If Wishes Were Ancestors
What if you could handpick the people sitting in your family tree? Would you choose rich ancestors? Beautiful ones? Ancestors who could get you the best seats at the finest restaurants or the kind whose mere mention would get you out of a parking ticket? Would healthy relatives be your choice? Great storytellers? Or would you just want to have relatives you might have had a chance to meet because they lived to be 100 years old—or more?
We challenged four family historians with the task of selecting people for their own dream trees—but we did so with a hitch: each would be relative would have to fit very specific criteria. Albuquerque Tribune columnist Mary Penner was asked to pick ancestors because of the material goods she would have inherited from each. Katherine Hope Borges, founder of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, was to select ancestors because of their DNA. Aha! Seminars president and author of The Official Guide to Ancestry.com, George G. Morgan, was asked to pick ancestors simply based on the fact that each left a great trail of records. And Ancestry Magazine columnist Myra Vanderpool Gormley was asked to fill her family tree with people whose lives and tales would make good cocktail party conversation. So who did they choose? See for yourself.
When the Goods Are Better
Eye color, hair color, height, and even some of our personality traits are inherited. But so are good oldfashioned material possessions. While we know that no self-respecting family historian is in the hunt for a financial windfall, it’s fun to dream, right? That’s what we asked Albuquerque Tribune columnist and family history pro Mary Penner to do: dream. And make sure those dreams come with an inheritance.
While meandering through my ancestral past, I’ve discovered many wills written by my ancestors. Not one of them mentions me—not too surprising, since most of them died before I was born.
Even so, some of my ancestors could have had the forethought to pass down something special to an appreciative descendant (like me). Most of my ancestors’ wills, though, list practical objects like chairs, kitchen paraphernalia, and farm equipment. One ancestor thoughtfully bequeathed to his oldest son the gift that kept on giving—his moonshine still. But that inherited gem somehow didn’t make it to my generation.
While my family tree has its share of notorious and interesting characters, they didn’t dabble in national or international affairs or hobnob with the rich and famous. No personal letters penned by George Washington, no Civil War officer swords, and no expensive doodads from Paris sit on my mantle.
What do I wish I had inherited? Pencil these five dream ancestors into my family tree, and I’d consider myself a spectacularly spoiled descendant.
A great writer. I’m not picky about this dream ancestor. Any of my favorite authors would do: Shakespeare, Poe, Twain, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Thoreau. I once worked with a woman who was a descendant of Charles Dickens. That impressed the heck out of me. In addition to bragging rights about my famous literary ancestor, I would love to have inherited documents penned by the author—notes, drafts of manuscripts, even everyday correspondence. Just the thought of having a document handled by Thoreau with words he scribbled on it sends shivers through my writer’s veins.
Abraham Lincoln. Having presidents in your family tree is an ancestral windfall because their lives, and their genealogies, are well documented. Actually, I do have a president in a side branch of my tree—John Tyler—but Lincoln trumps Tyler any day. Lincoln’s iconic stature in American history is hard to beat.
I would have liked to have inherited an original photograph of President Lincoln. Many photos were taken of his famously chiseled face, which may not have landed him on the cover of a 19th-century GQ. Yet there’s something about his countenance that’s both inspiring and haunting. A daily glance at Abe in my family tree would remind me about his life and times and also about what’s important in life.
An ambitious entrepreneur. Sure, my ancestors were hard workers. But they spent most of their time working to keep a rickety roof over their heads and feed the dozen children running around the four-room farmhouse. They weren’t wheeling and dealing their way to wealth.
Money isn’t on my wish list, though. After a generation or two of reckless heirs, the trickle-down trust fund would probably be nearly dry. I wish I had a wealthy entrepreneurial ancestor who had left me an exquisitely crafted Tiffany lamp straight from the sitting room of the cavernous family mansion. That would be a thing of beauty in my humble family room.
