Everyone’s a Wee Bit Irish around St. Patrick’s Day!

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate March being Irish American Heritage Month, Mary explains that many of us have at least a little Irish in our family history—including President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.

With the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this week, plus March being Irish American Heritage Month, everyone is feeling a wee bit Irish. And, as it turns out, quite a few of us have actual Irish roots—including U.S. President Barack Obama and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Irish Diaspora

Population estimates vary, but most historians and researchers agree that the Irish Diaspora (persons of Irish heritage living outside of Ireland) is significant.

By some estimates, at least 10% of the world is Irish (according to the Irish tourism board)—and others report that there are at least seven times as many people of Irish descent in America as the entire population of Ireland! (See Huffington Post article.)

photo of Blarney Castle, Ireland

Photo: verdant scene from the top of Blarney Castle, Ireland. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

So when everyone claims to be a wee bit Irish in March, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, you shouldn’t be surprised. Many Americans, including several prominent African Americans, can trace their roots to the Emerald Isle.

The Obamas’ Irish Ancestry

One of the first studies on President Barack and Michelle (Robinson) Obama’s ancestry was conducted by genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, she is a double Smolenyak).

She discovered that Mrs. Obama’s third great grandmother Melvinia was the granddaughter of Andrew Shields, a white Irish protestant immigrant, via his son Charles Shields.

The President’s direct immigrant Irish ancestor was Falmouth Kearney, a native of Moneygall in County Offaly. He left his homeland in 1850 to escape the great famine (which lasted 1845-1852). Once the people of Ireland learned this, there was much celebration and pride in being connected to the U.S. President. See:

DNA Study of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Family

Another historical figure connected to the Republic of Ireland is Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 Jan. 1929 – 4 April 1968).

photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. Credit: Library of Congress.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s roots are a wee bit elusive, as traditional research methods using a path of documentary evidence have failed.

However, a DNA study conducted on his son Michael Luther King, III, indicated ties to the Mende people of Sierra Leone on his mother’s side, and Ireland on his father’s.

MLK’s Family Tree through the Paternal Line

  • Jacob Branham & wife Dinnah
  • |
  • Nathan King (a.k.a. Branham or Brannan) & wife Malinda
  • |
  • James Albert “Jim” King & Delia Lindsey
  • |
  • Martin Luther King, Sr. & Alberta C. Williams
  • |
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott

In the MLK family tree, note the name change from Branham or Brannan (and other spellings) to King. This occurred sometime between 1870 and 1880, when Nathan appeared on the U.S. Federal Census as a King. The reason for the name change is not clear, but perhaps the family wished to disassociate themselves with the oppressive slavery of the Branham family of Putnam County, Georgia.

No records have been located to prove which Branham family owned the slave plantation where the King ancestors lived, but in all likelihood it was Dr. Joel Branham (1799 – 1877) or his father Henry Branham (or both). The family is thought to have removed to Georgia from Virginia in the 1700s. By 1812 Henry Branham had become active in his community, and he ran for the State Legislature.

article abourt Henry Branham, Georgia Argus newspaper article 7 October 1812

Georgia Argus (Milledgeville, Georgia), 7 October 1812, page 2

The family’s opposition to the abolishment of slavery is indicated by this article of 1837, when Dr. Joel Branham opposed the election of President Martin Van Buren.

article about Joel Branham, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 17 September 1840

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 17 September 1840, page 2

The Mysterious Reference to James King & Ireland

Several genealogists have presented comprehensive articles discussing the King family’s connection to the Branhams and Ireland (see links below)—and surprisingly, they have identified one mysterious reference to Ireland in connection with Rev. King’s grandfather.

An examination of the records reports a bit more detail.

In 1910, the U.S. Federal Census reported that the James and Delia King family (James King was MLK’s grandfather) were renting a farm on the Jonesboro and Covington Road in the Stockbridge District of Henry County, Georgia. It was the first marriage for James and Delia, who had been married 15 years (so they were married c. 1895). There had been eight children, but only seven were still living. The eldest child could read and write, and the second child could read but not write, and neither James nor Delia could read or write.

The birthplace of Delia and all the children was reported as Georgia—but James King’s birthplace was reported as Ohio. Most interestingly, the birthplace of James King’s father was reported as Ireland.

photo of the 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr.

Photo: 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr. Credit: FamilySearch.org.

photo of the 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr. household

For further reading on this interesting subject, see these articles:

Cluster Analysis of the Branham Irish Origins

So if you accept the theory that one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ancestors was a man named Branham from Ireland, how would one determine where the family originated?

Since early records are scant, a surname distribution map such as the one hosted by the Irish Times is useful. It works by enumerating names found on surveys, such as the 1847-64 Primary Valuation Survey.

Some might criticize this tool for being too late a time period. However, if a significant number of families were only found in a limited area, then a sampling of family (siblings and cousins of the immigrants whose descendants stayed in the area), could be examined.

By searching for Branham, the results showed six households under an alternate spelling of Brangham.

