By Daniel Hubbard | February 20, 2011
I started out to write a post about George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s families in honor of Presidents’ Day. I soon learned that just defining what is meant by “Presidents’ Day” is not so easy.
The Federal holiday this Monday is officially called Washington’s Birthday, remembering his birthday of February 22nd. Oddly, when the official holiday was redefined to always fall on a Monday, it was done in a way that makes it impossible for the holiday to fall on the 22nd. Because Britain and the colonies used the Julian Calendar when Washington was born and not the Gregorian Calendar that we use today, his birthday was originally the 11th but shifted by 11 days during his lifetime when the change in calendars was made. Nevertheless, the holiday cannot fall on the 11th either. Part of the reason that Presidents’ Day has stuck as a name for the holiday is that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is a state holiday in many places and the Federal holiday always falls between his birthday on February 12th and that of Washington. Some states have a state holiday in honor of both men and that holiday always falls on the same day as the Federal holiday.
That almost gravitational attraction that the great men and women of the past have for our family trees can be quite dangerous. Few Americans have that power more than George Washington. People sometimes say that they know they are descended from Washington but they don’t know how. It is, I assume, partially because of such statements, that the “first law of genealogy” is to work backward from yourself proving each relationship in turn as you make progress. It isn’t just a good principle (any skipping of relationships is, by definition, an assumption that you can’t prove). It can counteract the pull of the famous and save you from some embarrassment to carefully work backward. As far as anyone knows, George Washington was the father of his country but not the biological father of anyone.
That isn’t to say that one can’t be related to him. Washington had siblings and cousins. Even the current Queen of England is related to George Washington through her mother. One of Washington’s great-grandfathers, Augustine Warner Jr., also appears in the Queen’s pedigree.
If any American is Washington’s equal when it comes to fame, it must be Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had four sons. Edward didn’t live to see his fourth birthday. Willie was 11 when he passed away in 1862. Tad lived to eighteen and had no children. Robert, Lincoln’s oldest son lived into old age and even served as Secretary of War. He had children and indeed his children had a few children but not many. The last confirmed descendant of Abraham Lincoln died in 1985.
Like Washington it is possible to prove a relationship to Lincoln, though the opportunities are fewer. Lincoln had two full siblings, his brother Thomas, who died in infancy, and his sister Sarah. She died in childbirth in 1828 at the end of her first pregnancy. Her son was stillborn. His mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate and her father’s identity was not known to his grandchildren and that reduces the number knowable relatives by a quarter.
Alabama officially honors Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the same day as the Federal holiday (though unlike Lincoln, Jefferson was not born in February). Jefferson and his wife Martha had six children. Their one son was stillborn, so there are no direct-line male descendants with the name Jefferson. Of their five daughters, three lived only a few years. Their daughter Mary had one son who lived to adulthood and he had children as well. Their oldest child, Martha had twelve children, only one of whom died in childhood.
With Jefferson there is also the subject of his likely children by his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. (Yes, Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings had the same father, John Wayles.) The controversy over those children has lasted two centuries. DNA testing shows that some direct-line male descendants of Sally Hemings have a Y-chromosome consistent with Jefferson ancestry and though most scholars of earlier generations did not put much credence to the possibility, the majority now seems to believe that, given the DNA evidence, the weight of historical evidence is that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
Presidents’ Day is a day to honor George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and perhaps other presidents. Yet, when it comes to genealogy, it is also a day to remember that you don’t have to be descended from a president or even closely related to one to be proud of your ancestry. It is a day to remember that correct ancestry is better than impressive looking but imaginary ancestry.
The best way to go about proving a relationship to someone famous is to do good research that just happens to come across a well-known name. If the name is the goal, you may reach it even when you shouldn’t. Besides, having a pedigree devoid of famous names means that instead of repeating the stories found in history books, you get to tell stories less often told.Twitter It!