For those that weren’t able to watch, or only watched once and want to brush up on the specifics. Here is a recap of what happened on Jessica’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” on TLC.
The episode starts out with Jessica revealing some of the things she has been told through the years about her family’s history. We learned that Biel is a small town in Germany, and that her grandfather (Donny) and father (John) believe them to be German. We also learned that on her mother’s (Kim) side of the family, they are believed to have Native American ancestors.
One family story passed down for generations was that a family member named Bill Brazier was in the Civil War. It is also said that he was crossing a body of water, and shot in the back during the war. Jessica would like to learn if that is true.
Jessica first meets with genealogist Kellie Scherbel in LA. They go through the 1940 census in Illinois and search for her grandfather Donald Biel. There they find her Great Grandfather Edward Biel. They then find her two times Great Grandfather Morris Biel and his wife Ottilia in the 1910 census. Jessica comments that Ottilia is the best name ever, and of course we couldn’t agree more. (Perhaps the name of the next Timberlake?)
Kellie points out that Morris and Ottilia are from the Austria-Hungary empire and speak Hungarian. They immigrated to the United States in 1889. Morris’s occupation was that of a cloak cutter. While in their search, they find Julius And Ella Biel, the son of Morris. It turns out Ella is Russian and speaks Yiddish, a very common Jewish language in that time period. Jessica also learns, during that time it was commonplace for people of the same religion to marry. This leads Jessica and Kellie to believe that her ancestors were Jewish.
The next stop for Jessica on this journey is Chicago, to meet with the historian Howard Lupovitch. Howard has done research prior to her arrival, and found a ship manifest from Hamburg Germany with a Moritz (German for Morris) Biel and Ottilia Biel listed. They were located on the middle deck, which is a notch below 2nd class. Jessica inquired whether or not the journey was rough on the passengers, when she finds out that it indeed is, she declares she would not have made the trip and would likely have jumped overboard (haha).
They manifest lists the Biel’s from Zellien Slovakia (part of the larger city Jonah) which at that time was part of Hungary. Howard then shows Jessica a page from a Jewish Registry. On the page the name Moritz Biel was listed, confirming that Jessica’s ancestors were definitely Jewish. At that time the area they lived in was very progressive and modern, not likely they were as strict as an Orthodox Jew.
The last document Howard shows Jessica is an old newspaper clipping from the Chicago Tribune in 1926. A picture of Morris and Ottilia Biel celebrating their golden (50 years) wedding anniversary.
Her last stop in Chicago was to receive the results of her DNA Test. We find out that she is 30% Great Britain, 26% Europe West, 16% Italy Greece, 12% Scandinavian and 8% European Jewish. Her Maternal Grandmother Norma Jean Conroe (Roberts) had always told Jessica that her distant relatives had Native American roots, we learn this is not true and Jessica is shocked.
Next stop on this wild ride is the St. Louis Public Library in Missouri to meet Ginger Frere. Here we revisit the story of an ancestor named Bill Brazier who was in the Civil War and crossed a river during that time and was shot in the back. Jessica finds out that her Great Grandparents James and Flora Roberts (Norma Jean’s parents), have the Brazier connection. Flora is a Brazier prior to marrying into the Roberts name. We then discover that her father William (Bill) Brazier was only born at the start of the civil war. That he is not the man that was discussed in family lore. His father though, Francis Brazier is likely the man in question.
To find out more, Jessica heads to Miller County, Missouri where the family lived. There she meets Angie Zombek, a Civil War Historian from St. Petersburg College. Angie had found a “Company Muster Roll,” which is a list of soldiers. Francis is found on the list, under the Confederate Army. We learn that Missouri was an order state, which allowed slavery but did not declare a side of the war.
Further inspection of the Muster Roll shows that Francis was listed as “deserted.” They then find a document that lists Francis as a prisoner that surrendered for not wanting to fight for the Confederate Army. Prior to surrendering they discussed how he likely spent a year at home but then from pressure of neighbors turned himself in. Learning that because of the Court Marshal, the trial was located in Washington D.C.
In Washington D.C., Jessica learns from military records that during the trial Francis was given a lighter sentence because he did desert and turned himself in. At that time a lighter sentence was still a year in prison, doing hard labor.
We then travel back to Alton, Illinois. The Alton Prison is where Francis Brazier was sentenced to serve. There is where we learn about his attempt to escape. He did not attempt this escape alone, it is said that dozens attempted at the same time. The Alton Prison is on the bank of the Mississippi River, which separates Missouri and Illinois. He was attempted to cross the river when he was shot in the back.
The only family story passed down the line that was indeed true. Hopefully you were able to catch the episode. We are curious to see if Jessica explores her findings even further.