Focus on History: “Who Do You Think You Are” visits Fonda and Johnstown

A national family history television show recently focused on a celebrity’s ancestors in the Mohawk Valley.

Actor Nick Offerman and a production crew from NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” recorded interviews at sites in the Albany area and the Old Courthouse in Fonda, home to Montgomery County’s history and genealogical collections, and the Johnstown Public Library, in the city founded by British colonial leader Sir William Johnson.

Offerman is best known for his role as Ron Swanson in the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”  Researchers traced his roots to a Mohawk Valley couple, Bartholomew and Eva Pickard and their grandson, Joseph Mabee.

Montgomery County historian Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar said that members of the Mohawk nation complained about Eva Pickard, “Their complaint was that she owned a tavern around the area we know today as Indian Castle which is actually in Herkimer County. They complained that she would get them drunk and have them sign away their land.”

Farquhar said there are references to this issue in documents in the Sir William Johnson papers, copies of which are at the Johnstown library.  Pickard apparently was removed from her land.

Years later her grandson Joseph Mabee was able to recover a lot of that land in return for his military service with the rebels in the Revolutionary War.

By then Sir William Johnson was dead. His family and many Mohawks and others loyal to the British crown had left the Mohawk Valley.

At the end of the TV show, Offerman and relatives are seen standing on the land in question in the Herkimer County town of Danube west of Minden in Montgomery County.

Neither Farquhar nor Erica Wing of the Johnstown library was interviewed on camera. Farquhar, who has been with the county history department for 26 years, said, “I was OK with that because I was very nervous thinking about whether I would be on camera  A lot of people were hoping the local historians would be filmed as well. I think the historians they had on did a fantastic job relating what was going on at that time.”

Offerman and history professor Tim Shannon of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania discussed Offerman’s ancestry on the TV show in an interview filmed in Fonda.

Shannon said, “(Offerman) seemed very much interested in learning about the Mohawks and their relations with the colonists there. I was glad to have the occasion to visit the Montgomery County Department of History and Archives and appreciated the staff’s willingness to accommodate the film shoot.”

Originally the TV show was to start production in March 2020 but the work was postponed by the pandemic. Production actually began in September 2021.

Farquhar credits county supervisors with foresight for creating the Department of History and Archives in 1934. There was Depression-era federal funding available to have the staff then document area history. 

The staff would get copies of church and cemetery records from across the state because at one time Montgomery County and its predecessor Tryon County encompassed territory west of Schenectady to Central New York, north to Canada and south to Pennsylvania. 

Farquhar said over 30 counties can trace their origins back to Montgomery and Tryon County. “That’s why genealogists and local history researchers come here to do research.”

An event is being planned in Fonda on Saturday, August 27, to mark the 250th anniversary of the creation of Tryon County, the British colonial name for what became Montgomery County.

That day there will be historical tours of the area, artisan and militia reenactors and a new promotional video for the Department of History and Archives.

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