On the season finale of "Who Do You Think You Are?" the Food Network's Paula Deen traces her southern heritage and finds some surprising truths. Like the best shows of the season, her journey is full of twists and turns as she learned family secrets.
Her journey begins with a visit to her Aunt Peggy in Albany,Georgia. From her, she learns about her mother's side of the family, the Pauls, who have lived in Lee County for generations. Aunt Peggy shows her a death certificate for her great-grandfather, John Liddle Paul, which reveals his parents' names.
At the Georgia State Archives in Morrow, she meets with genealogist Nathan Matthews. He helps her use Ancestry.com to uncover information about her great-grandfather, who was living with his own grandfather in order to attend school. That ancestor, her great-great-great-grandfather John Batts, was a plantation owner who represented Lee County in both the state house and state senate.
Looking for more, Deen travels to the state capital, where a historian points her towards an article revealing that her three times great-grandfather supported the pro-slavery candidate John Breckenridge for president against Abraham Lincoln and, furthermore, owned 35 slaves.
As someone who had always bragged that her family had nothing to do with slavery, Deen was understandably shocked and saddened. She sought more information from historian Rachel Shelton in Athens, Georgia, who helped her find information on the military records of relative William Batts, who was the son of John Batts, who served in the Confederate Army. An early letter showed that William optimistically believed the war would be over in two months. A later letter described difficult winter conditions in poor facilities, expressing his fears he would not return. A further letter talked about the pain he suffered upon being shot, and he asked his family to remember him well. This was the final letter from the front.
A letter from William's commanding officer, three months after he'd been wounded, revealing that "Billy Batts" and another man had been killed in battle and were "buried as soldiers" without coffins. This news made her tear up. A further letter from the commanding officer's wife revealed that John Batts did not take the news of William's death well but was happy that "Billy" died at his post and was brave.
Deen asked Shelton what would have happened to her family after the south lost, who pointed her towards the Web site fold3, which contains historic military records. They found a petition from John Batts, who applied for a pardon, since the southern rebels had been considered traitors. While President Andrew Johnson, who took over after President Abraham Lincoln was shot, provided a blanket pardon for most Southerners, the large plantation owners had been required to submit petitions for individual pardons. In his petition, John Batts detailed that he had freed his slaves and was now paying them fair wages.
For more information on how her ancestor might have fared in the Reconstruction, Shelton suggested she speak to an economic historian. This took Deen to Emory University, to meet with historian Dr. James Roark. He described how devastated the South had been following the war but showed her a tax document with information on values of her ancestor's plantation, to make a chart that compared the data. She learned that he did fine until 1873, when there was a massive depression that cut his profits precipitously. By 1879 he had died, and the nearly worthless plantation passed to his widow, Mary.
A further document gave her answers about his death: he committed suicide. A newspaper clipping revealed the information, saying he had shot himself in the head, having shown evidence of mental depression for months. She suspected that, of all the hardships he faced, the loss of his son was probably the hardest.
With this sobering information at hand, Deen retraced the path of her ancestors, visiting the site of her ancestor's plantation near Smithville, where she herself was raised. The house was missing, and she discovered only a pile of bricks within a beautiful, tree-fringed field. "I'm hoping there were a lot of happy times in that house with children and grandchildren," she said.
Returning home, she related her journey to her own sons, Jamie and Bobby, what she had learned. She reiterated that she was shocked to learn about the connection to slavery but "you cannot change the past," only what you learn from it.
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