Perils of Genealogy: Part Two

George W. Bush is my cousin…to my horror and shame. We are distantly related but I was always under the impression that he was, perhaps, some kind of space alien or something that climbed out of a tide pool somewhere. I’m not a Republican and I let my views and values shape my expectations as I groped my way through the underbrush of my family tree. That’s the way most people are. George and I have a common ancestor and we are something like fifth cousins through his mother’s line. We won’t be going to a family reunion. There ought to be a Genealogists’ Anonymous organization. “Hi, I’m Ken and I have George W. Bush as a cousin”.

It is one of the pitfalls of genealogy and often it is the reason why folks start researching the family tree. We have expectations of grandeur.  Maybe we haven’t found our niche in history but surely someone in the family accomplished something of note. It depends on how high you set the bar. Some people won’t be satisfied until they get back to Charlemagne. But what happens if they encounter John Wilkes Booth or Ivan the Terrible? My grandmother’s admonition to keep quiet about that “Pirate” Sir Francis Drake is one approach.

I am a member of the Sons of the American Revolution…past chapter president, in fact. The SAR and the DAR are sticklers for detail. One has to document every family link back to the Revolutionary patriot and it has to be a direct line. But, the definition of “patriot” is pretty loose. A man serving on a local jury or supplying arms or supplies or signing the articles of association would be sufficient for SAR membership. Not every patriot has to have war service. It is a common problem that folks try to join these organizations based on “grandma said…” or “my cousin is a member so I can be one too”.  Some folks want to join to further their ambitions. We had a guy who wanted to be mayor and showed up at a meeting in a colonial era costume and declared that he was entitled to membership. We had a retired judge who showed up and announced that he was descended from a Revolutionary War soldier and refused to offer documentation. Both guys were disappointed.

I joined the SAR because I was tired of a co-worker yammering on about his patriotic roots. He had ancestors in the Revolution and an ancestor in the Confederate Army so he joined the SAR and Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Confederate flag in his office was a step too far and he had to get that out of the building. It turns out that I have several Revolutionary War soldiers as ancestors but only one that I was able to document with easy proof. The others were a little murky in their allegiance although they did serve in the Continental Army or militia at one point. One ancestor spent time in the Albany jail because he was suspected of being a Tory. Lots of folks were in there with him because this was, essentially, a civil war in New York state and everyone was suspected of being one thing or another. It’s not always easy to document service or family ties…especially if the name is a common one from that era. One Revolutionary War soldier was sufficient for me.

My wife had ancestors who fought with the Confederacy. I hesitate to say they were Confederates because evidence shows that they were neutral but extremely pissed off when the Yankees showed up and burned the town.  Her G-G-G-Grandfather served in the Missouri State Legislature….elected in 1860…and the family was prominent in the local political and cultural life of their small Ozark community. They were not slave-owners and just wanted to be left alone. The State Legislature had to consider what to do as the various states started to withdraw from the Union. It was a difficult issue because Missouri was a slave state but was very much divided in its loyalties. The German settlers were against slavery while the long-time landowners were often supportive of slavery. One of the slave industries in sections of Missouri was breeding slaves to be “sold down the river”…this was a form of stock farming.  This is a particularly ugly aspect of slavery in Missouri and not talked about much.  The Legislature and the Governor were forced to raise the State Guard (militia) to fight the Union Army as it moved to occupy the state.  The Union prevailed and dismissed the Legislature and the Governor fled south. The resulting Civil War in Missouri was extremely bloody and resonates even today.

I was always smug in my outlook toward the Civil War and slavery. We were Union people from New York state. My G-G-Grandfather marched off to fight the Rebs and defeat the forces of slavery. We were not slave owners…right?…right?  It’s all very complicated once you get into the closet with your ancestors.  My soldier ancestor marched to defend the rail lines in Baltimore. He finally got to Virginia and saw some action during the Wilderness Campaign but hurt himself…got a hernia…and was sent to a hospital to recover. That was pretty much it. His unit, the 109th NY, saw a lot of serious action and was involved in the notorious Crater assault at Petersburg but my ancestor was recuperating. I am not complaining…it is just ironic. Had he not hurt himself in the service of his country, I might not be here.

The slavery thing is even more complicated. A funny thing happened while I was busy gloating about not being from a family of slave-owners. One of my New York ancestors was a party in a law suit against a man who owed him money. This was early in New York history, before slavery was abolished there.  The court case dragged on a while and finally the plaintiffs won. They were to be repaid for the debt but the man had nothing to pay them with…except slaves. My ancestor was given a women as repayment of the debt. There was some kind of stipulation that the original owner had the right to buy her back if he could raise enough money but we don’t know what the outcome was. So much for being smug. I have ancestors who were among the founders of New Paltz, NY, way back in the late 1600s. Guess what…New Paltz was one of the areas where Sojourner Truth lived as a slave….and finally gained her freedom.

