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America’s Famous Family Tree: Are you one of the 100 million members?

News stories about famous people being related are always popular, even though it's not really surprising. The family tree that shows up in every presidential election, showing how candidates are related, could be your family tree as well. Find out who the "New England Family" is, and how to find out if you're one of the 100 million Americans in it.


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Outside of genealogy-themed TV shows such as Faces of America and Who Do You Think You Are?, most genealogy mentions in pop culture come in the form of famous relations.

Prior to the release of the new Twilight vampire movie, claimed that Twilight's star, teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson, was related to the original Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, through his familial connections to the British Royal family. Famous relations stories are also much loved by the media during elections, which seems to be always amazed that Barack Obama is related to George Bush or that Sarah Palin is a distant relative of Princess Diana.

Is it really that amazing? Not really. Simple math will tell you that your number of ancestors should grow with each generation you go back. But the pool of available ancestors is not infinite, and there are many overlaps. "For any two humans in history or today, it is not a question of do they have a common ancestor, it is only a question of when was the most recent one," writes Dublin City University professor, Dr. Mark Humphrys, on his genealogy website.

Finding proof of these overlaps is the tricky part. Proof usually comes through famous or wealthy individuals because the "ruling elites," as Humprhys calls them, were documented the most diligently. "I am not actually interested in Royalty per se," writes Humphrys, who specializes in royal/aristocratic lineages. "Rather, I am interested in showing the common relationship of all humanity. Royal Descents are simply a convenient way of doing this."

The New England Family: America's Famous Family Tree

Mathematically, it is extremely likely that many Americans in New England or the South are also members of the family tree of famous and powerful Americans (who usually also have royal descent) that pops up in every presidential election. Gary Boyd Roberts of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) specializes in "the New England family", estimating that 100 million contemporary Americans can claim descent from the relatively small group of 5,000 – 8,000 people who came to the U. S. in the Great Migration of 1620-1650.

Someone who has 50 or more sets of Great Migration ancestors is likely related to almost every other person in the 100-million-person New England Family, usually at the range of 8th -12th cousins, says Boyd Roberts. "The probability of kinship to notables is fully 100 percent," writes Boyd Roberts in one article for the NEHGS, "and the number of such "household name" distant kin probably surpasses 500, possibly 1000."

How do you find out if you are related?

The five-generation mark in your family tree, writes Boyd Roberts, is probably where you'll find links to famous relations if you have any New England roots. The NEHGS is one place to start, either by consulting some of the resources Boyd Roberts cites or exploring the NEGHS databases. The Society, which can be found online at New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), also has a research services staff consisting of professional genealogists, librarians, and historians.

Be wary of fake family histories

Mathematical probability in ancestry is one thing, proving descent quite another. Royals, aristocrats, and the rich and powerful are not only diligently documented, but sometimes also fraudulently documented, as well. There are many family histories whose connections are the stuff of wishes rather than fact.

One of the most notorious masters of genealogical wishes is Gustav Anjou, who wrote several fraudulent family histories in the early 20th century. Anjou's trickery, which focused on New England immigrants, made its way out of family attics and into the Family History Library. His false lineages may very well show up in previous genealogical work a relative has done, as well. Pedigree society, America's First Families, also lists the following historians as suspect: Charles H. Browning, C.A. Hoppin, Orra E. Monnette, Frederick A. Virkus, Horatio Gates Somerby, and John S. Wurts.

How do you find your proper place in the New England Family? Be skeptical of genealogical histories your family has, unless they are thoroughly documented with primary sources. Take a look at America's First Families website (America's First Families Genealogy Site) for a list of suspect lineages, and consult the NEHGS for the most reliable sources available before venturing to find your spot on America's famous family tree.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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