Jun 25, 2021

Tracing Famous and Infamous Ancestors

June 25, 2021

Not so long ago, most people tracing their genealogy were almost always in search of aristocratic ancestors. Some of the  genealogies published during the 19th and early 20th centuries went to extreme lengths to try to prove dubious claims of relationships to royal forebears.


The search often involved tales of supposed estates and fortunes just waiting for their rightful heirs to step forward. One of my own great grandfathers hired a genealogist in Sweden during the 1930s and spent thousands of dollars trying to prove that his wife, my great grandmother, was descended from Swedish royalty and was entitled to vast estates back in Sweden. As a more cynical descendant like myself might have predicted, no such lands were ever found, although it did turn out that Great Grandmother was descended from King Gustav Vasa, one of the more famous kings of Sweden (famous in Sweden, at least).


Nowadays the quest to link to the aristocratic families of Europe is less prevalent, but folks still are interested in tracing links to famous ancestors. Nearly everyone has a story about a famous, or at least semi-famous, person that his family supposedly descends from. Movie stars and presidents figure prominently in these stories, although other well-known figures also sometimes pop up.


One of those figures popped up in my own family. That same great grandmother who was actually descended from Swedish royalty apparently wasn’t too impressed with her blueblood ancestors, but she did often claim that her family was related to Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator. Since she died at the height of his renown for his trans-Atlantic flight, she probably would have been disappointed to learn that while her maiden name was Lindbergh, just like his, they weren’t related. Surnames in Sweden were often taken based on farm names, as was hers and Charles’. Sadly, the farm Charles came from was in an entirely different part of Sweden from where Great Grandmother was raised. A search of Sweden’s excellent records definitively proved that there was no connection between the two at all.


In recent years, genealogists have also begun to celebrate their relationships to infamous folks, as well as to famous ones. Most of us are proud to claim the black sheep in our lines, especially since those who got in trouble usually left more records of their exploits than those who followed the straight and narrow. Our definition of who qualifies as an interesting ancestor versus a serious criminal often depends on when and how the miscreant lived. Western outlaws and women of ill repute are usually cherished as parts of an interesting family tree, whereas most of us would not be happy if we found a convicted murderer or rapist in our line. Time can even change how we view those infamous ancestors. Nowadays, nearly all of us would be proud to claim one of the Salem witches as an ancestor, although their names were often omitted from early genealogies because of the shame. On the other hand, most of us would probably cringe to learn that our ancestors owned slaves even though they were respected in their own time. My great grandmother who was so keen to be related to Charles Lindbergh because of his heroic flights probably would join her descendants now in being relieved that Charles Lindbergh is not our relative because of his less than acceptable views about Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.


Finding the famous and infamous ancestors in your own family tree can be a lot of fun, but if you want to do it following standard genealogical methodology, Rhonda McClure’s book Finding Your Famous (and Infamous) Ancestors is a good starting point. It’s informative as well as being a fun read for beginning as well as more advanced genealogists. You never know – it just might help you find out how you’re related to your favorite movie star! Brad Pitt anyone?


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large