Lets go back to Charlemagne. Americans seem to be infatuated with the idea that somehow they are related to royalty. That’s ironic because many or most of the early immigrants were coming to America because they had had enough of royalty. Of course, European royalty couldn’t get enough of each other. Royalty bred royalty who then bred with other royalty and their cousins who bred with cousins…and so on.  Heaven forbid that they marry a commoner because they had this notion of eliteness. They were somehow chosen to be elite by God. These folks also had power and wealth. They had bunches of kids and could feed them all. They could afford good food. They could get medical attention, such as it was. They lived in well-built homes. During the plague, they could stay isolated or they could leave the city to escape disease. So, they were survivors and survivors had babies who were survivors. The commoners and the riff-raff marched off to war, suffered from malnutrition or were consumed by the plague. It is reasonable and likely that many Americans and Europeans are descended from royalty. If you go back far enough to tie into a royal line and trace along those royal lines you will probably end up at Charlemagne. President Obama is descended from Edward I, King of England, who was, of course, a Plantagenet and French and descended from Charlemagne. So is Brad Pitt and Brooke Shields and George W. Bush…all descended from William the Conqueror who was a descendant of Charlemagne.  Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II are distant cousins.  Being related to Charlemagne really has less of a distinction than people think. The ability to trace one’s ancestry back to 800 AD is impressive but it is fairly easy if you tie into a royal line.

My line staggers back through multiple generations and eventually links in to the parents of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. He was also an ancestor of Princess Diana Spencer and Winston Churchill and William, the future King, and now, baby George, also a future King. I was happy to welcome the little tyke into the family, although he makes it harder for me to rise to my rightful place as King.

Another family line takes a tour of Holland through the New York Dutch families and goes back to Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, somehow. One of the Dutch ancestors sailed with Henry Hudson up the Hudson River as far as present day Albany. His cousins, Jan and Cornelius DeWitt, were butchered by a mob and hung on a lamp post at The Hague. They were then immortalized, sort of, in The Black Tulip, by Alexander Dumas. If you climb back down that family line you will run into Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt…but not FDR.

A lot of genealogy buffs are having their DNA recorded and analyzed. The tea leaves of DNA reveal all sorts of things. I keep saying I’m going to have mine checked but I never do. I might be surprised if I do. Many people are. Lots of Americans think they have American Indian ancestry but often the test comes back and they are disappointed. Sometimes there are interesting results that show Semitic or Asian ancestry when there is none even remotely expected. Sub-Saharan African DNA might show up where it isn’t expected. African American genealogy buffs can sometimes find what area of Africa they are connected to as well as whether there is a trace of non-African ancestry — European or American Indian or whatever.

People moved around a lot more than we ever expected. The map (right) shows the travels of just two men back in the 1300s. We know about them because they were literate and left a written record. A DNA study among Indians in South America found two pockets of modern indigenous populations that have Asian (ancient Japanese) DNA traces that date from several thousand years ago. Clearly,  ancient people in Ecuador encountered ancient people from Japan sometime around 3,000 BC. There are plenty of historic references of Chinese, Egyptian or Greek voyagers. The Phoenicians seemed to be almost everywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world. Alexander the Great ruled an empire that stretched to India. Arab merchants visited Scandinavia. Marco Polo and many others followed the Silk Road through central Asia.

Moorish Spain


Even before Charlemagne the Islamic Moorish Caliphs occupied most of Spain and Portugal and made incursions well into France. The Moorish controlled terretory, Al-Andalus, lasted for over 700 years in some areas. Marco Polo was in China more than 20 years. I doubt that all of these travelers and conquerers kept their pants on for the duration of their journey.

My dad’s family came from Pomerania (Pommern), which is now the Baltic Sea coast of Poland. Before WW-II it was Germany. It was once ruled by Sweden. The Teutonic Knights were in control of the place for a while as were the Poles and Prussians. That is just over the past 500 years…what about way back another 500 or 1,000 years. Vikings and “Barbarians” and waves of other different groups passed through central Europe. After…and even before…the Roman destruction of Jerusalem there were Jewish populations sprinkled all over the known world. Some were isolated, as in Ethiopia, while others were vibrant and totally engaged with their neighbors, as in Spain and parts of Europe and north Africa. I think I know, roughly, what my DNA test will report but I might be surprised. Whatever it says, I’ll be happy. I might even discover some long lost relatives somewhere.



One thought on “Perils of Genealogy: Part Two

  1. I have ancestors that were on both sides of the Revolutionary War. One of my direct ancestors (a Quaker) moved to Nova Scotia so he would not have to fight. Four of his grandsons moved to Maine and fought for the Union in the Civil War. All came home alive. I have not yet found an ancestor the fought for the Confederacy. I am sure that their must be some. Also worry so much about George W Bush. I have and am sure you have worse in your family line. Thanks for a interesting post.


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