Finding a Potential Presidential Pedigree

Most Van Burens are related to the eighth president, Martin Van Buren, who was of Dutch descent.
 “Anyone with early New England ancestry is probably related, though perhaps distantly, to five or six U.S. presidents,” according to Gary Boyd Roberts. The roots of 20 presidents, some entwined, can be found in Colonial New England.

By MYRA VANDERPOOL GORMLEY, CG (retired 2012)

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Do not post or publish without written permission.

Perched upon some branches of your family tree may be one or more American presidents.

“The five presidents you are most likely to be related to are Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford Hayes or William Howard Taft,” according to Gary Boyd Roberts, an eminent genealogist who is an expert in presidential pedigrees and bloodlines of the rich and famous. Roberts served for a number of years as special projects director of America’s oldest genealogical society, the New England Historic Genealogical Society of Boston, Mass. He is the author of Ancestors of American Presidents, two volumes of Notable Kin, and co-author of American Ancestors and Cousins of the Princess of Wales.

Two of our most famous presidents—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—left few or no descendants. Ironically, Washington, the father of his country, had no children, and Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, had only his son Robert who left descendants through a female line. However, that line has since died out.

“Anyone with early New England ancestry is probably related, though perhaps distantly, to five or six U.S. presidents,” according to Roberts.

The roots of 20 presidents, some entwined, can be found in Colonial New England, Roberts noted. That is why it is not unusual to find a presidential connection if you have New England ancestry predating the Revolutionary War. In fact, six presidents descended from one or more Mayflower passengers. They were the two Adamses—John and his son, John Quincy—Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, William H. Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the other hand, two chief executives, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson, the 17th and seventh presidents respectively, have family lines that have proven to be untraceable. Jackson, born nine years before the Revolutionary War started, was the son of an Andrew Jackson and Elizabeth Hutchinson, a couple who emigrated from Ireland to the Carolinas about 1765. They left a cold trail for genealogists.

Andrew Johnson was the son of Jacob Johnson and Mary “Polly” McDonough. Johnson, born in 1808, grew up in poverty in Raleigh, N.C. Nothing is known about his paternal line and on his mother’s side, only information about her father, Andrew McDonough who was a Revolutionary War soldier is recorded. All but five of the 39 men who have been president have had predominately or exclusively British roots. The exceptions being Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt whose forebears came from the Netherlands; Herbert Hoover with German and Swiss roots and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of German ancestry.

Presidents John Adams (left) and John Tyler descended from Mayflower passengers

Sixteen presidents descended from families who arrived in America before 1677, with about a dozen of those traceable to progenitors who came to this country prior to 1640. The British branches of 22 of our chief executives originated in England, four in Scotland, three in Ireland, while five are of Scotch-Irish descent, meaning their ancestral home actually was in Scotland.

Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, died in 1818 when he was only nine years old. Evidently no family Bible of her family survives, and of course, no birth certificates were issued in 1784, the year she was born. Few records were generated in the 18th and 19th centuries that pertain to the poor families on the frontier of young America. Moreover, the names of our female ancestors were scrawled into the official record books only when they married or inherited some property.

“There is absolutely no proof for it,” Roberts said regarding the story that Lincoln’s mother was illegitimate. But her parentage is undocumented, and through the years the Lincoln/Hanks line has remained an unsolved mystery to historians and genealogists. [Editor’s note: mtDNA testing results provide evidence supporting the conclusion that Nancy Hanks was the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks, who was a daughter of Joseph Hanks and Ann “Nanny” Lee.]

“All 26 presidents prior to Wilson had at least one ancestor with Revolutionary War service and six were ‘Patriots’ themselves,” Roberts said. Presidents with no known Colonial ancestry include Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Wilson’s ancestors, both grandparents in fact, came from Scotland and Northern Ireland; Kennedy’s family tree is green with Irish branches, his immigrant Kennedy ancestor arrived in Massachusetts during the height of the Potato Famine. Ronald Reagan has a pedigree that is one-half Irish, one-fourth Scot-Canadian and one-fourth English.

If your surname is the same as a president’s what are the chances that you are related to him? “It depends on which president,” Roberts said. For example, most Van Burens are related to the eighth president who was of Dutch descent—the son of a Kinderhook, N.Y. tavern-keeper.

“Colonial Dutch ancestry probably will connect you to the Roosevelts as well,” he said. All the Roosevelts are related, according to Roberts. Though actually they are only about one-fourth Dutch with several other national derivations in their bloodlines.

If you have a Fillmore line you probably are related to the 13th president. His grandfather, Nathaniel Fillmore of Bennington, Vermont served in the Revolutionary War. The immigrant Fillmore ancestor was John Fillmore of Ipswich, Massachusetts, a mariner.

If you have a Fillmore line, you probably are related to the 13th president, Millard Fillmore.

Another president you are likely to discover in your family tree, particular if your surname or an ancestor’s is Taft, is William Howard Taft, our 27th president. Taft’s charts are almost complete back to his 32 great-great-great-grandparents.

Hannah Milhous gave her son, Richard Nixon, her maiden name and Quaker ancestry. Nixon’s pedigree chart extends back in all lines six generations with all but one of his 32 third-great-grandparents identified. Some surnames from his family tree—all 18th-century ancestors—are Seeds, Scothorn, Trimmer, McElwain, Wadsworth, Wiley, Lytle and McComas. Others family names that may easily connect you to former president Nixon are: Malmsbury, Cattell, Burdg, Hussey, Mendenhall, Vickers and Baldwin. He also has Smith, Matthews, Griffith, Armstrong, Hemingway, Brown, Moore and Clemson lines.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes, our 19th president, was born in Ohio in 1822. In 1877 he became president by winning the electoral vote by a margin of 185 to 184. Hayes’ family tree has been traced for many generations except for his Birchard family. His mother was Sophia Birchard, a daughter of Roger Birchard whose alias were Roger Cornwall and Roger Jacob. It is believed that the family name was Cornwall rather than Birchard.

“Eleven presidents may be considered Southern for genealogical research purposes,” Roberts said. They are: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Truman, LBJ and Carter all descend from what Roberts labels “modern Southern pioneer” ancestry.

“The first 20th-century president whose known ancestry is almost evenly divided, three ways, between New England, the mid-Atlantic region and the South, and with descents from more than 50 17th-century New England immigrants, several known New York Dutch, Pennsylvania Quaker and Maryland families, and various early 17th-century Virginians, George Herbert Walker Bush was probably also the first U.S. president distantly related to perhaps half of the Americans whose government he led,” Roberts said.

During his research, Robert discovered there are 18 couples or widows ancestral to at least three American presidents. Also, he says, “Omitting the common Adams and Harrison ancestors approximately 100 immigrant or 17th-century couples (all residents of New England, New York or Virginia —or, in a few cases, their English parents or grandparents), are ancestors of two or more presidents.

“Only two such couples, to my knowledge, however, are ancestors of four presidents, and only 14 such couples, or immigrant widows, are ancestors of three such presidents,” Roberts said.

Roberts compiled 41 presidents’ ancestral charts from work done by himself and other genealogical scholars. These are included in his book, Ancestors of American Presidents, which treats the fully known ancestries for 10 generations of all presidents through No. 42—William Jefferson Clinton. The book was published in 1995. It also charts proven or highly probably presidential royal descents, kinships between presidents, as well as kinships between presidents and a few 20th-century royal figures with some American ancestry, plus kinships between presidents and some 250 other notable Americans.