If the idea of presidential blood — even just a little — flowing through your veins 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, 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 have raised your suspicions, or you just wonder whether you have a familial connection to the highest office in the land. Whatever your reasons, there’s no better time to track down possible presidential forefathers than this election season.
1. Start your own genealogy campaign.
Before you begin marching around the house singing “Hail to the Chief,” sort out what you already know about your family history. Though you may be absolutely confident you can make that connection to Thomas Jefferson, you first 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 start to see familiar names and localities in the ancestries of the presidents.
If there’s a president in your family’s past, he’s most likely a distant 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 — the one that you’ve traced back the furthest.
Norris Taylor, a Los Angeles family historian who has traced his lineage 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 online “presidential gallery” to see the results of his chief-executive roots research.
When you start searching, be prepared for disappointment — not everyone, of course, has presidential ancestors. Those who descend from German or Scots-Irish immigrants have only a “slim chance” of finding a president in their family trees, Roberts says. And don’t put too much stock in family lore about White House links. Those notions likely 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.”
2. Research chief resources.
Have you ever heard the expression, “If you want your genealogy traced for free, run for public office”? All American presidents’ family histories have been traced by a variety of researchers, and much of this research is accessible to you.
McClure suggests checking out presidential ancestries included in other online databases, such as Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, GenCircles, World Family Tree (accessible by subscription only) and WorldConnect. But remember that no one verifies the accuracy of these user-submitted family trees — so view what you find as clues rather than gospel.
If you want to use software for your search, Family Forest offers a Presidential Family Forest Election Sampler CD (Millisecond Publishing), a database that maps out the family trees of US presidents, vice presidents and their wives. The data from this disc is included in the broader American & European Family Forest World Record Edition CD (Millisecond Publishing), which digitally documents pedigrees of artists, authors, royals and celebrities in addition to commanders in chief. See <www.familyforest.com> for more information.
You’ll also want to hit the books, including these published presidential genealogies (available at libraries):
- American Presidential Families by Hugh Brogan, Charles Mosley and David Prebenna (MacMillan Library Reference) offers biographical details plus descendant, male-line ancestry and collateral-descendant charts for each president.
- Ancestors of American Presidents by Gary Boyd Roberts (Boyer) is the definitive guide to presidential pedigrees. Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America by Marcus Cunliffe, Lesley Hume Cunliffe and David Williamson (Burke’s Peerage), a guide to America’s first families, covers the ancestries, wives, siblings and descendants of the 39 US presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
- The Descendants of the Presidents of the United States of America, 2nd edition, by Walter L. Zorn (self-published) traces chief executives’ families forward — which can help you make a connection to early presidents through more-recent generations.
3. Explore other routes to the White House.
If you don’t discover a relationship to a president, don’t despair. How about first ladies? Consult Genealogy of the Wives of the American Presidents and Their First Two Generations of Descent by Craig Hart (McFarland). This book inventories the first ladies’ children and grandchildren, as well as their complete lineages. Also search the National First Ladies’ Library, which offers a comprehensive annotated bibliography of books, manuscripts, journals, diaries and other material about and by presidents’ wives. Were your ancestors passengers on the Mayflower? If so, they sailed with (or perhaps were) the progenitors of several presidents, including John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And don’t overlook possible connections to our nation’s earliest first families. Have you 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. Consult The Patriot’s Handbook by George Grant (Cumberland House Publishing) for a complete list and biographical descriptions of these precursor presidents.
4. Climb first family trees.
Even if you have no genealogical connection to a president, you still can 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 at <http://millercenter.org/president>, the companion educational Web site to PBS’ “The American President” series. Be sure to browse the official biographies at <https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents>, too.
Another way to research chief executives’ pasts — for family history and otherwise — is through the presidential libraries. The papers, records and other historical materials of presidents Clinton, Bush, Carter, Eisenhower, Ford, Hoover, Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Franklin Delano 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 <http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/contact/libraries.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.
