Notes on Genealogy: What do Martin van Buren and Hillary Clinton Have in Common?

So I’ve been working on my family tree on and off for about 20 years. My Dad had an interest and that got me started; an abundance of internet resources made research easy. At this point I know some information about all my “great-greats”, and some lines go back considerably farther.

In summary, my roots are typical of white-bread, Midwestern WASPy flyover America. Nothing special, a few interesting stories and insights on westward expansion, that’s about it. No saints, and no ax-murderers, as far as I could tell.

But last week I found a site run by Brigham Young University that purports to be able to tell you if you have famous or notable relatives: relativefinder.org. It requires a family tree in familysearch.org, the LDS site. Linking is quite easy.

The results are enlightening, but not in the way I expected.

Just as an example, my roster of kinfolk in the entertainment industry includes luminaries like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Donny and Marie Osmond.

In the world of business, my cousins include: Henry Ford, Warren Buffett, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Sam Walton, and Howard Hughes. (N.B. To my knowledge, none of these cousins remembered me in their wills.)

Here’s the crazy part: The only U.S. President who is not listed on my list of cousins is Martin van Buren. The closest kin among U.S. Presidents are William Howard Taft and Millard Fillmore, both fifth cousins, 4 times removed.

BYU will also find notable relatives in other categories, including European Royalty, Signers of the Declaration/Constitution, Mormon leaders and historical figures, and U.S. First Ladies.

Like Martin van Buren, Hillary Rodham Clinton is not my cousin.

So what is to be learned from this?

The value of the respective trees is probably about what you pay for it (it’s a free site). That being said, my side of the tree looks credible.

Bottom line, it appears that virtually everyone is my distant cousin. (OK, that’s overstating a tad. If you’re a first- or second-generation descendant of immigrants, Asian or an Orthodox Jew, maybe not. But if you have even one WASPy line that can be traced several generations back into New England … hello, cuz!)

As you go back in time, the roster of ancestors grows geometrically (doubles every generation). There were fewer than 4 million Americans in 1790; if one has American ancestry going back that far, the chances of two lines crossing becomes higher than you’d expect.

Another thought: At this point, what is the value of organizations like the Daughters/Sons of the American Revolution? All Americans share that legacy. An 8th-generation connection is not remarkable.

One surprise — BYU’s search uncovered my royal lineage, not just a cousin but a direct ancestor. If memory serves (and it will have to, because I’m not looking it up again), my 14th-great-grandfather was James Stewart the Younger, King of Scotland. Which means I have about as much claim to a manse on the Firth of Forth as Elizabeth Warren has claim on Native American heritage.

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