By Carolyn L. Barkley
On several research trips to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I was drawn to the large pedigree chart for President George W. Bush on the wall in the lobby. Despite having no links to his family, I found it fascinating to look at his chart. I think this interest in the ancestry of well-known people is common to many of us. This summer it’s hard to spend a single day without hearing about the presidential race, and it made me wonder how many of us have presidents in our as ancestors, direct or collateral. Wikipedia is often quoted as saying that most American families who research back ten generations will find a link to one or more presidents if all individuals, male and female, are researched fully. Research your own lineage first, documenting it well. Once that is “complete” (remember, that never happens!), then research the lineage of the president to whom you believe you are related to confirm the connection.
What resources are available on presidential lineages and where are primary source materials on a specific president located?
A Google search for “Presidential Genealogy” and “Presidential Lineage” yielded numerous possibilities for further research. Of immediate interest are the ancestries of candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. In a speech last month in Springfield, Missouri, Obama shared a family legend that Wild Bill Hickok was his distant cousin. Corroboration was subsequently provided by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (see Dick Eastman’s blog for 30 July 2008). As reported in an Associated Press article, NEHGS confirmed that Hickok was “a sixth cousin to Obama’s fourth great-grandfather, Jacob Dunham” and that their “common ancestor was Thomas Blossom, who arrived with the Pilgrims.” A first draft of a documented lineage for Barack Obama, researched by William Addams Reitswiesner, can be found at http://www.wargs.com/political/obama.html. Reitswiesner’s lineage for John McCain, at http://www.wargs.com/policial/mccain.html, follows McCain’s ancestry back to his seventh great-grandparents. Exploring McCain’s ancestry further, Gary Boyd Roberts of the New England Genealogical Society states that McCain (as well as Obama) descended from William I of Scotland, (The Telegraph, 14 January 2008). Less successful is McCain’s claim in his book Hard Call to have descended from Robert the Bruce. Genealogists and medieval historians have described this link as “wonderful fiction” and “baloney” (The Guardian, 21 March 2008). Other presidential lineages are online at Presidential Family Trees, U. S. Presidents with Mayflower Lineages, U. S. Presidents Genealogies, and Genealogies of the U. S Presidents. The latter site is based on Funk and Wagnall’s The Presidents (1989), and it asserts that visitors can make a copy of a presidential gedcom file, although I found that particular link to be broken.
Now that you’ve documented your presidential connection, you are eligible to join Presidential Families of America, a lineage society open to men and women with direct or collateral descent from a U.S. President. A list of qualifying ancestors includes multiple listings for the same name, suggesting multiple lines of descent from the same individual. In addition to presidents, a random selection of other qualifying ancestors includes John Alden, Isaac Allerton, Stephen Bachiler, Robert Bolling, Benjamin Carpenter, Samuel Chapin, Jonathan Delano, Thomas Dudley, Mary Gilman, John Howland, Richard Lee, Richard Palgrave, Samuel Smith, Mathias St. John, Henry Vandenburgh, and Christoffel Yates.
You can also research your presidential ancestor in primary source documents. Significant resources can be found in the presidential libraries that are directed by the National Archives and Records Administration’s Office of Presidential Libraries. The establishment of presidential libraries began in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt donated his papers, both personal and presidential, to the federal government and donated land at Hyde Park for a museum and library. President Truman followed suit and in 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of libraries that are privately erected, but maintained by the federal government. Presidential libraries now exist for Presidents Herbert Hoover through Bill Clinton. The George W. Bush Presidential Library will be located on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, Texas, with construction expected to begin in 2009 at a cost of $200 to $500 million. Many collections of papers for earlier presidents are in the Library of Congress, as well as in other sites operated by a variety of organizations throughout the country: John Quincy Adams at the Stone Library in Quincy, Massachusetts; Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois; Rutherford Hayes at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio; William McKinley at the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio; Woodrow Wilson at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia; and Calvin College at the Calvin College Presidential Library and Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Remember that these libraries are primarily intended to preserve the official records of the president and his staff. However, they may also contain personal papers of the president, his family members and friends, as well as artifacts and audio and visual collections. Be sure to read available finding aids to determine what is available. Each presidential library is a unique site that will provide you with more specifics about the collection, exhibits, activities, hours, and directions. Interesting collections can be found when reviewing the various library holdings. For example, Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, was Herbert Hoover’s first biographer. Because of this connection, a Rose Wilder Lane collection at the Hoover Library includes information about her life as well as her role in editing her mother’s books. Links and activities are provided for students and teachers.
Finally, additional background information on presidents can be found at sites such as the Internet Public Library’s “Potus: Presidents of the United States.” This source provides election results, cabinet members, and notable events of each administration as well as links to biographies and historical documents.
For more assistance in your research, you may want to refer to the following:
Ancestors of American Presidents by Gary Boyd Roberts (3rd ed., Carl Boyer, 1995).
Facts about the Presidents: a Compilation of Biographical and Historical Information by Joseph N. Kane (7th ed., H. W. Wilson, 2001).
Founders and Patriots of America Index (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2007)
Funk and Wagnall’s The Presidents (Curtis Publ. Co., 1989)
Genealogies in the Library of Congress by Marion Kaminkow (Genealogical Publ. Co.) multiple volumes, 1972-2001)
Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States Who Were Themselves Notable or Left Descendants Notable in American History by Gary Boyd Roberts (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2008)
Royal Families: Americans of Royal and Noble Ancestry. Volume 1: Governor Thomas Dudley and Descendants Through Five Generations by Marston Watson (2nd ed., Genealogical Publ. Co., 2004)