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Digging Up a Potential Presidential Pedigree : 5 Chief Executives Identified as Most Likely Candidates

February 17, 1986|MYRA V. GORMLEY | Gormley, of Tacoma, Wash., writes Shaking Your Family Tree! on Thursdays in View. and

Perched upon some branches of your family tree may be one or more American Presidents.

"The five Presidents you are most likely to be related to are Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford Hayes or William Howard Taft," says Gary Boyd Roberts, an eminent genealogist who is an expert in presidential pedigrees and bloodlines of the rich and famous. Roberts is special projects director of America's oldest genealogical society, the New England Historic Genealogical Society of Boston, Mass., and co-author of "American Ancestors and Cousins of the Princess of Wales."

Female Line Died Out

Presidents' Day, being celebrated today, commemorates two of our most famous Presidents--George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, Washington, the father of this country, had no children, and Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was father of only one offspring who left descendants. (Lincoln's son, Robert, produced a female line that died out this past year.)

"Anyone with early New England ancestry is probably related, though perhaps distantly, to five or six U.S. Presidents," Roberts said.

The roots of 20 Presidents, some entwined, can be found in colonial New England, Roberts noted. That is why it is not unusual to find a presidential connection if you have New England ancestry predating the Revolutionary War.

Mayflower Forebears

In fact, six Presidents descended from one or more Mayflower passengers. They were the two Adamses, John and his son, John Quincy; Zachary Taylor; Ulysses S. Grant; William H. Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the other hand, two chief executives, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson, the 17th and seventh Presidents respectively, have family lines that have proven to be untraceable. Jackson, born nine years before the Revolutionary War started, was the son of an Andrew Jackson and Elizabeth Hutchinson, a couple who emigrated from Ireland to the Carolinas about 1765. They left a cold trail for genealogists.

Andrew Johnson was the son of Jacob Johnson and Mary (Polly) McDonough. Johnson, born in 1808, grew up in poverty in Raleigh, N.C. Nothing is known about his paternal line, and on his mother's side, only information about her father, Andrew McDonough, a Revolutionary War soldier, is recorded.

Most Have British Roots

All but five of the 39 men who have been President have had predominantly or exclusively British roots. The exceptions being Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose forebears came from Holland; Herbert Hoover, with German and Swiss roots, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of German ancestry.

Sixteen Presidents descended from families who arrived in America before 1677, with about a dozen of those traceable to progenitors who came to this country before 1640. The British branches of 22 of our chief executives originated in England, four in Scotland and three in Ireland, while five are of Scotch-Irish descent, meaning their ancestral home actually was in Scotland.

"There is absolutely no proof for it," Roberts said, regarding the story that Abraham Lincoln's mother was illegitimate. But her parentage is undocumented, and through the years the Lincoln/Hanks line has remained an unsolved mystery to historians and genealogists. Her father is presumed to have been a son of Joseph Hanks and a woman whose surname possibly was Berry.

Motherless at Age 9

Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, died in 1818 when he was only 9 years old. Evidently no Bible of her family survives, and of course no birth certificates were issued in 1784, the year she was born. Few records were generated in the 18th and 19th centuries that pertain to the poor families on the frontier of young America. Moreover, the names of our female ancestors were scrawled into the official record books only when they married or inherited property. Though her parents are not proven, the paternal grandparents who reared Nancy Hanks are known. They were Joseph Hanks and his wife, Nanny.

"All 26 Presidents prior to Wilson had at least one ancestor with Revolutionary War service and six were 'Patriots' themselves," Roberts noted. "Presidents with no known colonial ancestry include Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan," he said.

Green With Irish Branches

Wilson's ancestors, both grandparents in fact, came from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Kennedy's family tree is green with Irish branches--the immigrant Kennedy ancestor arrived in Massachusetts during the height of the Potato Famine. President Reagan, the 39th man to be President, has a pedigree that is one-half Irish, one-fourth Scot-Canadian and one-fourth English.

If your surname is the same as a President's what are the chances that you are related to him?

"It depends on which President," Roberts said. For example, most Van Burens are related to the eighth President who was of Dutch descent, the son of a Kinderhook, N.Y., tavern keeper.

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