Rembrandt. Whenever I see one of Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, or etchings, I’m left stunned. More than once I’ve stumbled through museums dabbing tears from my eyes after absorbing the sheer weight of his genius. His artistic eye was an extraordinary gift, and fortunately he exercised his gift often. The 17thcentury Dutch artist was downright prolific, creating more than 2,000 works—plenty to hand down through the centuries to art-loving posterity.
I wish I had my own private collection, direct from the master himself. That way, when I looked at them, I could cry in private and not make a spectacle of myself in public.
A hot-rod-loving car junkie. I never felt cooler in my entire life than when I drove my brother’s 1969 Corvette Stingray. It was a gas-guzzling, bone-rattling, eardrum-splitting machine, and I loved it. When that car rocketed down the highway, it felt like it pulled up the pavement in its wake; it was that mean and that sweet.
These days muscle cars typically flunk the environment-friendly test. Nevertheless, I wish I had a fast-car-loving ancestor who left me my very own hot rod, just to take out for Sunday afternoon spins. Sweet.
So, those would be my dream inheritances from my dream ancestors. My real ancestors didn’t leave me any heirlooms that would cause a stir on Antiques Roadshow. But I do have my grandmother’s watch and my grandfather’s pipe. Valuable? No. Sentimental? Yes. In reality, though, I inherited something from all of my ancestors far more valuable than any of my dream inheritances: I got my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, and my daughter. Sweet.
According to Science …
Which would you find more fascinating—an ancestor who drove a fancy car or an ancestor who invented that car? If science is your raison d’etre, odds are good that you have DNA results lurking somewhere behind the family tree. But what if you had your choice of DNA—who would be in your family tree then? That, says Katherine Hope Borges, founder of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, would depend on what you wanted to learn or earn from that DNA. Borges would suggest the following:
In screenwriting, there is a term called a “MacGuffin,” which is the plot device that motivates the characters. It is the statuette in the Maltese Falcon. It is the Ark of the
Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In genetic genealogy, it is having the DNA that everyone wants. The following is a list of my top five DNA MacGuffins:
Royal DNA. Czar Nicholas
Romanov, Czarina Alexandra, Prince Philip, and Marie Antoinette all have published DNA profiles. While the Romanovs and Marie Antoinette do not have any living descendants, a DNA match to them may reveal that you share a common ancestor. The biggest royal MacGuffin might be “Niall of the Nine Hostages,” a legendary fifth-century Irish High King (who may or may not, in fact, be a legend). Niall is one of the most prolific of royal progenitors, and as many as 3 million men are estimated to carry his Y-chromosome. A match with Niall not only reveals descent from his clan but also confirms Irish DNA. I have yet to locate a relative who matches Niall, but perhaps I will when a Kennedy cousin tests.
Mayflower DNA. I often wonder whether, when Dr. Samuel, Mayflower passenger and Compact signer, set foot on Plymouth Rock, his DNA changed right along with the change he made by colonizing the New World. While I don’t know for certain if the famed change in Fuller DNA occurred in Dr. Samuel or in his son Samuel, I do know his son had it and passed it on to his sons. What change? A very rare mutation. Samuel Jr. is known to have had DYS 393=12, whereas his brother, Edward, and his cousin, Robert Fuller of Rehoboth, had DYS 393=13.
In the genetics world, this mutation is akin to hitting the DNA jackpot. This is because that rare change in the DNA identifies a specific ancestor. If Dr. Samuel Fuller was my ancestor, not only would this allow me to join the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, but I would be thrilled to claim this unique Pilgrim and progenitor of very unique DNA in the New World.
Jewish DNA. Judaism is a religion, but because people who practiced Judaism tended to marry within their religion, this has created a “Founder Effect” in which their DNA has been passed down the generations, creating the ability to identify “Jewish DNA.” My earliest known maternalline ancestor immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the potato famine. Much to my surprise, my mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, does not fall into any of the groups that are common in Ireland, but rather is one of the known maternal Ashkenazi Founder lineages—with the exception of one little letter in the DNA. In one scientific study, that changed letter says I am not Jewish. A later scientific study includes Ashkenazi lineages with my change. Do I have Jewish DNA or not? Who knows when advances in DNA testing might answer that question.
