine.
Growing up, Claire knew Catherine well and spent a great deal of time with her, but Claire had no idea what her grandmother had experienced as a child.
"Vet's Baby Unveils Tablet to Daddy She Never Saw."
How's that for a headline?
"Catherine Ebbert, three years old, never saw her father, Captain Peter W. Ebbert of Glen Rock, New Jersey, the first man from that town to be killed during the World War."
GATES: Almost three years after Peter's death, Catherine helped unveil a memorial plaque called the Glen Rock Honor Roll.
DANES: Oh, wow.
GATES: What's it like to see that?
DANES: Yeah, quite, quite poignant.
I mean, it's particularly striking to see her as such a little girl wrapped in an American flag.
GATES: Oh, yeah.
DANES: That's a, that's a powerful image.
GATES: Yeah, well, they were pulling out all the stops.
DANES: They sure were.
Nothing subtle about that.
But I'm struck by, you know, the complexity of that, right?
How layered that is.
DANES: There's a lot going on there.
GATES: Despite all the fanfare, the actual details of Peter's death were not passed down, but they are worth a plaque of their own.
Peter died on the front lines in France, all because he volunteered to spot the location of enemy artillery, a high-risk job that was not part of his assignment.
We found an account of his heroism in a letter, written to his young wife Marion by a fellow soldier who was with him at the end.
DANES: "I asked Peter if he was going to return, and he said, no, he was going to the church tower to observe the artillery fire and report from which points it was coming.
He had not been in the tower ten minutes before a large shell struck it.
I at once rushed up and found that a piece of shrapnel had struck your husband, killing him instantly.
The shock to me was great, for I loved him.
Your only consolation is that he died as a brave soldier should and had been recommended for exceptional bravery.
Major Thompson M Baird."
Oh, it's very moving.
It's all very moving.
GATES: It is.
That's the stuff of movies, right?
GATES: What do you think Marion felt when she received that letter?
I mean, all these years later, 100 years later it's emotional.
Well, what an act of kindness.
DANES: To know that there was somebody near him who valued him, loved him... GATES: Yeah.
DANES: Was a friend, was probably reassuring.
GATES: Oh, yeah, and said nice things about him.
DANES: Said nice things.
You know, that, that he was supported very close to the point at which he died, right, must have been an important thing to hear.
GATES: Marion was just 21 years old when she received this news, and she was pregnant.
Claire's grandmother Catherine would be born just a few weeks later.
GATES: What's it like to learn that?
DANES: Um, well, I'd like to think that... yeah, that she brought joy to Marion.
DANES: I don't know.
That's really, it's very sad.
GATES: It's very sad.
That must have been very difficult.
GATES: Well, she was a 21-year-old widow.
It's provocative, right, because there's so many contradictory forces at play, feelings at play.
GATES: Yeah, mm-hmm.
DANES: Relief and, and kind of the ultimate happiness, and, uh, and the ultimate loss.
GATES: And then every time she looks at Catherine... DANES: Yeah.
GATES: She thinks of Peter.
GATES: Peter was buried in a cemetery about 80 miles northeast of Paris, along with thousands of other American soldiers who perished in the war, we don't know if Marion ever visited his grave, but Catherine did in July of 1932, she and her grandmother, Peter's mother, crossed the Atlantic on a journey sponsored by the United States government.
GATES: Catherine was 13 years old.
Did she ever talk about that trip?
I wish I had known.
I would have asked her.
GATES: I can't believe she didn't tell you.
DANES: Yeah, that's very surprising that that wouldn't have made it back to me, or maybe I've just forgotten.
It's just so striking.
GATES: It is.
I don't think you'd forget.
"I went to France, baby.
On a ship, you know, when I was 13."
GATES: "You did, Grandma?"
DANES: On a ship.
GATES: What do you imagine it meant to her to see the grave of the father she never met?
DANES: Well, I'm, I'm, I'm sure it was a, a useful pilgrimage, right?
A useful ceremony.
DANES: But it's abstract, because how do you experience grief of someone you never knew, right?
GATES: You have to experience an emotion without memory.
DANES: That's very confusing.
GATES: We had one more detail to share with Claire regarding her grandmother, we found Catherine's high school yearbook, from 1936.
It showed that she, too, had a taste for the arts, and was involved in a number of theatrical organizations.
