I didn’t want to be related to him anyway.

Everybody wants to be related to someone famous and if they can’t be, then they want someone they know to be related to someone famous so they will always have an interesting story to drop at parties.

My last name is James and I have brothers. It was inevitable that people would tease us about our latest train robbery or shootout with the sheriff. Our neighbor—a short, greasy man who always had a pack of cigarettes ready in the pocket of his t-shirt—would put his hands up whenever he saw one of us. Every single time he saw us. For years. I always wondered why he carried the joke on so long. It’s probably that he enjoyed the idea of knowing people who could be related to famous people.

Another inevitable consequence of having my last name is being asked if I’m actually related to those 19th century hoodlums. I have to admit that it’s the first thing I looked up when I started my research. How could it not be after decades of politely laughing at a neighbor’s joke as though I’d never heard/seen it before? It’s also the first thing family members want to know when they find out I’ve been digging around in our past: Are we related to anyone “good”? It’s probably the first thing anyone looks up when they start their genealogical inquiries. I imagine the ones who actually uncover a celebrity in the family tree must feel like a miner felt when he found yellow sparkles in his pan.

I’ve mentioned before that my dad’s family tree was sparse before I started filling it in. So I had to start with my grandparents and work my way back. That research eventually revealed that my ancestors lived in Harrison County, Missouri—a very rural county on the state line with Iowa. At the same time, Jesse lived just three counties away in Clay County, Missouri. With that knowledge, my heartbeat quickened. It was possible. Not many people lived in that part of Missouri at the time, therefore, families could spread out further with the acquisition of land for farms.

My next step was to look through Jesse James’s family tree, which was easy because his lineage is well documented. All I had to do was look through the surnames and the locations of births and deaths to see if any matched up with my ancestors. I quickly discovered a surprising fact about Jesse James: his family was deeply inbred. Among his and his wife’s eight grandparents, there are only five last names. Yech. And in those five surnames I didn’t find a single match with my family except for the obvious one, which cut off any hopes that I could call the most famous outlaw in American history (arguably) my uncle.

To be honest though, that’s pretty much what I expected. I’d read that most of Jesse James’s family changed their name out of shame after his crimes reached the front pages of national newspapers. The fact that my family kept their last name while living in relatively close proximity has always made me doubtful of any connection.

I cling to the very slim chance of a very distant relationship. Tracking his family’s and my family’s migrations across the U.S., I see a pattern. Both families immigrated to Virginia: mine to Spotsylvania County and Jesse’s to nearby Goochland. Then they’re both found in Kentucky (my family eventually strayed across the river to Ohio) and then they both settled in Missouri. All of these moves to different states happened at around the same time, so it could be that the clan moved as a unit.

When I told my family that there was probably no relationship, they didn’t seem disappointed. But they don’t show any enthusiasm when I tell them of the other connections to famous people I’ve been trying to prove. For instance, we’re most likely sixth cousins (four times removed) to Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin; and it’s well documented that Susannah North Martin, one of the women hanged during the Salem Witch trials, had a daughter that married into the Porterfield family of Vermont. Chances are strong that that’s the same line of Porterfields in our family tree. I mean, how many different Porterfield families could there have been in Vermont in the 1820s?

Yeah, I suppose those connections aren’t as interesting. But they’re not as inbred either, so that’s a plus.

31 Replies to “I didn’t want to be related to him anyway.”

  1. My husband is very into tracing roots. He’s done tons of work on Ancestry.com and contacted far flung relatives on other continents. I find it interesting, but I’m definitely more about the present. That said, I’m quite sure I am a direct descendent of Boadicea. 🙂

  2. Excited to see you on the Moonshine! What a great story and I admire your courage doing all the genealogical research. I don’t know if want to find out all the crazy people in mine. 🙂

    1. May I ask why it’s pipe-dreamy? When I started, I didn’t know my grandmother’s name. It only took me a week to find her family with the little bit I knew about her. It really is very easy now to look into our genealogies. Let me know if you’d like me to help you.