Native American DNA. My fatherin-law once told me that he thought he had Native American ancestry. I never found a paper trail for it, so I thought I might try DNA. I tested my son’s autosomal DNA, and his results were 92 percent Caucasian and 8 percent East Asian. I was perplexed by the East Asian result, but later learned that Native American DNA sometimes returns East Asian results. I know that I don’t have any Native American ancestry in my heritage, but there is still the possibility that my children do. DNA testing for Native American ancestry may realize a dream for some people. Some Native American tribes are examining the use of DNA to qualify for tribal membership, and at least one tribe has already accepted it.
Famous DNA. Everyone is descended from a common ancestor at some point in time, thus making us all cousins, but how often do we have the documentation to claim kinship to celebrities? Without DNA testing, I would not know that I am more closely related to Today show host Ann Curry than I am to Katie Couric. Granted, our common ancestor lived at some point within the last 60,000 years, but if it was not for this technology—and the fact that it’s often very easy to find family history information on famous people—I wouldn’t have this knowledge. So what are you waiting for? A simple swab of saliva from inside your cheek may be all that is separating you from knowing your DNA dream MacGuffins.
Start with the Easy Ones
Not every task has to be a challenge. Whether you’re making dinner or remodeling the living room, it’s nice to hit an occasional stretch of road in which you get to coast. Same thing holds true with family history: when you’re ready for a little break in a tough-to-populate tree, finding an easy-to-locate relative who left plenty of records can be a nice diversion.
Who would George G. Morgan, author of The Official Guide to Ancestry.com, want to find in his family tree on those days he was craving a bit of rest and relaxation? Here’s who he chose. And why.
Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt is one of my favorite historical figures. He was a dynamic individual who filled many roles: naturalist, explorer, author, soldier, governor of New York, Secretary of the Navy, and 26th president of the United States. He was responsible for breaking up corporate monopolies and trusts and encouraged “the Square Deal” for average citizens. He led the Rough Riders in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. He negotiated control of the Panama Canal and its construction. A dedicated conservationist, he championed the creation and preservation of national parks. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. I’d like to be descended from this heroic man so that I would have an excuse to read and research more about him.
Lost Colonists of Roanoke Colony. The story of the Roanoke Colony has long fascinated me. Sir Walter Raleigh was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to colonize Virginia. A first settlement was established on Roanoke Island on the outer banks of present-day North Carolina in 1585 but was abandoned in 1586 after relations with the Indians deteriorated. A second group of colonists arrived in July 1587 and sought to reestablish friendly relations with the local Indian tribes. Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World, arriving on 18 August 1587. A relief ship arrived three years later to find the settlement deserted.
What happened to the colonists? Theories abound, including one that suggests the colonists were assimilated into the local native tribes. It would be wonderful to work with the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research
Margaret “Maggie” (or Maggy) Tobin was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867. She grew up to become a gutsy, ambitious young woman who wanted to care for her family. She moved to Colorado and in 1886 married miner J. J. Brown, who became wealthy through gold and copper mining. They moved to Denver, became part of local society, and were great philanthropists.
Maggie’s claim to fame? She survived the sinking of the Titanic by taking command of her lifeboat and rallying her fellow survivors. Her heroic efforts won her the nickname of “the unsinkable Molly Brown.” She went on to become a national political and social figure, an author, and a great patron of the arts. Her rags-to-riches history is well documented in census records; city directories; marriage, divorce, and death records; newspaper and magazine reports; and biographical works. Her courage and determination are a source of inspiration. And her life? Even Hollywood found it fascinating.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, better known as Lewis and Clark in history books, are two men I wish had been my ancestors. Their historic expedition began on 31 August 1803 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They then traveled to the Pacific Ocean and returned to St. Louis a little more than three years later. Along the way, they created maps and wrote descriptions of the areas they traveled, and they observed and documented 178 plants and 122 animal species and subspecies.
