If the idea of presidential blood flowing through your veins even just a little gets your heart rate going, you might want to sit down for this: 100 million Americans have family ties to one or more of the 43 US presidents. Gary Boyd Roberts, author of Ancestors of American Presidents, also says almost anyone with New England ancestry is probably connected to dozens of presidents. Those with Quaker or Southern roots have a pretty good chance, too.
Perhaps you’ve heard a family story about your great-great-uncle being the cousin of Ulysses S. Grant. Maybe all those Washingtons or Lincolns in your family tree got you wondering. Or, even without evidence, could be you’re just curious if there’s any familial connection to the highest office in the land.
Before you start marching around the house singing “Hail to the Chief,” sort out what you already know about your family history. While you may be absolutely confident you can make that connection to Thomas Jefferson, first you have to research your own genealogy, advises professional genealogist Rhonda McClure. “For beginners who have heard they are related to one of the presidents, I always tell them the same thing: It is important to research your own line thoroughly,” she says. Only then will you “begin to see familiar names and localities [in] the ancestry of the different presidents.”
If there is a president in your family’s past, most likely he was someone’s cousin, and the connection lies somewhere in the 1700s or earlier, McClure notes. To speed your search, start with the ancestral line you already know the most about, that goes back the furthest.
Norris Taylor, a Los Angeles family historian who has traced himself back to 13 presidents, says it also helps to research your immigrant ancestors’ grandchildren and their spouses. “Many [published] ancestral lines seem to ‘stop short’ of an immigrant, in many instances by about three generations,” he says. Visit Taylor’s “presidential gallery” <members. tripod.com/~ntgen/bw/pres_atop. html> to see the results of his presidential roots research.
When you start searching, be prepared for disappointment not everyone, of course, has presidential ancestors. Those who descend from German or Scotch-Irish immigrants have only a “slim chance” of having a president in their family trees, Roberts says. And don’t put too much stock in family lore about White House links. Most likely those notions stem from the 19th-century assumption that anyone with a president’s surname must be related to him, says Roberts. “Most of these are false.”
Best bets for research
Have you ever heard the expression, “If you want your genealogy traced for free, run for public office”? All presidents’ family histories have been traced by a variety of researchers, and much of this research is accessible to you. On the Web, the place to start digging is Roberts’ US Presidential Ancestor Tables <www.rootsweb.com/~rwguide/presidents/>. Pick a president, any president, and you’ll instantly find a list of surnames in his pedigree. The site shows numbered pedigree charts that trace backward (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.), so while you may be able to determine if you share any of the presidents’ ancestors, it won’t tell you if you’re among their descendants. Online, Roberts omits the last two generations of most presidents’ trees; these can be found in his book, Ancestors of American Presidents (Boyer).
An online alternative to Roberts’ site is Genealogy of the US Presidents <www.dcs.hull.ac.uk/public/genealogy/presidents/>, the University of Hull’s searchable database of presidential GEDCOMs based on Funk & Wagnalls’ The Presidents. Search the presidential index (ordered by president) or scan the master index of surnames linked to presidential family trees. For example, when I scanned the index for surnames in my family tree, I came across the name “Nan Britton” (Britton being one of my family surnames). I clicked on her name and found her birth date, her spouse (Warren G. Harding) and their child’s name. Alas, she was not my ancestor, but at least I ruled her out! Another way to search the database is by a string, name or date. If you want a president’s entire GEDCOM, you can download the compressed file here and “unzip” it on your own computer.
McClure suggests checking out presidential ancestries included in other online databases, such as World Family Tree <www.familytreemaker.com/wftonline/> (access by subscription only), Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File <www.familysearch. org>, and WorldConnect <worldconnect.rootsweb.com>. Another site, Presidential Genealogies on the Web <homepages.rootsweb. com/~godwin/reference/prez.html>, will help you find more genealogical information on individual presidents.
If you want to use software for your search, there’s even Presidential Family Forest, a database that digitally maps out and connects known family ties of US presidents, vice presidents and their wives. The database is part of the American & European Family Forest Millennium Edition CD-ROM (Millisecond Publishing). See <www. familyforest.com> for more information.
Other routes to the White House
If you discover you’re not related to a president, don’t despair. How about first ladies? Check their maiden names and birth/death dates at <www.rootscomputing.com/howto/ istlady/istlady.htm>. Also search the National First Ladies’ Library <www.firstladies.org>, which offers a comprehensive, annotated bibliography of books, manuscripts, journals, diaries and other materials about and by presidents’ wives.
Were your ancestors passengers on the Mayflower? If so, they sailed with (or perhaps were) the ancestors of several presidents, including John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their Mayflower ancestors’ names and branches can be found at <www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/4602/ prez.html>.
Have you ever considered or even heard of the 14 “forgotten” presidents who served under the Articles of Confederation before the Constitution was ratified in 1789? Among them were John Hancock, John Jay, Thomas Mifflin and Nathaniel Gorham. A complete list and biographical descriptions of these precursor presidents can be found in The Patriot’s Handbook by George Grant (Cumberland House Publishing).
Climbing first family trees
Even if you have no genealogical connection to a president, you can still enjoy climbing their family trees. How did each president’s family history and pre-White House life affect him? You’ll find excellent summaries in the “Life Before the Presidency” biographies <www.americanpresident.org/KoTrain/courses/ index/Index_Life_Before_the_Presidency.htm> from the companion site to PBS’ “The American President” series.
Learn, for example, how George Washington was among the third generation of Washingtons born in the British colonies. (For more facts about presidential genealogies, see opposite page.)
Another way to research presidential pasts for family history and otherwise is through their libraries. The papers, records and other historical materials of presidents Bush, Carter, Eisenhower, Ford, Hoover, Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Roosevelt and Truman are housed in their own repositories, with adjoining museums. This network of presidential libraries contains millions of records, photographs and multimedia resources, as well as family heirlooms and items collected by first families. For links to individual libraries, museum hours and contact information, go to <www.nara.gov/nara/ president/address.html>.
Enjoy your quest for shared ancestry with America’s leaders. But if you exhaust the many avenues for research and still don’t find what you’re looking for, maybe you should consider running for public office. After all, you’ll get your genealogy traced for free.