  3. You’re right, but I have never thought about it before. Why are we more fascinated by someone being related to Manson or Mussolini than someone being related to a person who contributed something good?

    I am related to the guy who committed treason with Aaron Burr, trying to break off from the United States. The traitor connection seems to be fantastic at parties. I do not know why.

    1. I think it’s the surprise of how those boring facts in history class in high school actually have personal aspects to them. That’s the kind of trivia that you’ll win millions of dollars for winning if you every go on Jeopardy, Katy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Very interesting! According to my family lore, my great grandmother fled Ireland after a child she was babysitting drowned in a pond. I wonder if I could find any details to support that story? I loved your detail about the neighbor always making the same joke about your name. When I was a kid, a friend of my father sang the Marcy Hopkins song every time he saw me (an old beer commercial).

    1. I’m sure they’d be a newspaper article about the accidental drowning. You could probably look that up online depending on the town it was in and if they’re open to giving access to their records.

  5. Being related to a person whom you do not like or (s)he has a negative public profile is really painful. I live in China and just imagine how people reacts when they see me; not just Chinese but many other peace lovers also say a little nonsense when they fly with me. Stay calm Nathan, blaming culture is everywhere. Everyone will see you according to their level of wisdom. I am Karl Marx for few people here and for many (that) bin laden… Even sometimes, I do not feel safe on streets.

    1. Sounds like you feel pretty isolated, Abdul. I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully the miracle of the internet helps with your loneliness a little. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Hope things improve soon!

  6. My paternal grandfather is adopted. He’d spent a bit of time trying to find his family and paid some folks to try to dig up info. I…doubt the veracity of their search. In part because I’m cynical, but also in part because a lot of genealogy done 20+ years ago was of the vanity kind. The chestnut they like to mention is some claim of relation to Johnny Cash.

    1. 20 years ago it took a lot of elbow grease to do genealogy. It was expensive traveling around to random places. It would be pretty easy now to verify the Johnny Cash claim! Thanks for the comment, Charles.

  7. Um, yeah, I wouldn’t want to be related to them, anyway. Funny coincidence, though.
    But I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to make fun of me…
    I’m indirectly related to a minor-19th century famous author (a great+uncle several times removed [I’d have to re-look it up]). When a professor assigned him in a grad seminar it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut about it, lol. But I did, because what kind of a-hole brags about their famous relatives in grad school?

  8. What about the other James’ – Henry and William? Any joy there? Of course all those inter-breeding grandparents were probably only cousins 😉 Thanks for the background.

    1. Henry lived in England after my James line had emigrated to America so finding a relationship there would be time consuming and involve a passport. Though it would be awesome to be his cousin. William’s line lived in NYC and my family has no affilliations to the city; so I’ve never thought to look. Thanks for your comment, Sarah Ann!

  9. I loved reading about your search mission! History fascinates me though, I’d rather read about others’ research than do any of my own.
    Frankly, I hadn’t even thought about connecting you with those outlaws….even funnier since I live in that part of the country. My family’s “claim to fame?” My great grandpa shoed Jesse’s horse as he was making a get-a-way across Kansas. I first heard the story when I was young and thought my grandpa a hero for “shooing the horse away.” For years, I had a vision in my head of Jesse James running across the prairie without a horse. I didn’t find out till later that my grandpa was a blacksmith….doh.

      1. He did! The story my Grandma told me was that he was shaking in his shoes the whole time because Jesse was in such a hurry. I just wanted to know more about the horse!!!

  10. There is a place in England called Kirkby (which is my last name) and it is pretty much in the same area I was born in, I’ve always wondered if there could be a connection there… I wish I had your patience and tenacity to see a family tree through to the end…

    1. No one in your family has looked into it? I don’t know how you can not find out. Although, there’s a mansion outside of Edinburgh that is call Harburn (my mother’s maiden name) House that I’ve never look into. So I guess never mind.

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