The exploration of Lewis and Clark expanded knowledge of the West and interest in westward settlement. In the process, they encountered and established the first diplomatic relations with the Native Americans in the areas they visited. My love of geography, old maps, and history fuels my interest in having either of these two pioneering explorers in my family tree. The fact that tracing their footsteps is simple; that their lives are well documented in their own journals, print, and even a Ken Burns film; and that their travels helped shape America would make them wonderful finds in a family tree.
John Pierpont Morgan. Finally, I am often asked if I descended from any famous Morgans. My reponse? All of my Morgan ancestors were farmers and merchants in
North Carolina. If I could change that, however, one of my dream ancestors would have been John Pierpont Morgan, the American financier, banker, and philanthropist. He was responsible for building General Electric, U.S. Steel, and a huge financial empire. A nice inheritance from J.P. Morgan’s estate would always be welcome, but even if I were from a side of the family that received no monetary bequest, the paper trail and corporate histories associated with J.P. Morgan’s business endeavors would provide me with endless reading.
Back to my reality, my true Grandfather Morgan was a banker, but his bank failed during the Great Depression. Still, I am forever proud of him and his accomplishments. I am even more pleased that I don’t have to dream about him being one of my ancestors—I have the documents and memories to prove that he already is.
If It’s Stories You Want
Forget money, genes, and research luck—there’s something that trumps them all: good, old-fashioned stories, the kind that keep people mesmerized at dinner parties and put the teller center stage. Those stories are even better when they come from someone in your family tree.
And who knows a good ancestor story better than Ancestry Magazine’s own Myra Vanderpool Gormley, whose own family tree holds some of the most colorful scoundrels anyone could ever hope to find. Now, if that tree sprouted a few more branches, who would Gormley want sitting there?
Picking only five dream ancestors out of the multitude that could be classified as American legends was more difficult than picking an all-time all-star baseball team. However, in the spirit of diversity and my personal interest, I’d probably want the following at my next family reunion:
Indian Princess. Pocahontas (a.k.a. Matoaka and Rebecca; 1595–1617), daughter of the Algonquian chief Powhatan, is the Indian “princess”—a misnomer apparently created by the English. She was only about 23 when she died, but, by the Englishman John Rolfe, she left a son, Thomas. Thomas Rolfe married Jane Poythress, and their only child, Jane Rolfe, married Colonel Robert Bolling—and from that line come numerous illustrious descendants.
Wayne Newton, the Las Vegas entertainer, claims to be a descendant of Pocahontas; if so, he would certainly add some glitz to my family tree. The Pocahontas link also would give me a rich, early Virginia pedigree.
Salem Witch. Rebecca Towne Nurse (1621–1692) of Salem, Massachusetts, was 71 years old when she was hanged on 19 July 1692. Two of her sisters—Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce—also were accused of witchcraft. (Mary was hanged on 22 September 1692, while Sarah was transferred to confinement in her home and then removed to Framingham, where she died in 1703.) Several years earlier their mother had been accused of witchcraft, but she was never tried. However, local gossip during the infamous 1692 trials suggested that the witch profession was handed down from mother to daughters.
Rebecca, Mary, and Sarah were the daughters of William Towne and Joanna Blessing of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. Their family settled in Salem Village in 1640. About
1645 Rebecca Towne married Francis Nurse, a tray maker. They had eight children. Rebecca frequently attended church, and her family was well respected. She had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community”—making her one of the first “unlikely” witches to be accused.
Much has been written about Rebecca Towne Nurse, including articles, books, plays, and several movies. With her historical place in America firmly documented and with her family’s English roots, she would make an excellent addition to my pedigree, which has a need of some New England–English branches and a pious, brave woman.