That's really lovely.
I really loved her.
She was a wonderful grandmother.
GATES: And she was a performer, just like you.
DANES: I did not know that.
I knew she was a reader.
She was a librarian later in life.
DANES: But I didn't know she, uh, was in the Dramatic Club.
And the Cabaret!
So, you, you came by it naturally.
DANES: Both sides.
GATES: On both sides.
GATES: It was inevitable.
GATES: We'd already revealed Jeff Daniels' connection to the Civil War.
Now, following his father's family further back in time, we came to another primal scene from America's past.
We found Jeff's eighth-great-grandfather, a man named Thomas Chandler, listed among the earliest settlers of what would become the town of North Andover, in colonial Massachusetts.
What year are we talking about?
Columbus was 1492.
GATES: The Battle of Concord and Lexington was 1775.
So, this is... DANIELS: Wow.
GATES: Over 100 years before.
DANIELS: So, America is just...?
GATES: It's a colony of England, I mean, barely.
Massachusetts Bay Co...look, the Mayflower's 1620.
This is... DANIELS: And this is 30 years after that?
GATES: 36 years after the Mayflower.
DANIELS: So, they didn't have the sewer lines laid.
They had nothing going on there.
They had nothing going on there.
DANIELS: It was just, wow.
GATES: Thomas arrived in Massachusetts as a nine-year-old boy.
He eventually became the owner of a successful iron works, and one of the most prominent members of his community.
But by the end of Thomas' life, his community was struggling mightily, beset by religious conflict as well as economic turmoil.
And Thomas became embroiled in the infamous outcome of that struggle.
Jeff, you're looking at two court records from the year 1692, from Essex County, Massachusetts.
They were recorded in September 1692.
DANIELS: "The examination and confession of Samuel Wardwell.
Samuel Wardwell saith that at that time when the devil appeared and told him he was a prince of the air, that then he signed his book by making a mark like a square with a black pen and that the devil brought him the pen and ink.
The testimony of Thomas Chandler, aged about 65, who saith that I have often heard Samuel Wardwell of Andover tell young persons their fortune, and he was much addicted to that."
GATES: Your ancestor's testifying about a man named Samuel Wardwell and saying, "I've heard him say these things."
GATES: You know why he would be testifying at this particular time?
DANIELS: Salem Witch Trials?
Now the Salem Witch Trials are my fault.
I can handle it.
I can persevere through that.
GATES: Jeff's ancestor testified against a man named Samuel Wardwell, one of the roughly 150 people who were accused in what became known as the Salem Witch Trials.
Wardwell was a self-professed fortune teller, and he fell victim to the hysteria that had gripped his fellow colonists.
Now, according to scholars with whom we spoke, your ancestor's testimony in this trial is fairly mild.
But this was not his only involvement in the affair.
GATES: Would you please turn the page?
This is an indictment handed down around the 16th of September, 1692.
Will you please read the transcribed section?
DANIELS: "That Mary Parker of Andover, in the year aforesaid and diverse other days and times, as well as before as after certain detestable arts, called witchcraft and sorceries, wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously hath used, practiced, and exercised aforesaid in upon and against one Sarah Phelps of Andover and against one Hannah Bigsbee of Andover in the County aforesaid inquired of Captain Thomas Chandler."
GATES: Mary Parker was a well-off 50-year-old widowed mother of 10 children.
So, unlike Samuel Wardwell, who was something of a social outcast, because he was a self-described fortune-teller.
DANIELS: He's on the street with a couple of a, you know with a pack of cards.
GATES: Here Thomas is accusing a neighbor and a peer.
What do you guess was driving this?
DANIELS: I have no idea.
GATES: Can you read, again, the names of the persons Mary Parker ostensibly afflicted?
DANIELS: Sarah Phelps of Andover and Hannah Bigsbee of Andover.
GATES: Hannah Bigsby was born Hannah Chandler.
DANIELS: So, daughter?
GATES: Hannah Chandler was Thomas' daughter.
DANIELS: Daughter, married a Bigsby.
So, he was defending his daughter.
DANIELS: Defending his daughter.
GATES: And Sarah Phelps was Thomas' granddaughter.
DANIELS: So, Mary Parker is practicing witchcraft and sorcery on his daughter and granddaughter?