Red, White and Blueblood
Many US presidents descend from royalty. For example, the Roosevelt family traces back to King Edward I of England. In his book Genealogy of the Wives of the American Presidents and Their First Two Generations of Descent (McFarland, $35), Craig Hart links some first ladies’ lineages to Charlemagne and William the Conqueror.
However far apart George W. Bush and John Kerry stand on the issues, they’re close in one respect: their family trees. Turns out this year’s presidential candidates can call each other cousins.
Although the politicians’ family ties aren’t immediate — their closest calculated connection is ninth cousins twice removed — genealogy gurus assert that the men are linked throughout their family trees. Pre-eminent presidential-pedigree tracer Gary Boyd Roberts tells Family Tree Magazine that he’s found eight common ancestors between the incumbent and the challenger, through three American families and five British families.
Millisecond Publishing’s Bruce and Kristine Harrison, who created the Family Forest CD of famous people’s pedigrees (see opposite), claim Bush and Kerry both descend from 17th-century Plymouth colonists Thomas and Welthian Richards. Ancestry.com traces each candidate back to Edmund Reade and Elizabeth Cooke in mid-1500s England: Bush is a loth-great-grandson, Kerry an eighth-great-grandson.
Since so many high-profile politicians come from blueblood backgrounds (especially presidents), the candidates’ ancestral connection isn’t that unusual. And alas, their kinship probably won’t lead to a kinder, gentler relationship between these bitter political rivals. But here’s hoping the candidates won’t let the campaign get too dirty — otherwise, their feuding could spoil everyone’s fun at the next family reunion.
The Presidential Gene Pool
Convinced you’re kin to Thomas Jefferson, but can’t prove it using published genealogies? Maybe you should turn to science instead. Participants in the USA Founding Fathers DNA studies are looking beyond traditional sources and seeking their proof from cheek swabs.
Web site owner John Roper isn’t organizing the studies himself, but encourages descendants of US presidents to start their own studies to crack the founding fathers’ DNA codes. Three years ago, he began a surname project to find male-line relatives of Benjamin Franklin through Y-chromosome tests from Family Tree DNA. “Then I got the idea that I should urge family members of other founding fathers to try to determine the Y-chromosome markers of those founding fathers,” he says. Established presidential projects focus on George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
How do these genetic-genealogy studies work? Using Y-DNA test data, they seek to identify men with the presidents’ surnames who’re related to (not descendants of) those commanders in chief. The genetic information contained in the Y chromosome passes directly from father to son, so it’s possible to determine if two men share an ancestor by comparing genetic markers (patterns in specific locations within the DNA). This kind of DNA testing can’t prove that you descend from a particular person, but it can show whether you come from the same family. (Look for a primer on genetic genealogy in the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine.)
Suspected male-line kin who share the founding father’s last name are eligible. Each study participant pays about $170 to undergo Family Tree DNA’s 25-marker DNA test — you simply collect a sample with the supplied cheek swab, send it in and wait for your results. Visit Roper’s Web site for more information about the projects.
• The American President
<www.americanpresident.org>: An educational companion to the PBS series, this site serves as a chief source for presidential profiles and biographical information.
• Cyndi’s List — US History: Presidents and Politicians
<www.cyndislist.com/hist-us.htm#presidents>: Link to dozens of Web sites relating to presidential family history.
• The Presidents of the United States
<www.presidentsusa.net>: It claims to be the Web’s most comprehensive site for presidential resources.
• The White House
<www.whitehouse.gov/history>: Read an extensive history of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and get a virtual tour of the mansion former first families called home.
• The American President by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt (PBS)
• The American Presidents, revised edition, edited by Tracy Irons-Georges (Salem Press)
• Ancestors of American Presidents by Gary Boyd Roberts (Boyer)
• Family of Ronald W. Reagan by Curt J. Gronner (Clearfield Co.)
• Records of the Presidency: Presidential Papers and Libraries from Washington to Reagan by Frank L. Schick (Oryx Press)
• Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites by Brian Lamb (Perseus Book Group)
From the December 2004 Family Tree Magazine