Frontiersman and Politician. Davy Crockett, whose real name was David Stern Crockett, was a legend in his own time. He was born in 1786 in eastern Tennessee. Charismatic and a natural storyteller, Davy Crockett enthralled his audiences. However, he used some rough and probably exaggerated images of himself as a soldier (War of 1812) and hunter to win elections.
He served two terms in the Tennessee Legislature and then was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served from 1827 through 1833. After years as a Jacksonian Democrat, he broke ties with President Andrew Jackson regarding Western settlers and the Cherokees and became a Whig. Upon being defeated by a narrow margin for a fourth term in Congress, Crockett commented, “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”
And he did—dying at the Alamo along with one of my kinsmen, Micajah Autry.
Perching Davy Crockett in the family tree would add a colorful character in a coonskin cap and evidently some more French blood. If, as some claim, his Crockett line winds back to France, where the surname was de Crocketagne, it would force me to brush up on my high school French.
Hmm. Davy, Davy de Crocketagne, King of the Wild Frontier. Alas, it doesn’t have quite the right ring, does it?
Iconic Wild West Character. From dozens of potential candidates, I think Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (1848–1929) fills the bill. Plus, I have already done some family research on him.
Earp was a farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, lawman, gambler, saloonkeeper, miner, and adventurer. He wandered back and forth across the West and as far north as Nome, Alaska. While best known for his participation in the “gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona, along with Doc Holliday and two of his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, he’s been the subject of various movies, TV shows, biographies, and works of fiction.
I first encountered Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Kansas, when I visited its Boot Hill Cemetery. At the time we lived in western Kansas, and that early introduction to him, Bat Masterson, and other Wild West personalities whetted my appetite to learn more.
The seven or eight women who married or lived with Wyatt and his brothers add spice and mystery to a tree that has more than its share of bigger-than-life individuals.
Researching this family dispelled many myths and preconceived notions I had about 19th-century Midwestern folks and how they conducted themselves. There’s a lot that the history books don’t tell us.
Recently a nebulous clue turned up in Iowa that might link my family to Wyatt Earp. Now that would be ironic if after all these years I discover we are cousins.
Oregon Trail Emigrants.
I was 16 the summer we first visited Independence Rock in Wyoming, where I learned that years earlier some 19thcentury travelers had carved their names on it. In a defining moment, an early interest in family history was created.
I wondered if any of my family had been there before and if so, had they carved their names?
During the migration on the Oregon Trail, the wagon parties bound for Oregon or California usually left the Missouri River in the early spring and attempted to reach Independence Rock near the Sweetwater River by 4 July. By doing so, they greatly enhanced their chances of reaching their destinations before the first mountain snowfalls.
While I didn’t find any names that I recognized that day, I realized I could have had some unknown cousins or relatives who made the trek to the West Coast. Turned out I was right.
Between 1843 and 1869, the number of overland emigrants was probably close to 500,000. Some of them left diaries or journals, which are rich in details about the trip and include names of others—and sometimes family history nuggets. Many pioneers of the West were interviewed, and their stories have been compiled and preserved in various localities. They tell fascinating tales of adventure, tragedy, and personal histories that are just waiting for family members to uncover.
Wagons, ho! I can hardly wait to add some more overland emigrants to my tree.
Tips from the pros:
But Maybe They’re Your Ancestors
So you want to know how to find out if any of Mary’s dream ancestors are in your family tree? Try her tips:
1. Search for ancestors with literary talents in the massive Literature Resource Center available online through many public and school library websites. The LRC includes databases, such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography and Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, where you’ll find thousands of author biographies.
