Academy Award winner Meryl Streep recently won the leading actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for her portrayal as Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, in “The Iron Lady.”
During her acceptance speech she said she was destined to play the part because, like Thatcher, she has strong Lincolnshire—a county in the East Midlands of England—roots.
In her acceptance speech (watch it below), she says: “Half of me is Streep but the other half is Wilkinson from Lincolnshire so I come by it honestly, this part.”
In fact, according to the PBS show “Faces of America,” her eighth great-grandfather was Lawrence Wilkinson, the first Wilkinson to come to America.
“He arrived in Rhode Island where land seemed to be there literally for the taking,” show host Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells Streep. Wilkinson’s name is seen on the state’s civil constitution in 1645.
Gates explained to her how Wilkinson steadily acquired more than 1,000 acres of land around Providence. But that land wasn’t free to take.
“There’s a slight downside to this acquisition of land, of course. This was land that originally belonged to the Native Americans,” Gates says. “And Lawrence was caught up in one of the transforming events of early American history called Metacom’s War.”
Metacom’s War, or King Philip’s War, was a conflict between the Wampanoags and colonists that lasted from 1675 to 1676.
“The Native American leader Metacom fought to defend his people’s sovereignty and way of life,” the show’s narrator says. “His attacks turned into the bloodiest war of the century between the Indians and the English.”
The war began when Metacom or Metacomet, called King Philip by the English, led an attack on the town of Swansea. He was the son of Massasoit, who had maintained peace with the colonists for 50 years.
“It is supposed that the Indians, seeing the gradual encroachment of the white men upon the lands of their fathers, determined to drive the intruders from the country,” reads History of the United States of America by Henry William Elson.
Gates explained to Streep how most people fled Providence when Metacom attacked in March of 1676, but Wilkinson stayed behind with some of the other town leaders and defended the land he felt was his. In the end, it was Wilkinson who lived on and Metacom who paid the ultimate price—his life and the lives of 3,000 Indians were lost.
“Philip was slain, his body drawn and quartered, and his head paraded in triumph in Plymouth,” says Bio.umass.edu. “Philip’s son, Massasoit’s grandson, was sold into slavery in Bermuda.”
The news of her ancestor’s involvement in this, visibly upset Streep.
“I’m so sorry to hear this, but you know this is what it is,” Streep says. “It makes it feel sort of like it’s my fault on some level but it also connects me to those events, those first encounters between the two cultures must have been raw, terrifying…”
“Brutal and final,” Gates finishes her sentence.
The show then moves on to discuss the ancestry of Native American author Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Her ancestor, Joseph Gorneau, or Soozay, worked as a commercial buffalo hunter for the white people in the Minnesota territory.
The show also discusses another of Streep’s ancestors, Silas Crispin, who purchased land from the Lenape Indians in 1682.
The third episode of “Faces of America,” which features the ancestry of Meryl Streep and Louise Erdrich can be seen in four parts below. The second part is where you’ll find the segments about Metacom’s War and Soozay, but all four parts intertwine Native American history, as well as the ancestry of Stephen Colbert, Eva Longoria and Yo-Yo Ma.
“Faces of America,” Episode 3, Part 1:
“Faces of America,” Episode 3, Part 2:
“Faces of America,” Episode 3, Part 3:
“Faces of America,” Episode 3, Part 4:
Watch Meryl Streep’s BAFTA acceptance speech: