William & Mary

History professor Fisher to appear on TLC program Sunday

  • Lending his scholarship
    Lending his scholarship  W&M History Professor Andy Fisher (right) presented celebrity Tony Goldwyn with information on his ancestors last November in Oregon, where TLC was filming a segment of "Who Do You Think You Are?"  Courtesy TLC
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It was an odd request that Andy Fisher never expected to receive as a professional historian.

A producer from “Who Do You Think You Are?” a genealogy-themed program that airs on TLC, emailed Fisher, an associate professor of history at William & Mary. Would he be interested in reviewing some documents pertaining to a person they were looking to profile?

But they declined to identify the person just yet, saying only that his ancestors had been caught up in the events of the Oregon Trail and the Yakima War in the 1850s. That’s an area in which Fisher is an expert.

His research and teaching interests focus on modern Native American history, environmental history and the American West. His first book, Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity, examined the off-reservation communities and processes of tribal ethnogenesis in the Columbia Basin.

Fisher looked over the documents, supplied additional insight based on his own research, and sent them back.

Then his phone rang. It was another producer, who sought an interview. Next, could he do a Skype interview?

“They were, in effect, auditioning me,” Fisher said. “They weren’t sure I would work on screen. There were other historians that had been recommended to them or their researchers had come across in doing groundwork for episode. It wasn’t guarantee that I was going to be on screen, but after the Skype interview they asked if I would like to be on part of the on-air talent.

“It meant a free trip back to Oregon, where I’m from, so why not?”Andy Fisher

The episode in which Fisher appears will air this Sunday at 10 p.m. on TLC.

The person profiled is Tony Goldwyn. The grandson of Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn and the son of actress Jennifer Howard and producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Tony Goldwyn has a long resume of television, film and stage acting, directing and producing.

Fisher traveled to Portland in November, maneuvered his way through snowy Columbia Gorge to Fort Dalles, where Goldwyn’s three-time great grandparents – Nathaniel Coe and wife, Mary – fled when the Yakima War broke out.

Fisher presented Goldwyn with replicas of documents relating to Coe, which he read and reacted to.

“Specifically, Nathaniel Coe had written a letter in response to an editorial that appeared in a New York newspaper, highly critical of the conduct of territorial officials and white settlers. It basically said they had provoked this war.

“Coe was offended and wrote this rather scathing letter back saying, in effect, this war is just a product of Manifest Destiny. The Indians can see their doom and they’re fighting futilely against this inevitable fate.”

Fisher said such dialogue was commonplace for the times.

{{youtube:medium:center|wzGUR2m5Qdw, History professor Andy Fisher shows Tony Goldwyn something from his family's past}}

“More urbanized, eastern whites, who had their history of bloodshed and dispossessing Indians safely behind them, would criticize the conduct of westerners and frontiersmen who were often quite bloodthirsty in their calls for exterminating Indians,” he said. “So you have this east-west tension, urban vs. frontier. That part of the segment didn’t put his ancestor in the best light.”

However, Fisher added, Goldwyn took it all in stride and had a solid grasp of the larger picture.

The taping lasted five frigid hours. Fisher said he enjoyed the experience, but he isn’t going to change his career aspirations. He’ll stay in the classroom.