2. Read all about U.S. presidents on this University of Virginia website
3. See if your entrepreneurial ancestor could afford a Tiffany lamp by scanning Schedules of Manufacturers. These statistics related to individual businesses and industries were gathered in several 19th-century census years. Visit the National Archives website for an overview:
4. Hoping for Dutch ancestors or maybe even Rembrandt? Take a look at the Genlias website
5. Even if your ancestors didn’t drive a hot rod, they surely used something besides their own two feet to get around. Check out the “Transportation History” page at Encyclopedia Smithsonian
Do genealogy DNA tests reveal medical information? Usually no. However, 2007 saw the debut of several new DNA companies offering “personal genome” (PG) tests. These tests are not diagnostic medical tests and will not tell you if you have a disease or disorder, but whether you have an increased risk for an ailment compared to the general population. PG tests range in cost from $900 to $350,000. Most companies provide very detailed information, and some employ on-staff genetic counselors to answer questions. PG tests do contain ancestry-related DNA results, but this same information is available from other companies at more affordable prices. The exception would be the “full genomic sequence” (FGS) mitochondrial test, the most refined genealogical DNA test for your direct maternal lineage. The FGS test may reveal a predisposition to a mitochondrial disorder, though this seems to occur rarely. To learn more about PG tests, visit
The quickest way to discover your genetic ancestry is by taking a DNA test and then uploading the results to all available databases for comparison. For Y-chromosome results, upload to
How close are you to fame, genetically speaking? You can compare DNA results on the “Famous DNA” pages maintained by the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) at
And if you follow all of these steps and don’t find a match, don’t be discouraged. DNA testing is still a relatively new tool for genealogists, and while hundreds of thousands of people have taken tests, that’s a small percentage when compared to the total population. As the databases grow, you never know who you might find in your genetic family tree, so check back often.
Not All Politicians Are Bad.
Politicians are a boon to researchers. Yesterday and today, their every move is recorded by the press, and their very public job means you’ll have no problem finding a trail of legal acts a politician made (some personal ones will probably show up, too). Where should you look? After you’ve looked in the usual haunts, like census records, move to newspapers, government documents and proceedings, and history books. You may also find published collections of their letters, transcriptions of official meetings, copies of their signatures on documents, photos and biographies in local—and sometimes grander—histories, and more. Be sure to check sources including the National Union Catalog of Manuscripts Collections
Watch What You Wish For
You may wish you were related to famous or fascinating people. Your “dream ancestors” can be individuals or groups of people who inspire you or pique your interest. They may be some of the most remarkable people in history—or they may be your own ancestors and relatives.
You may determine that your “dream ancestor” is someone with a unique character or personality trait, someone who has fame or notoriety, or someone who is wealthy or has enjoyed extraordinary luck. He or she may have taken some action or achieved something that makes you eager to research and learn more. But those factors don’t have to mean he or she was famous.
Regardless of who you consider to be your own “dream ancestors,” you will always want to research every possible resource to learn more. That will include the places where they lived and the historical events of the times and their roles in them. You will want to learn more about the social and political conditions that influenced them, their hopes and dreams, and the details of their everyday lives.
Start with what you think you know about the person or group, and then research and verify that and other new information you discover. Work backwards, document and record your findings, and cite your source evidence. In the process, go beyond census records and birth, marriage, and death certificates (these should be some of your first steps): exhaust city directories, local histories, newspapers, and of course documents you’ll find in your own attic or those of relatives. Find out what you can at the next family reunion. Post questions on message boards. Conduct name searches in the obvious places—Ancestry.com and RootsWeb—as well as through search engines, including Google.
Your goal is to learn everything about the person or people, place them in context of their place in time, and really get to know them. Along the way, you will learn more about genealogy research and will discover more about yourself.
Learning About a Witch in the Family Tree
Plenty of stories have been written about the infamous Salem witch trials, but for family history information, Gormley suggests the following works by Gary Boyd Roberts:
Article: “Notable Kin: The Progeny of ‘Witches’ and ‘Wizards’: Some Descendants of the Rev. George Burroughs and William and Joanna (Blessing) Towne, Parents of Mary Easty and Rebecca Nurse,” NEHGS NEXUS 9 (1992).
Book: Notable Kin, Volume Two (Santa Clarita, Calif.: Carl Boyer 3rd, 1999), 79–86. Look at the bibliography for ancestors and progeny of 15 witchcraft victims who left more than two generations of known descendants.