Are You Really Related to Someone Famous?

Family stories abound with tales of being related to someone famous, whether it’s George Washington, Queen Elizabeth, or Elvis. But how do you know if that story is actually true? Here’s a strategy you can use.

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A Common – and Frustrating – Way to Prove It

The most common way to try to prove the connection to a supposed famous relative is also one of the most frustrating. It’s common to start researching the famous person’s descendants and try to make a connection to your own family tree. But that method is filled with obstacles.

First, you don’t know what line you should be following. All it takes is for a generation to have a ton of children and suddenly you have a lot more lines to follow.

Second, you might not be starting in the right place. “Related to” doesn’t necessarily mean “descended from.” You might be related to that famous person as a cousin, which means the connection is further back. Then the question is, “Which of their lines should I follow?”

A More Effective Way to Prove a Relationship to a Famous Person

A more effective way to see if there is a relationship is to approach the connection from both sides. However, rather than focusing solely on surnames, pay attention to locations. (After all, for there to be a connection, the families have to be at the same place at the same time at some point.) Are there any locations where both the famous person’s tree and your tree overlap? Those are the places and branches to focus on.

Howard Chandler Christy WWI Red Cross poster featuring American flag and woman
Howard Chandler Christy WWI Red Cross poster

This is what happened with my in-laws’ family. My father-in-law told me that he was “somehow related” to artist Howard Chandler Christy. I had already done a fair amount of research on my father-in-law’s side of the family, and had never run across the Christy surname. Was there a connection, or was this a fanciful tale?

I started by doing a quick bit of research into Howard Chandler Christy and learned that he was born in Morgan County, Ohio. My father-in-law has a line in Morgan County, so that is where I concentrated my searching. Digging into Christy’s family a bit more, I discovered his mother’s maiden name was Bone. That’s a surname in my father-in-law’s Morgan County line.

Now that I had a location (Morgan County) and a possible surname connection (Bone), I focused my research on that family. I discovered that my father-in-law’s great-grandmother and Howard Chandler Christy were first cousins. (I wonder if he ever sent her a drawing as a birthday present.)

If I had focused solely on researching the Christy surname and ignored the location, it would have been a long time before I made that connection.

Jumpstarting Your Research with a Collaborative Family Tree

You can jumpstart this kind of research by using a collaborative family tree, such as the FamilySearch Family Tree, Geni.com, or (my favorite) WikiTree. Each one has tools that can show you connections between you and other people in the tree. Of course, you have to have your own family in there. Also, just like any other tree, the accuracy is dependent upon whoever posted it. However, you can find some very good clues to get your research started.

Have you ever proven (or disproven) a relationship to a famous person? Let me know in the comments!

 

Posted: October 4, 2022.

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  • When I was a young boy, my maternal grandfather Raymond Hanks told me that our family is related to Abraham Lincoln through Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks. At the time he told me this, I cared much more about playing Nintendo than learning about a family legend. But fast forward some 30 years later, with my grandfather sadly long since passed away, I got interested in taking a look to see if there was something to his claim.

    Turns out he was right! Our connection is through Abraham Lincoln’s maternal grandmother Lucy Hanks. She was the mother of Nancy Hanks. My 5th Great Grandfather William Hanks was a brother to Lucy Hanks, so he was an uncle to Lincoln’s mother. William’s son John Hanks is well known in history as not only a first cousin of Lincoln’s mother but as a very close friend to Abraham Lincoln throughout his entire life. I am a descendant of John’s youngest brother Andrew Jackson Hanks – my 4th Great Grandfather. He is actually buried in a private cemetery on farm land in Des Moines County, Iowa that my Hanks family still lives on today!

  • Heh. I know I’m related (pretty closely) to Ernst Bellocq, the photographer of Storyville. He was first cousins with a 2nd great grandmother of mine. I have a book that belonged to his Priest brother and Bellocq and his parents lived with his grandparents, my 4th great grandparents. I’m related to Degas through my Rillieux line and, also through that, to Norbert Rillieux, the pioneering Creole chemical engineer. That’s all I have. Justin Trudeau and I share my 10th great grandparents (the French Canadian side is pretty ridiculously documented).

  • I have several gateway ancestors, as has my husband, that go back to the Plantagenets and other early royalty. But in terms of currently famous people, the closest husband can come is a 4th cousin relationship to Barack Obama, and the closest I can find is a second cousin x4 to Grover Cleveland. But both families still have brick walls, so it’s possible there are more!

  • I’m related to William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. I am his 1st cousin 9 times removed. I share that lineage with actress Meryl Streep.

