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Researching Famous (or Infamous) Ancestors

Is There a Notable Person in Your Family Tree?


Family using laptop together
Thomas Tolstrup/Taxi/Getty Images
Am I related to someone famous? This is one of the questions that often first sparks a person's interest in genealogy. Maybe you've heard that you're descended from Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett or Pocahontas. Or perhaps you suspect a family connection (however distant) to Princess Diana, Shirley Temple, or Marilyn Monroe. Maybe you even share a surname with someone famous, and wonder if you're somehow related.

Start With Yourself

If you suspect a "famous" individual or two in your family tree, begin by learning as much about your own family history as possible. Assembling the names and dates in your own family tree is necessary for later connecting with the large databases and biographies that hold previously done research on famous individuals.

Whether you're directly descended or a tenth cousin, twice removed, you'll likely have to research your own family back at least several generations before attempting to connect to the famous person. Distant cousin relationships very often require following the family tree to a point several generations prior to the time of the famous individual, and then tracing your way back down various side branches. You may not be a direct descendant of Davy Crockett, for example, but still share common ancestry through one of his Crockett ancestors. To find that connection you would have to research back not only through your own family tree, but his, and then possibly work your way forward as well to the ancestral connection.

Famous Ancestors

In addition to researching your own family history, you can also explore the information that exists for the famous individual you think you are related to. If they are pretty famous, chances are that their family history has already been researched by someone. If not, it's likely that their biography or other resources are available to get you started in the right direction. The more familiar you are with the names and locations in the family tree of your potential famous relative, the easier it will be to spot the possible connections as you work backward in your own. Just don't fall into the trap of assuming that same name/same location means same individual!
  • Biographies of thousands of famous individuals can be easily found online. Biography.com includes short biographies of over 25,000 famous people, ranging from actors and actresses to political leaders and historical figures. Infoplease.com features 30,000+ notable people. Biographical information for actors, actresses and other individuals associated with the movie can be found at E! Online and The Internet Movie Database. Biographies of notable women are a prominent feature at About Women's History. Popular genealogy databases, such as FamilySearch User Submitted Genealogies or Family Tree, Ancestry.com Member Trees, and also contain many celebrity genealogies -- but please be aware that they may not always be 100% correct. Some of those famous connections are rooted in times and localities where surviving records are scarce, and thus not necessarily supported by evidence that meets the Genealogical Proof Standard.

  • Popular cemetery websites showcase dates and pictures of celebrity tombstones. Find a Grave includes transcribed gravestone information (and sometimes pictures) for thousands of famous and infamous individuals, while Hollywood Underground gives the scoop on the final resting places of famous people buried in and around Los Angeles. A similar site, Political Graveyard, tells you where all the dead politicians are buried. If your famous ancestor was in the military, then many military cemeteries and memorials have information online.

  • If the person is pretty famous, their family tree may have already been researched. Famous lineages can often be found online (see famous family trees), or in published biographies or family histories. Heritage and lineage society publications and membership applications are another rich source of lineages for famous individuals. A useful Relationship Finder tool, currently only accessible to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which uses names and Ancestral File Numbers to assist people in finding common connections to famous people.

  • >Newspaper accounts of a famous individual, especially those written during his (or her) lifetime, may detail his participation in historical events or include accounts of his daily life. Marriages, obituaries, and other newsworthy items found in historical newspapers may also provide information on family members.

While it provides a good start, it is important to remember that this type of published information is secondary—some correct, and some little more than guesswork. To be sure of the connection, it is best to do your own research in original documents to verify the accuracy of what you have discovered in previously done research or biographies.

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