Zooey Deschanel Connects to the Underground Railroad on 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

Yahoo! TV

Imagine finding out that one of your female ancestors risked her life to help secure freedom for slaves.

Last night on TLC's "Who Do You Think You Are?," Zooey Deschanel was impressed and invigorated as she learned the details of her ancestor Sarah (Henderson) Pownall's life as an abolitionist — and it's no wonder. Pownall was a trailblazer whose actions and beliefs are extremely well-documented, which is a blessing. All families don't have an ancestor whose life experience is so well-documented as well as admirable. Sarah's story would be fascinating even if she wasn't related to Fox's "New Girl," and Zooey proves to be an excellent, curious, and articulate leader on this journey.

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This episode is flush with the necessary ingredients for a fruitful ancestral quest: extensive documents, detailed recordings of major events, minutes from meetings, and articulate essays. We start out with Zooey and her parents in California, talking about their Quaker heritage on her father's side. Quakers are anti-slavery and liberal, and deeply concerned with human rights. We see pictures and we learn about her grandmother, now deceased, with whom Zooey felt a strong connection. Her grandmother was arrested for protesting a power plant at the age of 80. Zooey, a feminist in her own right, can relate to her grandmother's passion.

The next stop is Pennsylvania, where Zooey visits with well-informed historians and wears protective gloves to examine old documents. At the Swarthmore College Library, Zooey learns about her ancestor Sarah, a vanguard abolitionist who fought for emancipation before it was socially acceptable. Documents confirm that Sarah was a member of a Quaker committee to fight slavery. The historian says this was a very bold and risky move in 1848, because at that time abolitionists were condemned as zealots by the majority. Zooey gets emotional while observing that it's "incredible and horrible" to think of a time when slavery was commonplace and accepted by the masses. And she is pleased to see her ancestor Sarah's signature on the Quaker document, which confirms that she was, without a doubt, an abolitionist. "I feel honored to be related to one of these people," she says. "Yesterday, all I had was a family tree. Now I have an identity."

Zooey asks why Sarah's home of Lancaster, Pennyslvania was such a hotbed of abolitionism and learns that there are two reasons: one being the high population of Quakers, the other being the area's proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line. Levi and Sarah Pownall had a farm and rented a house on their land to an escaped slave named William Parker, who was a conductor and station master on the Underground Railroad. Zooey wonders how much her ancestors were involved. The answer: Very much.

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It turns out that her ancestors' farm land was the site of the Christiana Riot, an important event leading up to the Civil War that "turbo-charged" the abolitionist movement. A Maryland posse of angry slave owners, led by Edward Gorsuch, surrounded Parker's rented house in an attempt to recapture their slaves. Parker led other free slaves in a violent resistance. Zooey is chilled to know that the raid was government-sanctioned by the Fugitive Slave Law. And she is also chilled to know that her ancestor Sarah could see and hear the battle from her farmhouse, a mere quarter-mile away from the site of the battle.

The fight on the farm was brutal and widely reported in newspapers across the country. There was outrage that Gorsuch was killed in battle, and horror at the reality that fugitive slaves escaped. President Filmore was told there had to be a reaction and a reign of terror ensued with "Negroes hunted like partridges" and white abolitionists penalized for aiding fugitives. "You think Lincoln freed slaves," observes Zooey. "But there were so many people who resisted... It's shocking to think that this violent turning point in the road to the Civil War happened on my ancestors' property. I'm proud that my ancestors were involved. I think I know who Sarah was. I think she would help Parker, and I'm hoping to see some evidence of this."

And that's an understatement. The evidence is tremendous. Elaborate, detailed descriptions of the aftermath of that battle confirm that Sarah risked her life to see to it that the fugitive slaves got to leave in safety with pillowcases of food. Documents show that Sarah, a true pacifist, even took in Edward Gorsuch's son Dickinson, who was wounded in the battle. "I'm surprised," says Zooey. "I guess they were kindly Quaker folk, and if there was a man injured, they would take him in."

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Sarah and the other women were stealthy as well, and saved Parker from being discovered when he entered the house. Sarah led the other women to fill suitcases with bread and meat for Parker and the others. She even helped disguise the fleeing men so that they could escape incognito in costume. The historian nods, "This is proof that Sarah and her family were deep, deep in the Underground Railroad."

"It's so encouraging at this time to think a woman could have been dong something this brave and cutting edge and this political," says Zooey. "It's really exciting to think that this is my family."

And history buffs take note, as the episode doesn't end before a startling revelation. John Wilkes Booth, the man who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, was deeply angered by the events on that farm. He wrote about his anger and he carried letters about this event with him.

"That's incredible," says Zooey, praising her ancestor Sarah's "direct contribution" to an important cause. "This means so much more to me knowing what she did and what kind of person she was. To me, she is a hero."

"Who Do You Think You Are?" airs Tuesdays at 9 PM on TLC.