  • My family is related to the Jefferson-Hemings-Colbert family tree, but I am not a direct descendant. My 5th Great-grandparents, William Calvert and the widow Temperance Robins, married in 1728 in York, York Co, VA and had four sons: Benjamin, William Jr., my 4th GG Thomas, and John Butterworth Calvert/Colvard/Colbert. Benjamin, their oldest son, was the only one to remain in Albemarle County, VA after Temperance died in 1755. The other brothers moved to North Carolina. Benjamin made his living as a carpenter/cabinet maker, married, and had six children. Benjamin Colvard Jr., born 1762, also became a carpenter/cabinet maker. At the age of 16, Ben Jr. was hired as an apprentice-carpenter assistant to Joseph Neilson, Thomas Jefferson’s construction manager at Monticello, for two years. During that time he met Betty Brown, daughter of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings and sister of Sally Hemings. Between 1783 and 1796 they had six children including Burwell Colbert who became Thomas Jefferson’s Confidential Servant. When Jefferson died, he freed five slaves including Burwell and two of his sons by Sally Hemings. Several years ago I was contacted by CeCe Moore, the consultant to PBS’s “Finding Your Roots by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” She is also a co-administrator of the Hemings-Jefferson-Wayles-Eppes DNA Project. CeCe contacted me because I had matching DNA with members of the Hemings…DNA Project. Benjamin Colvard Jr. was also married to Mary “Polly” George, daughter of James George of Goochland Co, VA. I was told — but it hasn’t been confirmed — that James George was the 5th GG of President Barack Obama.

  • I am a fourth cousin twice removed to Theodore Roosevelt. Growing up, I heard that he was related through my Barnhill line. I had researched my line so had that information. A book in the Fort Wayne library written by a descendant of a third line (who botched my line) had the connection. Theodore Roosevelt’s maternal grandmother was a Barnhill, and Teddy mentions her in his autobigraphy. Two Barnhill brothers married two sisters, my line and his. One couple went east and eventually became rich and married into the Roosevelts. My couple went west and didn’t do either. Incidentally, we are also related to Eleanor, but my mother refused to claim her. We are not related to Franklin Roosevelt, who comes through another Roosevelt line. My mother was very happy to not claim him.

  • Hi Amy,
    I have not discovered in my research a relationship to any famous person, but my husband (now deceased) was descended from Julia Cynthia Merritt, born 30 May 1828 in New York City.  She was the oldest of 10 children born to John Willis and Julia Anne (DeForest) Merritt and she was my husband’s 2nd great grandmother.  Her younger sibling, the 4th of the children, was Wesley Merritt whose history is well documented.  His obituary in the Marfa, Texas newspaper was quite interesting.  Transcribed with spelling/grammer as it appeared in the document.

    Obit-Marfa News.

