Strange Kinships Uncovered in American Family Trees

(ImageCollect/Globe Photos, Inc.)

By MYRA VANDERPOOL GORMLEY, CG (retired)
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.
Do not post or publish without written permission.

“Millions of Americans relate via either New England or Southern ancestors to probably dozens of notable historical figures,” according to Gary Boyd Roberts.

Roberts is an American genealogist known for his scholarship in the ancestry of American presidents, notable kin and Americans of royal descent. Roberts is the retired Senior Research Scholar of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. He is author of several books, including Notable Kin, Ancestors of American Presidents, American Ancestors and Cousins of the Princess of Wales and The Royal Descendants of 500 Immigrants.

Some family trees have wildly entangled branches, Roberts points out. For example, Elvis Presley was related to former President Jimmy Carter, and Carter has kinship to Jesse Helms. Elvis Presley was a sixth cousin once removed of Carter. Presley and Carter descend from a German immigrant by the name of Andreas (Andrew) Preslar (born circa 1701) who married Anne (Antje) Wells.

In the last several decades an enormous quantity of source material on the so-called “non-plantation South” families has been published and many kinships can now be traced among descendants of the Southern migratory pioneers. This was a mobile group of German, Welsh and Scots-Irish immigrants who flooded the South from the beginning of the 18th century. Presley, Carter and Helms, as do millions of Americans, have ancestors who were in this group.

While Volume 1 of Roberts’ book, Notable Kin, dealt with personalities in politics and belles-lettres, the second volume covered “tycoons, folklore and Hollywood.” In the latter are full chapters on the probable Rhode Island ancestry of Marilyn Monroe; the Quaker and New England ancestry of James Dean; Elvis Presley’s kinship to former President Jimmy Carter, and Carter’s to Jesse Helms; and the ancestry of playwright Tennessee Williams.

Some of the family ties provided are:

  • John Wayne, Western movie star, was fifth cousin, twice and thrice removed, of Sir Winston Churchill.
  • Frank and Jesse James were distant cousins of the Duchess of Windsor.
  • “Wild Bill” Hickok was second cousin four times removed of former President George Bush.
  • The actor James Dean shared all of his New England ancestry with former President Richard M. Nixon.
  • Joan (Bennett) Kennedy was a descendant of Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft victim, Mary Estey.
  • Actress Tallulah Bankhead and writer Truman Capote were sixth cousins and sixth cousins once removed. Bankhead was also the fourth cousin twice removed of Mark Twain.

The term “removed” in genealogy refers to the distant by a given number of degrees of descent or kinship. For example, a first cousin once removed is the child of your first cousin — being one generation removed from the original cousinship.

I discovered via Notable Kin that I’m distantly related to both former Presidents Roosevelts and the renowned inventor Thomas Alva Edison through some mutual Dutch and French ancestors of New Netherland. You may discover connections you have never suspected either.

“In other countries, neighbors of different ethnic groups or religion often fight; we (Americans) intermarry instead,” said Roberts.

Indeed.