Politician’s Family Trees: What’s in Them For Me? by Juliana Smith

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.” While politicians seem to be focusing more on their opponents’ jugular veins this year, there are still a lot of researchers and journalists who are equally intent on digging up their roots. No matter what we may think about the candidates or their stand on the issues, the methods professionals use to uncover their roots can also be applied to our own work.

There have been almost weekly news stories regarding the heritage of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. With my Irish roots, I found it interesting that they all had this in common with me. This week, a press release from Ancestry.com revealed more on the candidates’ family histories, and one even featured a story about George Washington, and what would have likely happened had he decided to go along with plans for establishing a monarchy instead of a presidency. The Ancestry Publications team approached Ancestry Chief Family Historian Megan Smolenyak to do the research on the project, and the article, “The Man (or Woman) Who Would be King,” appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Ancestry Magazine. Based on Megan’s research and some fascinating interviews, it was determined that an 82-year-old retired regional manager from San Antonio, Texas would be King of America today.

When the “Washington as King” press release was first posted on the 24/7 blog, several people commented on to say, “Why can’t that be done on my lines?” 

There are several possible answers to that question. Almost all of us become stymied in our research at some point or another, and although teams of researchers worked on these high-profile cases for quite a while, even these famous candidates probably have some lines that are tough cases to crack.  That said, there are some tricks for getting beyond those dead ends we sometimes encounter. Let’s take a look at some detours we can take:

While it may not be a good thing when a politician side-steps a question, side-stepping in your research to a sibling, or even a cousin, can be a very good thing. My third great-grandmother, Catherine Kelly, died at age twenty-six in 1851, leaving behind two children, a husband, and not much of a trail. The records of her daughter, my great-great-grandmother Emma didn’t reveal much either, but by tracing Emma’s sister Ann Eliza, we found reference to an aunt that helped us to slowly fill out the family structure. It was through this approach that we were able to finally learn the names of Catherine’s parents.

Whole Family Research
Another benefit of side-stepping is that you gain a clearer picture of the entire family. This makes it easier to identify them in records. There may be a thousand John Smiths in a particular county, but there are likely to be far less with a wife named Katherine, and children John, George, Ringo, and Paul, especially with matching ages.

Friends, Family, and Associates
As we’ve seen in this and in past elections, political, community, and family associations can be political dynamite. But when it comes to locating your ancestor’s origins, that dynamite can be used to blast through brick walls. Make note of the names of sponsors, business partners, and other members of our ancestor’s community. Often groups of families from the same community immigrated together, or in chain migrations. As one of our readers suggests in today’s tips, when you find an ancestor in the census, click through to see other people who are on that page. In fact, I would even suggest checking several pages before and after your ancestor’s page.  By tracing the origins of your ancestors’ contemporaries, you may find your own family roots in the same areas.

Historical Information
The political pundits are all abuzz about how states have historically voted and trying to predict whether the patterns will hold up in this year’s election. Historical patterns can help us to predict where our ancestral roots lie. As was mentioned above, people from the same communities in the old country often settled near each other in their new homes. Check local histories and church histories online for the areas in which your ancestors lived.

Create a Profile
One of the biggest keys to success is organization. Once you start digging, the records start piling up, and even if you can keep up with the filing and electronic data entry, you may not be getting the “big picture.”  I create profile pages for each person I’m working on that summarize what I know about that individual. Profiles typically will include:

  • Full name and any aliases or alternate name spellings
  • Vital dates and places 
  • Religion and what church(es) he or she attended
  • Names of parents and other family members (including married and maiden names)
  • Timeline of events in that person’s life with the sources for that information (see Step-by-Step Timelines) 
  • Names of Associates (e.g., sponsors, witnesses on legal documents, neighbors, names from social pages, etc.)

I know I could probably figure out how to create a report in my genealogical software that includes all of this, but I choose to do this step using just a word processor. I’ve found that by doing it this way, I really get a chance to analyze what I have. And it’s quick and easy to check for certain facts when I need to. A copy of each is also posted in the notes section for that person in FTM.

It’s Good to Not Be the King
In my humble opinion, it’s better to not be the king, or presidential candidate, or politician du jour. We get to avoid all that mudslinging, and we get that “thrill of the hunt” that they miss out on by having their family history handed to them. Somehow I don’t see the candidates doing the “happy dance” when they read about their family histories in the newspaper.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

3 thoughts on “Politician’s Family Trees: What’s in Them For Me? by Juliana Smith

  1. About 50 years ago I read an article about solving problems titled something like ‘Strategy of an Indirect Approach’. I used it for years to solve problems nobody else seemed to be able to solve. I now collect basic information on not only the parents of in-laws but the in-laws siblings and who they married. The more you collect the easier it is to solve potential problems before they become ‘Brick Walls’, it becomes second nature. Families associate and inter-marry, travel together, communicate with other family members, go to the same church… Likely the missing information is out there.

  2. Juliana, sideways, back and forth — as my grandmother used to say, “any which way.” I find that looking at neighbors in the census pages,and then watching for those neighbors in the marriage indexes to find maiden names has produced a bonanza of information. I suppose this is “cluster genealogy” to give it a more formal name, but it is true that people did not travel far to find marriage partners, and they did not move across the state without a relative or former neighbor very often. Don’t you wish we had more of the “letters home” that early settlers sent back to entice friends and family to join them?

    When I am stymied by a subject, I use my word processor to write a narrative called “Everything I Know about …” putting the sources in brackets. Writing the narrative — telling the story — has helped me find my missing information because there is something about filling out a narrative that makes us find connections, even things we did not know we knew!

  3. I enjoy your articles but this one left me with a question. I heard a rumor that one of our relatives ran for President and had Feinstein as the vice presidential candidate. But I have been unable to verify the information. How would I find out about a minor candidate?

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