By Craig L. Foster
Probably one of the most enjoyable benefits of doing genealogy is finding your previously unknown relatives. It can be amazing to find who’s related to whom. Distant cousins of the cartoonist and creative genius Walt Disney, for example, include former U.S. President George W. Bush, early Mormon leader Joseph Smith, Jr., renowned historian David McCullough, Irish baron The Lord Dunboyne, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, and Princess Martha Louise of Norway.
People with New England ancestry are particularly fortunate when trying to find famous relatives. This is because of the exceptional town records kept in New England, as well as extensive research conducted over a couple of hundred years. A great example would be the descendants of the early English yeoman farmer, Robert White, and his wife, Bridget Allgar. At least four of their children eventually settled in colonial Massachusetts. Among their multitude of descendants are some renowned individuals. They include Grover Cleveland; Gerald Ford; Ulysses S. Grant; W. Mitt Romney; Samuel Colt; Philo T. Farnsworth; Emily Dickinson; David McCullough; O. Henry; Stephenie Meyer; Lucille Ball; Clint Eastwood; Richard Gere; the Osmonds; and Shirley Temple.
There are a number of online sources to help genealogists find famous relatives. The databases in Familysearch.org offer pedigrees of numerous deceased people of renown like Walt Disney and Winston Churchill. A very useful website that uses the names and Ancestral File Numbers to assist people in finding common connections to famous people is “Relationship Finder” located at http://roots.cs.byu.edu/digroots/. Rootsweb.com, on the other hand, not only has genealogies of dead but also living celebrities. Cyndislist.com offers links to numerous websites containing genealogies of the rich and famous.
There are also printed sources with genealogies and information. A good introductory resource and how-to book is Rhonda R. McClure’s Finding Your Famous (& Infamous) Ancestors: Uncover the Celebrities, Rogues and Royals in Your Family Tree. Robert Davenport’s Roots of the Rich and Famous (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing, 1998) has great information. A very good genealogical source about famous people, past and present, is Gary Boyd Roberts’ two volume work, Notable Kin: An Anthology of Columns First Published in the NEHGS NEXUS, 1986-1995 2 vols. (Boston, Massachusetts: New England Historic Genealogical Society and Santa Clara, California: Carl Boyer, 3rd, 1998). Roberts has published other articles and books about the genealogy of famous people.
There are several steps to finding and creating charts showing relationship to the rich and famous. The first and most important step is to perform your own genealogical research, moving from the known information to the unknown by working back on each of your lines. You must realize the further back you get on your own lines, the greater the chances of finding common descendants of early ancestors.
Once you find potential common relations, you need to write down or print their ancestry back to the common ancestor. Please keep in mind these charts are meant for fun and entertainment. It would be very difficult to verify the sources and generation for each of the people you find, so you need to go with sources and websites you feel you can trust.
The names of the common ancestors (father and mother) need to be listed on the relationship chart and then it is advisable to list each generation from the parents to both the people (yourself and your famous relative) in question. You might also want to include some background information about the celebrity in question.
Preparing relationship charts really is not as difficult as it seems. You do not have to be descended from nobility or royalty to trace back and find common ancestors with famous people. Even royalty has common ancestors and common people certainly have royal and noble ancestors. The late Princess Diana of Wales is a great example. Obviously born with blue blood ancestry, she also had common ancestors who settled in New England. She had several ancestors who lived in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s. (1)
Admittedly, some localities are easier than others in terms of finding names and being able to track family lines. New England has already been mentioned as one place with particularly good records, but some places are more difficult to research. The Southern states, for example, can be difficult but it’s impossible to find fun relations. For example, pop singers Miley Cyrus and Hilary Duff are both related to George Washington as all three have early Virginia ancestors.
In conclusion, researching and creating relationship charts can be fun, entertaining, and educational. It’s worth giving it a try.
(1) Richard K. Evans, The Ancestry of Princess Diana of Wales for Twelve Generations (Boston, Massachusetts: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2007), 329.