              THE NEW ERA, Vol. XXIV, No. 49, Marfa, Presidio Co., TX
                          HERO IS BURIED IN SNOW BY LANTERNS Body of Gen. Meritt Laid to Rest in Storm.  Had Great Career. West Point, N.Y., Dec. 7 —
        The body of Maj. General Wesley Merritt, U.S.A. retired, 21st superintendent of the United States military academy, was buried here last night by lamplight with military honors of his rank.
        His body was laid by that of his first wife in the military reservation cemetery.  The special car bringing the body from Washington was delayed by the storm and the hour was so late it was deemed best to make the ceremonies as brief as the due dignities would allow.
        The fife and drum corps, followed by the cadet corps, fell in at the front on the appearance of the coffin. The fifers’ breath froze on their instruments as they shrilled the slow measures of the dead march.  Behind them clanked the escorting battery.  Then came the coffin, draped in the colors, followed by the pallbearers, mourners and attending civilians.
        As the long procession moved through the darkness, the flash of the minute gun glared for an instant across the shrouded fields and dull jar of the report sounded solemnly across the river.  Thirteen guns were fired.
        Lanterns guided the procession to the grave, and there, while the mourners stood bareheaded in the snow, the coffin was lowered in the grave.
        Gen. Merritt was six times breveted in the volunteer service and the regular army for gallantry and moretorious conduct on the field of battle during the civil war.
        He was mustered out in 1868 with the rank of major general, and took part in the regular army as lieutenant colonel.  In 1876 as a colonel he saw service in the Indian campaigns at Slim Butte, S.D., and at Indian Creek, Wyo. From 1882 to 1887 he was superintendent at West Point, when he was promoted to be brigadier general, U.S.A.  In 1885 he was made a major general.  He commanded the first American army in the Philippines.  He was twice married and a widow survives.
        Gen. Merritt graduated at West Point in 1860, just in time to go into training for the great events in which he was so soon to engage.  He was assigned to the second dragoons and at once attracted the attention of Col Philip St. George Cooke, with whom he served until the close of the peninsular campaign, when General Cooke left the army in disgust.
        Merritt remained with Stoneman and took part in the Richmond raid in 1863, in which he commanded several raiding parties, but his great chance came at the battle of Beverley Ford, where, as commander of a regiment, he led a brilliant charge against Stewart’s cavalry, and, as a recognition, was made a brigadier general.
        From then on Gen. Merritt’s advancement was rapid.  He was one of the three officers appointed by Gen. Grant to carry out the terms of the Appomatox treaty.
        At the close of the war, Merritt was 28 years old.  He had risen from captain to major general and commander of 10,000 cavalry in two years.
        Up and down Shenandoah valley and from the wilderness to the Appomatox, his name is written in the history of every battle.  It was at Winchester when his charge against Breckenridge’s division drew the remark from Sheridan, “I claim nothing for myself, my boys Merritt and Custer did it all.”
        After the civil war, Gen. Merritt served for many years on the frontier in Indian campaigns.  In these he executed what has since become a historic march from Rawlins to Milk Creek, Colo., covering with his command 170 miles in 66 hours without loosing a man or horse.  He was going to the relief of Major Thornburg, who was attacked by Ute Indians.  His later service in the capture of Manila is well known.
        The above Associated Press report of the death and burial of Gen. Merritt will be read with interest and sorrow by a number of old timers in West Texas. In 1867 Gen. Merritt as lieutenant colonel of the ninth cavalry was sent out to Fort Davis to erect there a military post. It is recalled by the old timers that when the general first came out to Davis there came with his company two young men now prominent citizens of this country, one S. R. Miller, who was post butcher, is now our chief deputy sheriff and has in the last thirty years filled many offices of trust and honor in Presidio county; the other one was Whitaker Keesey who was then post baker, and he too has become widely known in Texas as a retired merchant prince.  Also during the stay of Gen. Merritt at Fort Davis as commander of the military post there, II L. Kelley and his brother Capt. Moses Kelley were the post traders and the intimate friend of the post commander.  Our fellow townsman, S. C. Hopkins, who was a nephew of Gen. Merritt [son of Julia Cynthia (Merritt) Hopkins and my husbands great grandfather], came to Davis in 1868, a year after his distinguished uncle.  In an interview with Mr. Hopkins he informed us that Gen. Merritt was born in New York City 74 years ago.

    Thank you for all your work in genealogy.  52 Ancestors, Generations Cafe, workshops and seminars.  Love them all.

  • My previous post is stuck in “awaiting moderation” status so I’ll see if this one goes through – But yes, I was able to confirm a family legend that my Hanks line is related to Abraham Lincoln. We are related through Abe’s maternal grandmother Lucy Hanks. Thanks to great genealogy research by Paul Verduin, which his research of Lincoln’s Hanks line is published in the book Herndon’s Informants back in 1998)

    Of course we have mitochondrial DNA to thank for confirmation that Lucy Hanks actually was Abraham Lincoln’s maternal grandmother. For over a century, there have been many contrasting accounts of how the Hanks family fit in to Lincoln’s family tree but thanks to a 2015 mtDNA study which they were only able to do because of very good fortune that enough maternal lines could be tracked that had survived long enough without being broken which allowed current day candidates to be tested and participate in the study. The results concluded that all Hanks descendants matched the same rare x1c haplogroup, including current day descendants of a half sister of Nancy Hanks (who was Lincoln’s mother)

    My 5th Great-Grandfather William Hanks was a brother to Lucy Hanks, so he would have been Lincoln’s mother’s Uncle. One of William’s sons was John Hanks. John has been written about in history as a close associate to Lincoln throughout most of his life. John’s youngest brother Andrew Jackson Hanks was my 4th Great-Grandfather and both men would have been 1st cousins to Lincoln’s mother.

    My 4th Great-Grandfather is buried in a small Cemetery in Iowa that is located on a farm that is still owned by my Hanks family today.

  • I am related to Davy Crockett. The family lore was that my 4th GGM, Sarh Elizabeth Crockett Goodgame, was Davy’s sister. My family was not very happy when I proved this as she isn’t but through DNA, Sarah was either a 1st or 2nd cousin.

  • I was thrilled to find a connection to the Dickinson family of Amherst. Yes, Emily Dickinson is a distant cousin. My 8th great-grandfather was her 5th great grandfather. We are hardly ‘next door neighbors’ on our family trees, but I’ll settle for 6th cousin, three times removed.
    This is particularly exciting to me since long before I started doing genealogy, I played Emily in the one-woman play, “Belle of Amherst” in a Tucson theatre. Fate?
    To me, this is more exciting than being related to royalty. Although I guess Dickinson is American royalty.

