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.