Researching Famous (or Infamous) Ancestors

Is there someone famous in your family tree?

Family tree highlighted with faces making up the tree

 

John M Lund Photography Inc/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.

Research Back to the Famous Ancestor

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 may still share a 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.

Learn More About the Possible Famous Ancestor

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 the same individual!

Biographies

Biographies of thousands of famous individuals can be easily found online. The following are some great resources to start your research:

  • 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 (IMDb).
  • 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.

Searching for Relatives That Have Passed Away

Popular cemetery websites showcase dates and pictures of celebrity tombstones. Here are a few online resources to get started when lliking for information about people who may have passed away:

  • Find a Grave includes transcribed gravestone information (and sometimes pictures) for thousands of famous and infamous individuals.
  • Hollywood Underground gives the scoop on the final resting places of famous people buried in and around Los Angeles.
  • 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.

Finding Famous Lineages

If the person is pretty famous, their family tree may have already been researched. Famous lineages can often be found online, in published biographies, or family histories. Heritage and lineage society publications and membership applications are other rich sources of lineages for famous individuals. A useful RelativeFinder.org is a great relationship finder tool, accessible by setting up a free FamilySearch account and family tree, 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 your famous connections, take your research further into original documents to verify the accuracy of what you have discovered in previously done research or biographies.

Finding Your Not-So-Good Relatives

Not all ancestors are famous for their good deeds. You may have a notorious gunfighter, convict, pirate, madam, famous outlaw or other "colorful" character hanging from your family tree. This hidden past often presents some unusual opportunities for uncovering more details. In addition to the resources listed on the previous page for finding famous ancestors, court records are an excellent source for learning about everything from houses of "ill repute" to bootleggers. Criminal and prison records are also worth a look. The following are resources you can use to trace those individuals that may have had a run-in with the law: