Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Our Cousin in the White House


I read today that President Obama went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay his respects to Frank Buckles, who was until last week the last surviving veteran of World War I. Somehow that reminded me that Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham (that's young Barack and his grandfather in the picture), was a veteran of World War II, and that started me off on one of those long serendipitious internet rambles that led me to a satisfying but not-so-surprising discovery: Barack Obama is a cousin to our Jones family.


Specifically, he's Cal Jones's 9th cousin twice removed, or, put another way, Cal was a straight 9th cousin to Stanley Dunham. The first common ancestor is a man by the name of Benois Brasseur (1620–1663), a French Huguenot who came to Maryland some time before 1635. (Huguenots were French Protestants who were persecuted by the Catholic powers-that-were in France; a number of them settled in Canada, New York, and the mid-South in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The Shumate ancestors on the Jones side were also Huguenots; their original surname was de la Chaumette.) The name was gradually anglicized to Brashears, now a common surname in the south.


Benois Brasseur was an ancestor of Stanley Dunham's on his mother's side, and an ancestor of Cal Jones's on his mother's side. (Specifically the line goes through Cal's mother Nannie Shumate, her father Bennett Shumate, his mother Sarah Ball, her father Bennett Ball, his father Moses Ball, his mother Ann Brashears and then back four more generations to Benois.) And the journey of the future president's family across the continent was not so different from that of Cal's family. Cal's Brasseur/Brashears ancestors moved over several generations from Maryland to Virginia to Kentucky to Arkansas and finally to Oklahoma. Obama's went from Maryland to Kentucky to Missouri and finally to Kansas. The original French Huguenots married into English and Scots-Irish families and assimilated into the backwoods Appalachian culture that they brought with them as they moved west from one scrubby stand of mountains to the next until they ran out of new woodlands.


I said the discovery was not so suprising, and that's because I've spent enough time looking at American family trees to know that if a piece of your family has been here for 300 years or so, there's a pretty good chance you're related to another American who can say the same. Without trying very hard, I've already discovered that Cal was a 9th cousin to Richard Nixon (through Cal's Quaker great-grandmother) and an 8th cousin once removed to George W. Bush (through his New England great-great-grandparents), and that his great-great-great-great grandfather was a second cousin to James Madison. And if one unconfirmed lineage is to be believed, Cal was a sixth cousin once removed to his own wife Clara. (They both had Quaker ancestors named Mills.)


The ironic thing for me is that while a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to show how foreign Obama is, we forget that half his lineage—and that of the people that raised him—is from that same Scots-Irish Protestant Appalachian culture that has produced the strongest and most vociferous opposition to his presidency. I'll bet his grandfather and mine would have had a lot to talk about.

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