Will Rogers said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” No doubt about it–political shenanigans provide an abundance of joke material for humorists and late-night comedians. And, if you have politicians in your family tree, they can also provide plenty of genealogical material.
Aside from entertainers, politicians probably enjoy talking or writing about themselves more than any other group. Can you begin to count the number of memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies written by or about politicians? All of this self-promotion and public scrutiny results in a lucrative historical track record for genealogists.
When researching family politicians, start at the top and look for a connection to a president. If your family has American roots dating back to the eighteenth century, thereâ€™s a good chance you might be distantly or directly related to a president. The population was small in those days and concentrated in a tight geographical area. It wasnâ€™t that hard for someone in your family to marry into a family that eventually produced a president.
Presidents in your family tree are a real bonus because their genealogies have all been traced. Only forty-two men have been president (Grover Cleveland was elected for two non-consecutive terms), and several of them came from the same families, so itâ€™s not too hard to scan presidential genealogies hunting for a common ancestor. I, for example, share an ancestor with John Tyler, the tenth president. I know youâ€™ve never heard of John Tyler, but, he really was a president.Â
You can find presidential genealogies in books and on the Web. If your ancestors didnâ€™t quite make it to the presidency, try hunting them down in the halls of Congress. Search the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress online.
I plugged in my family surnames and discovered three-term Congressman Martin Welker, a cousin to one of my direct ancestors. Martin was on my family chart, but I never paid much attention to him.
Now that I know he was in Congress, heâ€™s suddenly more interesting. The online biography for Martin traces his career from 1840 through 1890. It also gives his dates of birth and death and a burial location.
In addition to searching for politicians at the federal level, look for family politicos at state and local levels. Youâ€™ll find books in every state that chronicle local politicians.
For example, a search of the Ancestry.com Card Catalog led me to the book, Ohio Statesmen and Annals of Progress: From the Year 1788 to the Year 1900.Â I found cousin Welker mentioned in this book for his public service in Ohio, including a stint as Lieutenant Governor.
Also check state Blue Books that list government officials for a given year, and for Whoâ€™s Who in Politics books. County histories are another good source for learning about the local political scene. A Vermilion County, Illinois, history notes that various relatives of mine held the offices of land commissioner, district treasurer, township supervisor, postmaster, justice of the peace, commissioner of highways, and assessor.
Check out city directories, too. They often include government officials for the entire state. The 1892 Albuquerque city directory, for example, has an extensive list of state, county, and federal officers for New Mexico. The list includes everyone from appeals court judges, to county coroners, to the cattle sanitation board.
Some state archives have online databases of politicians. Washington has an online databaseÂ of 16,000 elected officials who took an oath of office, ranging from governor to log surveyor general, between 1854 and 1978.
State archives also have a substantial stash of correspondence and other documents created by state officials. These official records generally wonâ€™t provide many genealogical clues, but they do offer insight about your politicianâ€™s job.
Another place to check online for politicians is the Political Graveyard website. This site lists thousands of government officials and has a variety of ways to search for your political ancestors.
If you discover an ancestor who waded into the political arena, donâ€™t forget to check historical newspapers. Just like today, ancestral politicians frequently managed to get their names in print. Back in the late-nineteenth century, one of my ancestral relatives worked for a number of years as a city dog catcher, and believe it or not, many of his adventures with wayward dogs made the news.
If your ancestors migrated into new territory or settled where the population was small, thereâ€™s a strong possibility that they held a political office at some time. Their careers in politics may have been short, but finding them in a political context might be the only way to put them in a certain place at a certain time.Â
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AWJ Editorâ€™s Note: The Ancestry Store has a President and First Ladies Section with biographies and memoirs of Americaâ€™s First Families.