02 March 2012

"I'm Related to Constantine!" and Other Things Not to Be Said Lightly

I doubt there is a human alive who does not have a deep-seated need to feel important. If we cannot do something special in our own life, we like to think that someone in our line has been of value to the world. While many of us rejoice in knowing any and all of our family history, to some others, their history will never be complete without a connection or two of a royal, native, or celebrity to illuminate their branches. They will accept half-truths and ignore contradictions to get it, too. And while you may legitimately have a claim, there are certain things that should never be said. Or at least have personal research and documentation in hand to back it up!

Coats of Arms
 "Here's my family Coat of Arms." "My surname is directly descended from _ and it means _"
Thanks to this website, I made my own coat of arms, motto and all!

Interestingly, this seemingly harmless error is also a very prolific one. If you are displaying a coat of arms for your surname, I have bad news for you. Traditionally in the U.K., Ireland and most of western Europe, the coat of arms is only to be passed on to direct-line male descendants of the original person to whom they were presented. They are not, I repeat not, simply attached to anyone with that surname. France and Germany have different rules. In the case of France, since becoming a republic, they don't bother with coats of arms. Germany used to give them away or have them bought. Many coats of arms are for cities and provinces, not families. Just because you have the surname that is attached to a coat of arms, doesn't mean you have the right to display it. If you believe you have the right to these arms, you should investigate the male line as far back as you can and contact the heraldic authority of the issuing country to confirm.

Surname histories and certificates fall into this same trap. These usually include a coat of arms in them, which should be a tip-off of their disingenuousness. The problem with surname histories lays primarily in the fact that surnames are inconsistent in morphology and origin. Since so many languages have similar bases (romance languages like Spanish, Italian, French and Romanian being formed from Latin for example), a name may be hard to pin down to one locality or meaning. There are hundreds of books and sites dedicated to telling you about your surname's illustrious history, however. So I decided to take my surnames and check them out. I used a few surname sources I found by Googling "surname history". Here's the list and what they told me about each of my surnames I tried. I used Gibson (which I presumed English), Householder (known German), Kemper (known German), Berrio (presumed Italian based on originator of the surname in our family), and Lavinsky which was the Americanised version our original surame Levingskas (known Lithuanian).
  • Ancestry.com- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gibb; Householder- Americanised Haushalter- Steward of an Estate; Kemper- German, peasant farmer; Berrio- Basque- new or variant of Barrios- Spanish/Arabic- slum; Lavinski had no meaning, but did show me a breakdown of census information of people with the surname (no Levingskas found)
  • Ancestor Search- Gibson- Scottish- Son of Gilbert or Gib; Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • Behind the Name- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gib; Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • Surname Database- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gilbert (noted the Germanic origins of Gilbert just to confuse me I think); Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • House of Names- Gibson- German/Scottish- Son of Gibb (and then goes to tell me how I can pay for a slew of information including famous Gibsons who ironically are on both the German and Scottish surname report); Householder- English, Haushalter- not found; Kemper- Dutch/English- comber of wool or flax; Berrio- Spanish- a barrier/gate/or fence; Lavinski- Polish- Lion (no Levingskas found)
Two interesting points. First, according to the Genealogy of the Kemper Family book by Willis Miller Kemper and Harry Linn Wright, Kemper is supposed to be German for warrior. Second, even though Ancestry didn't have a lot of information on each surname, they did show a breakdown of census information like what countries the surname immigrated from, what occupations they held in the states and average lifespan based on death records. So while I wouldn't take it's origin information as gospel (or even assume that all people with that surname are related), the demographic information was kind of neat.

"I've traced my family back to 1066 A.D. and William the Conqueror" "I'm directly descended from Constantine!" "I'm 9th cousins 4x's removed from Kate Middleton, OMG"

What exactly is the probability that the average American is related to royalty? Well, the fact is the odds of a royal connection becomes higher the farther back the connection. It also doesn't hurt if your family has been or is wealthy. I tried to find a reliable source on the probability and what research has been done, but what I mainly found was sites advertising books telling me that a lot of Americans are descended from royalty. I found claims for up to 15 million people being related to Kate and William and at least half of America is supposed to be related to Edward III or Charlemagne. What I found odd, was that many seemed to use Burke's Peerage as a source! Despite the fact that you can still find Burke's around online, the name has been sold from it's original owner who was infamous for fraudulent lineages, liquidated and sold off. Why anyone would trust them is beyond me.