  • I am descended from Daniel Boone’s brother, Edward, “Neddie.” He was killed by Indians, while hunting . The Boones are well-researched, and have been traced back to King John of England.

  • I am related to Mark Nutsch. There is a movie ” 12 Strong” about how he commanded the first Special Forces Team deployed to Afghanistan after Sept.ll, 2001 and how the12-member Green Berret team rode to war on horses alongside Afghan allies capturing the second largest city in Afghanistan in only a few weeks and eventually overthrowing the Taliban.
    My Grandfather Paul Nutsch is an uncle to Mark’s Great Great Great Grandfather John Nutsch

  • My 5th Great Grandfather, Edward Boone, was Daniel Boone’s younger brother. And since Edward and Daniel married sisters, Martha Bryan and Rebecca Bryan, respectively, I’m related to Daniel’s wife, Rebecca, as well. I think that makes them my 5th Great Great Aunt and Uncle.

  • Ancestry DNA and MyHeritage DNA insist that I shared a single segment of autosomal DNA with several members of the original Osmond Brothers, and of course their children and their cousins and their cousins’ children. The segment is 48cM (Ancestry)-70cM (My Heritage). Between the two companies there are almost 400 people that are somehow related around this single segment. My hypothesis is that I am related through my maternal grandfather’s line. That line is still somewhat of a mystery because I only found out last year that my biological grandfather was not the man to which my grandmother was married in 1926. It has been a crazy year trying to fit those puzzle pieces together.

  • The best I can offer up is being a 4th cousin to Brad Pitt. We both descend from Enoch Lane Hammer, who founded the mighty town of Mt. Vernon. Missouri.

  • George C Scott– his grandmother and mom’s grandmother are sisters. I have a “toddler pic” of his dad.

    Miss Loretta Webb Lynn. Richard Baker b. 1797 had a passle of children. Nancy Baker married Thomas Webb. Their granddaughter, Amanda Butcher married Alexander Webb. Their granddaughter was Miss Loretta. Richard and Abigail also had another daughter Eliza. She was the mother of my great-grandfather on one side. The sisters had a brothsr, Samuel Patrick who was the grandfather of mom’s grandfather. (His wife Lizzie was kit to GCS above). Oh, and another brother John Baker and his wife Elizabeth Ragsdale/Gentry were the grandparents to George’s *other* grandmother.

    Endogamy is a wonderful thing.

  • Amy, you are so right about that first, most common, method being frustrating! My Great-Grandma Clay told me when I was 12 years old that we were related to Henry Clay, the 19th century statesman. She even told me how, but not only did I not write it down, who knew if she even knew what she was talking about? (And who knew if I wanted to be related to him or not?) It had been years ago that I’d tried and had no luck figuring it out, and it was only a couple of weeks ago that I realized I knew what to do. If I could find a common ancestor, then we were related and Ancestry would tell me how. And if I couldn’t, then maybe we weren’t. I wasn’t so lucky as you to have a county in common with his family to start with (great idea!), but he was born in VA, and my Clays were from NC (as far as I had traced them thus far), so it was worth a shot. Turns out he’s my 3rd cousin 5X removed.

  • Was able to establish connections to both Lizzie Borden and renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell through ancestors Rebecca Brigges and Thomas Cornell l am a direct descendant of their daughter Rebecca while Lizzie Borden was a direct descendant of their son Thomas through his posthumous daughter Innocent — so named as her father was charged, tried, convicted & hanged solely on the testimony of another son the older Rebecca had come to him in a dream and accused her son Thomas of matricide! That conviction was overturned but too late to stop Thomas’s execution. The connection to Katherine Cornell is collateral through the elder Thomas Cornell and probably explains why my mother Frankye Cobb Thomas was rather frequently mistakenly thought in the 1930s and 1940s.to be the actress by people who had only seen her onstage. My mother always commented “like begets like or the likeness of an ancestor” and assumed there was a family connection. I never came up with the probable connection during my mother’s life.

  • I enjoyed your blog post about being related to famous folks.

    According to WikiTree, I am related to all three of those who you mentioned: Queen Elizabeth II, Elvis Presley, and George Washington.

    WikiTree says that the late queen and I are 11C3R. Elvis and I are 14C2R. George Washington and I are 10C8R.

    WikiTree also says, of the 24 listed, 15 of the Magna Carta Surety Barons are my direct ancestors.

    I haven’t had time to try to prove or disprove any of these relationships yet, but it is on my way-too-long list of things to do.

    Have a blessed weekend!