I’ve always believed, with a certain perverse pride, that I come from plain folks, neither rich nor famous. I’ve confirmed it. To my knowledge, I am not a direct descendent of anyone famous; however, James Madison, signer of the U.S. Constitution and fourth president of the United States, is my second cousin, six generations removed. I am also second cousin 11 to 13 times removed from several members of the Mayflower Company, but none of them are direct ancestors. Henry VIII of England is my 14th great uncle, and his daughter Mary is my third cousin, 12 times removed. I am related to no famous Europeans and only distantly related to any famous Americans past or present.
I discovered all this information by using RelativeFinder.org, a fun little app developed at Brigham Young University. Using FamilySearch records, the app traces lineage to common ancestors. RelativeFinder provides a list of groups to connect with: presidents of the United States, European royalty, notable members of the LDS Church, authors, poets, and more. You can form your own groups or see how you are related to other groups. The system has inherent weaknesses since it is based solely on 16 generations of family research found on FamilySearch.org and is only as accurate as the research in your FamilySearch family tree and the amount of information in your family lines.
Nevertheless, you could find surprises. A friend told a group of us that she is the only member of her family to join the Church, and since they all hail from New York, she was sure she would find no relatives in the Willie or Martin handcart companies. We heard a challenge in that statement so, of course, we had to check. Putting her name into RelativeFinder, she discovered to her surprise that she is a distant cousin to someone in one of the two famous handcart companies. Apparently, the offspring of a cousin in her distant past also joined the Church and struggled across the plains in one of those handcart companies.
My granddaughter discovered that she is Isaac Newton’s first cousin several generations removed. She wondered aloud why her physics class was so difficult last year.
After confirming my own ordinariness, I decided, sour grapes aside, that the public groups on Relative Finder provide only bragging rights anyway. I created a private group with the app to find different connections and invited my fellow FamilySearch public relations missionaries to join. We are a small, scattered lot who meets weekly via telephone. Email results began to arrive.
Most claimed distant cousin status to some others, but one, Steven Decker, said, “I am related to 11 of you, but the closest relative is my wife, a second cousin, one time removed, through our fathers’ lines. No, I didn’t know that when I first asked her out. Yes, her mother saw the look in my eye after our first date and called the courthouse to see if this was going to be legal.”
His wife added, “I would have told your family if they had ever had a reunion.”
Steven, it turns out, is also my third cousin, one time removed. His wife, Jill, is a 10th cousin, three times removed. My second closest group connection is a fourth cousin.
Our leader, Paul Nauta, is related to none of us. A second-generation American, he proudly declares that he is 100 percent Italian from a centuries-old Italian family. “I’m not related to anyone [in the group]. Welcome to the world of a pure Italian!” he says.
Apparently, my Italian ancestors stayed holed up in the obscure valleys of the Italian Piedmont and never made it to his ancestors’ part of the country.
I am a cousin, mostly pretty distant, to 17 of the 19 members who participated in our Relative Finder group, and all but one connection comes through my paternal grandmother’s line. I don’t know why. Our family has traced several lines well back in history, but her ancestors form the various connections.
According to A. J. Jacobs, a journalist from New York City who organized the 2015 and 2016 global family reunions, “An MIT scientist estimates that the farthest cousin you have on earth is a 70th cousin.” Doubters point out very isolated groups on earth, but I will accept the premise. Who knows where our ancestral cousins or cousins-in-law ventured?
What all this really means is that we are all cousins—rich, poor, famous, and ordinary. With or without bragging rights, that is what matters.
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