GATES: That's right, against two generations of his family.
DANIELS: And we're going to put a stop to that.
GATES: That's right.
We're going to put her lights out.
GATES: On September 22nd, 1692, just weeks after their trials, Mary Parker and Samuel Wardwell, along with six others, were hanged.
Both went to their deaths professing their innocence.
DANIELS: Ah, man.
GATES: How do you think your 8th great-grandfather felt about his involvement in this when the smoke cleared?
DANIELS: Well, I would guess thrilled, happy as a clam, look what I did.
Got rid of the evil people.
DANIELS: Got rid of the evil people.
DANIELS: Which he believed to his soul, I guess.
I would...I would like to think that it wasn't just something he did to enjoy, that it was something that he actually believed in, but that doesn't make it a bit better.
GATES: There's a twist to this story.
In the waning days of the trials, a minister named Francis Dane began to argue argue against the validity of the evidence being used by the prosecutors...
In response, accusations started to swirl around Dane and his children.
Ironically, Dane was the brother-in-law of Jeff's ancestor, and, perhaps convinced that the situation was getting out of hand, Thomas risked his own safety to sign a petition, in support of the accused.
Isn't that wild?
DANIELS: Yeah, and he's, he's, Francis, maybe Francis has a point.
DANIELS: You know, "Before you hang him from a tree..." GATES: Right.
"Maybe these other people really were witches, but I know Francis is not."
DANIELS: I... GATES: "Because he is my family."
GATES: And get this.
Your 8th great-grandfather was one of the only people who signed this petition, this is good for him, who didn't have a direct family member accused of witchcraft.
DANIELS: All the other ones, it was inside the family, and it's going to stop here, and we're going to stop killing people for witchcraft?
GATES: This is a relative, but it wasn't a daughter or a, you know, a granddaughter.
GATES: What do you make of this?
Do you think it shows remorse, or fear, or courage?
DANIELS: I'm going to guess fear.
I'm going to guess he's probably thinking that "If they're coming after him, well, that means they're one step removed from me, and maybe they're going to come after me next," because it is a mob.
DANIELS: And, it's a mob.
As Aaron Sorkin and Harper Lee write in Mockingbird, you know?
DANIELS: A mob's a place where people go to take a break from their conscience.
DANIELS: And uh, and we're going to stop them from coming after me.
Or, or maybe he, maybe Francis made a good point, and he was having second thoughts.
That's, but remorse?
Maybe, but you know, a little late, Thomas.
GATES: But he did stand up for Francis Dane.
And that was good.
You have to say.
DANIELS: He did that.
GATES: He did that.
DANIELS: He did that.
DANIELS: He did that.
I think Melvin and Abram would've done something different, but okay.
But they weren't in... (sighs) his, his shoes, I guess.
GATES: What do you think your dad would've made of all this?
It would've blown his mind.
It would've blown his mind.
Uh... he'd have been proud of the things to be proud of, and he would've been ashamed of the things that happened that he wished he could've changed.
GATES: Remarkably, just like Jeff, Claire Danes had an ancestor at the Salem Witch Trials, but on the other side.
Her 9th great-grandmother, a woman named Margaret Scott, was one of the defendants, accused of "crimes" that make clear the full insanity of the proceedings... DANES: "Soon after this, one of my cattle was dead in the stall and stood up on his hind feet and kneeled on his knees afore."
This is really quite overwhelming.
GATES: Thomas Nelson, one of Margaret's neighbors, testified that in the winter of 1686, Margaret had asked him several times for wood, a request he had denied.
Later, he discovered one of his cattle dead in its stall, standing on its hind legs.
Part of me wanted to... DANES: A clear connection.
GATES: Part of me wants Margaret to have done this.
DANES: How could you argue with that?
Another of his cattle was found dead with its neck under a plank, as if it had been choked to death.
This, he believed, showed that your ninth great-grandmother was a witch.
I, I wish it felt more alien, I have to say.
Like, I mean, sure, this is all very colorful, but I think that we're still, um, you know, vulnerable to these, uh, to this magical thinking.
GATES: Big time.
GATES: All told, 11 people testified against Margaret, almost all of them her neighbors, we can't say for certain what motivated them, but Margaret was a elderly widow, likely impoverished, and she suffered a horrible fate.
GATES: Claire, one of those hanging bodies is a representation of your ninth great-grandmother.
That's really, um, terrible.
We can be so awful to each other, right?
It's, uh... GATES: Inexcusable.
It's just amazing, uh, our duality.
Uh, we're capable of, uh, of a lot.
GATES: We're capable of anything.
DANES: In both directions, right?
Well, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry that she had to leave the world in that way.
That's, um, about as grim an exit as I can imagine.
GATES: And she alleged her innocence to the very end, of course, because of course she was innocent, you know?
GATES: Margaret was one of the last victims of the Salem Witch Trials.
Following her death, spurred on by voices of reason, many of the primary accusers began to recant their testimony, and the colony began to reconsider its actions.
In 1710, a full 18 years after Margaret's execution, a committee was sent to Salem to make restitution to the victims and their families.
Unfortunately, no relative came forward on Margaret's behalf.
DANES: I wonder why there was nobody to receive it.
Anyway... GATES: Well, she had family.
GATES: So, obviously, because you're here.
GATES: So, why do you think they wouldn't show up?
DANES: Maybe it was too risky still... GATES: Mm-hmm.
DANES: Even to be associated with somebody who, uh, whose name was being cleared... GATES: Right.
DANES: Well after the fact.
GATES: We don't know for sure.
Perhaps her family was embarrassed by the whole ordeal and wanted to remain as removed... DANES: Uh-huh.
GATES: From this event... DANES: Sure.
GATES: And her as they possibly could.
DANES: Well... GATES: Her daughter, Mary, who was your eighth great-grandmother, had died in 1700, ten years before, so she wasn't alive at the time, but she was alive when her mother was executed.
GATES: But Margaret had a number of living descendants in Massachusetts, including her son Benjamin, and they just didn't show up, so... DANES: Mm-hmm.
Well, I guess it was a very effective threat, right?
DANES: It worked.
GATES: I want to show you one last thing.
GATES: Uh, would you please turn the page?
GATES: Take a look at that.
Any idea what you're looking at?
DANES: It looks like a tombstone or just a recognition of her death.
GATES: It's a memorial bench dedicated to your ninth great-grandmother Margaret.
GATES: It was dedicated in August of 1992.
GATES: Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke... DANES: Wow.
GATES: At the memorial's dedication.
What's it like to see that?
DANES: Um, well, um, it helps, actually.
DANES: You know, I, uh, this is a ride.
GATES: It is, yeah.
DANES: But uh, it, it, uh, it's relevant, right?
That, that somebody acknowledged in a meaningful way, at least at some point, that this was a, this was a tragic happening.
GATES: It was wrong.
DANES: It was wrong.
GATES: And they said... DANES: They said so.
GATES: They were sorry.
GATES: The paper trail had now run out for each of my guests, it was time to unfurl their family trees... DANES: Oh, wow.
This is beautiful.
GATES: Now filled with names they'd never heard before... DANIELS: Oh my God.
GATES: Stretching deep into our nation's past...
These are all your people.
DANES: All this effort, all this life.
Offering each the chance to see how their own lives fit into the larger patterns of our nation's history in a deeply personal way.
DANIELS: To have something so specific, to me, that maybe, in some way, in the DNA that I, I've brought some of, of what you've given me to today, because of all of these people, their strengths and their weaknesses... uh, it's cheaper than going to therapy.
I'll tell you that.
You kind of go, oh, oh, and they're behind, they're, they're back here now.
GATES: Oh yeah.
DANIELS: They weren't there before.
DANIELS: It was just all right here, in my dad, and maybe my grandfather.
That was, now, all of a sudden, it's, there's a whole journey that happened to get to today, with you, that came in the room with me, and I just didn't know that.
DANES: I mean, there's something really, uh, heartening about realizing that my family has endured, um, mm, a, a, a great amount of struggle and often come out the other side, and I guess, you know, we can extrapolate and, and, and think about the country as a whole in that way.
DANES: And we're not having an easy time right this second.
DANES: And this gives me a little more confidence that we will ride this through.
GATES: We've seen worse things and worse times on your own family tree.
GATES: That's the end of our journey with Claire Danes and Jeff Daniels.
Join me next time when we unlock the secrets of the past for new guests on another episode of "Finding Your Roots."