Two years ago I self-published a book called 50 Kinfolk. In it, I presented a series of relationship charts that showed how I was related to 50 celebrities. My idea was to help promote the idea that we are all connected. I sold a total of zero copies. Despite the setback, it did get me thinking about whether there was any real value in discovering these connections in the first place. Let’s be honest, I highly doubt Hugh Hefner would invite me to the Playboy Mansion if he knew I was his 9th cousin, 3 times removed.
So what’s the real value in finding these relationships?
For me, the value of finding these connections is to get others interested in their heritage. When I tell people that President Barack Obama is my cousin, they laugh. “He’s African-American,” they say, “and you’re not.” When I bring out the proof, they laugh again but this time out of surprise. I love that moment because their eyes twinkle with curiosity. They wonder whom they’re related to, also.
Twinkles are fleeting and duty calls so it’s back to work. Nevertheless I successfully planted the seed. Someday they’ll do their own family tree and find their own connections – thanks to some guy they met that was related to Barack Obama.
At least I hope they do.
Anyway, I enjoy surprising people with the connections I find. Sometime I even surprise myself. In January of this year, I wrote a blog post in which I briefly described my surprise at finding one of my friends in Hawaii a distant cousin. In the same post, I mentioned that I had also discovered connections between my wife and two other friends of mine. More recently, I learned that I was related to yet another friend, this one from Massachusetts. It’s a small world, indeed.
Still, there’s an elephant in the room: never once has anyone asked me how I made these connections. My guess is that it never dawned on them to ask.
So I’ll share it with you, dear readers.
If you want to stake your claim to fame as a blood relative of Henry VIII, you’ll need to trace your family tree to at least a generation or two before him. If you want to claim Selena Gomez as your cousin, you’ll probably need to go back a heck of a lot further. Your goal is to build a database of surnames. Surnames, or last names, are the thread that ties us all together. Every set of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents come with two associated surnames – his and hers. The more surnames you have in your family tree, the more likely you’ll be able to make some sort of connection.
Tying people together across time is the next step. It’s not always easy but there are shortcuts in some instances. 50 Kinfolk, for example, was the result of a happy accident. When I started working on my maternal family tree, my mother had already traced our roots back to seventeenth century New England. After she passed away and I took up the torch, I discovered additional family surnames that also led to early New England. My colonial roots gave me an advantage: people have been researching first generation Americans for hundreds of years. All I had to do was tie one of my family surnames with those already well documented.
One day I was looking for a particular last name using Google. I stumbled came across an article written by Gary Boyd Roberts for the New England Historic Genealogical Society web site. Mr. Roberts, renowned for his genealogical research for the Society and his books on notable family connections, was writing about celebrity roots to New England. What caught my eye were the surnames Richards and Loring. Thomas Richards, who was born about 1596 in England, had married Welthian Loring. Both had come to Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s. Mr. Boyd had the happy couple as 10th great grandparents to Clint Eastwood, the actor. Thomas and Welthian were my 11th great grandparents. As a result, Mr. Eastwood and I are 11th cousins, 1 time removed. To flesh out my relationship chart, all I had to do was work backward from Cousin Clint to document his lineage to our common ancestors.
As far as how I discovered connections to my friends, the same concept applied. The only difference was that I couldn’t rely on Mr. Boyd’s research talents. In both the Lawson family tree and the Grindle family tree, I discovered surnames that appeared in both their family history and mine. I had to rely on good old-fashioned detective work and move forward and backward in time to try and find a link. It was time consuming because common last names do not necessarily mean a common ancestor. My wife, for instance, has a Cole in her family tree yet I’ve yet to make a connection. I will admit that if I do, it’ll be weird. On the other hand, my sister is related to her husband so how bad can it be?
Nevertheless, in Ervin and Ernie’s case, I found the connection and confirmed that they are both my cousins. They are not related to each other, however, because they do not share common ancestors.
While 50 Kinfolk never made the New York Times Best Seller’s list, it allowed me to expand my family tree beyond what most people consider a traditional family tree. We consider the trunk and the branches but oftentimes forget that trees have roots that extend beneath the ground. Moving forward in time from the past can lead to some interesting connections.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I ring the Playboy mansion.