There are ways to prove a royal connection, though. DNA is the most reliable, in as much as even if you were related to an illegitimate child, it'll come up in the markers. However, they aren't taking DNA from the dead royals to make the list, but living, provable descendants. As always, there's still a lot of guess work in this method. To be sure, the more people use this option, the better the database becomes. I am interested in the possibilities of DNA testing for genealogical research, but I've not yet taken a test. I've been told I should since the autosomal tests can break down ethnicity. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome tests are more reliable since those markers don't mutate as often, but only trace the mother to daughter, father to son connection. I have heard that every living person has a common ancestor of some 5,000 years ago; so in reality, we're all related and in that way, we are all related to royalty. So finding out you are related to Genghis Khan suddenly doesn't look so special, does it? And of course, there is always the pitfall of finding out you aren't who you think you are. I doubt any family is 100% sure of paternity from start to finish.

The common way to trace royalty is to find corroborating documents. The thing is, because of wars and natural disasters destroying documents, most people will only be able to trace their lineage to the 1800's. Even if you are lucky to go farther back due to the fact of an influential family line, you may only get to about the 1600's. It's so remote a possibility of going any farther back that most researchers will consider it impossible. So even if you are related to Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.), you may never find the documents to prove it. And don't take other people's word for it! Their research can be riddled with the erroneous data from vanity genealogies. Take their data and track down their sources, but never just accept it.

And saying you're a X cousin X times removed from a royal will mean almost nothing to many people. The average person won't understand what you mean and even more won't care. So you're the 10th cousin 5 times removed of some Nordic princess, how diluted is that bloodline? Does she even count as family then??? Will your family care or have a glazed look as they murmur, "oh cool."? Sadly, even after all that I've said, I know that many people will run out just to find that royal connection and prattle it back at anyone willing (or forced) to listen. Why are we so in love with royalty?

I blame Disney.

The "Lost" Indian Connection
First, let's start out with a phrase you should never use: "My grandmother was a Cherokee princess." Even if you have Native ancestors, this phrase will be dismissed out of hand by any serious researcher as misinformed and unsourced! The truth is there is no such thing as an Indian princess. It's a misnomer and the reasons why it came into use are vast. They also don't matter. Just don't say it.

I once wondered why it was always a Cherokee connection. Truth is, the Cherokee were once one of the most prolific tribes out there. The possibility for intermarriage was high, so if you do have a Native ancestor, the likelihood of it being a Cherokee is high. On the other hand, there were many tribes, so if you don't know for sure, it's best to keep your mouth shut until you do. There are specific hurdles to finding a Native link, and for a while it was in vogue to say you were somehow related to an Indian even if untrue; and just like royalty, you need to do your research. If you can't find the link, it may still be true, but you want to preface yourself with "the family rumor is that grandma was an Indian."

The Internet Genealogists for Quality have a list of quality guidelines that should be read and espoused by every researcher from day one of their journey. I recommend you view the link and take a moment to contemplate the quality of your own research.

And when you do go out in the world and tell people about your fantastic finds, be prepared for the skeptics. The false genealogies are so prolific, it is easier (and advised) to ignore any researcher who claims a distant link to a famous person or line. Too many times, a new researcher will see someone else's tree and find that connection and accept it without question. Always question. Even if it's your grandfather and he's been doing this for 30 years. He may have bought a surname book and based half his work on it. Or he may have made leaps of faith in his research, ignoring contradictions and omissions of facts. If you do want to share your success, the best way to do it is to have your facts right in the statement, "Thanks to a letter from the Duke of Windsor dated 1920, to his cousin, my grandmother, I was able to finally make that royal connection!" goes over a lot better than "My 50th grandfather was (insert famous name here)!"

As always, good luck and have fun!


  1. Anonymous4/8/13 20:37

    LOL I have in our family history that we are related to King Henry II of England, through his illegitimate (but verified) son William Longespee. I will have to do some more research now. And my grandmother claimed that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee... but Grandma was only 12 when her mother died, and we have since found out that her memory was quite sketchy on several things pertaining to family history.

  2. I'm one of those annoying people who can now prove with genealogy and DNA that I'm related to Native Americans and Royalty. Many times over. Of my 8 Great Grandparents 3 of the 5 lines are either Royal or have touch of NA.

  3. I am direct from William the Conqueror he is my 31st Great Grandfather

    1. He is my 29th gg father. I think it's neat to know, even if you probably have little or no DNA from him since it's been so diluted.

  4. Ok Constantine is my 34th great grandfather and Louis the Prius is my 33 great grandfather according to the lds archives. I tripped out when they hooked my family tree up to this tree that went back to 695 but it kept going and going! My moms dads mom was a Marcellus and that family tree just goes back on the lds website well it seems to go back before by imean goes back bc which is insane. But it all seems fairly well documented. There are lots of royal people. Which is nuts because we are poor. My great grandmothers family was farmers. At any rate it says he’s my 34th great grandfather which is prob malarkey heck it says something about Agamemnon in there and he’s not even real right? I just wanted to compare what I found to what others who found they are related found.