Other related spellings include Brannan, Brannon, Bringham, Brinham, Brennan, etc.—and when they were searched, a significant cluster appeared. It turns out that these families are associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular the counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Tyrone, Down, Armagh and Fermanagh.

Although not conclusive, this at least provides researchers who wish to trace the King Irish ancestry more of a target region.

Further Reading:

Irish American Genealogy & Family History Facts Infographic

Irish American Genealogy & Family History Facts Infographic

In celebration of Irish Heritage Month, here are some interesting facts about Irish ancestry in America.

Irish American Population Statistics

  • There are 34.5 million people who claim Irish ancestry in America
  • Approximately 11% of the total United States population is Irish American
  • There are over 7 times more people of Irish descent in the United States than the entire population of Ireland

History of Irish Immigration to America

There were 2 major waves of Irish immigration to America.

  1. The first immigration period was in the Colonial era of the 18th century. These people set sail from the northern provinces of Ireland looking for new lives as American pioneers. The migration consisted of approximately 250,000 Scots-Irish who were predominately Protestant. The major ports of entry for these incoming Irish immigrants were in New York and Philadelphia.
  1. The second wave of immigration was between 1846 and 1900. During this period approximately 2,873,000 people fled to America from the southern provinces of Ireland. This was primarily due to the Great Irish Potato Famine, which caused poverty and starvation throughout Ireland. These new arrivals were predominately of Catholic denomination. The major American ports of entry were in New York and Boston. The Irish also arrived on trains and ships from Canada, which was then called British North America.

Origins of the Saying “Luck of the Irish”

During the 1848-1855 California Gold Rush many Irish immigrants headed out West to mine silver & gold. Many Americans said the immigrants’ mining success was due to luck, not skill—hence the saying “Luck of the Irish.”

Common Irish Surnames

Here is a list of the top 10 most common Irish last names and their meanings:

  • Murphy – Sea Battlers
  • Kelly – Bright-headed Ones
  • O’Sullivan – Hawkeyed Ones
  • Walsh – Welshmen
  • O’Brien – Noblemen
  • Byrne – Ravens
  • Ryan – Little Kings
  • O’Connor – Patrons of Warriors
  • O’Neill - From a Champion, Niall of the Nine Hostages
  • O’Reilly – Outgoing People, Descendants of Reilly

Percentage of Irish Americans by State

The Northeastern United States has the highest concentration of Irish Americans. The following 9 states all have more than 15% Irish ancestry in their total populations. The states are listed in descending order from highest to lowest total Irish population percentages. Massachusetts has the highest percentage in the United States with 22.5% of its residents claiming Irish ancestry.

  1. Massachusetts
  2. New Hampshire
  3. Rhode Island
  4. Delaware
  5. Connecticut
  6. Vermont
  7. Pennsylvania
  8. New Jersey
  9. Maine

The following 9 U.S. states also have high Irish American populations of 12-14%. Montana has the highest in this range with 14.8% of its population claiming Irish ancestry.

  1. Montana
  2. Iowa
  3. Nebraska
  4. Wyoming
  5. New York
  6. Missouri
  7. Ohio
  8. Colorado
  9. Illinois

11% to 11.9% of the residents in the following 7 states claim Irish ancestry.

  1. Oregon
  2. Maryland
  3. Kansas
  4. Washington
  5. Minnesota
  6. Nevada
  7. West Virginia

The remaining states have less than 11% Irish ancestry in their total populations.

Famous Americans Who Are a Wee Bit Irish

From presidents to outlaws, there have been many famous Irish Americans throughout U.S. history. Here are a few of them:

  • John F. Kennedy a.k.a. JFK: 35th President of the United States
  • Henry Ford: Founder of Ford Motor Company
  • Barack Obama: 44th President of the United States
  • William Henry McCarty Jr. a.k.a. Billy the Kid: Outlaw
  • Judy Garland: Actress & Singer
  • Bill O’Reilly: TV Host & Political Commentator
  • Conan O’Brien: TV Host & Comedian
  • Grace Kelly: Actress & Princess of Monaco
  • Walter Elias Disney a.k.a. Walt Disney: Film Producer & Co-founder of the Walt Disney Company
  • Danica Patrick: NASCAR Driver
  • Eddie Murphy: Actor & Comedian
  • Mel Gibson: Actor & Film Producer

Top Irish Genealogy Records

The top genealogy records to trace your Irish roots are:

Did You Know?

Civil registration in Ireland didn’t begin until 1864, although some non-Catholic marriages were recorded as early as 1845. Fortunately for genealogists, Irish American newspapers routinely published the news of Irish births, marriages and deaths for more than half a century before Ireland started recording them.

Got a little Irish in you? Discover your Irish American ancestry at http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/ethnic/irish_american/

Follow GenealogyBank on social media with hashtag #IrishHeritage for more Irish American genealogy facts throughout Irish Heritage Month.

Sources:

http://www.biography.com/people/groups/famous-irish-americans

http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb13-ff03.html

http://www.edwardtodonnell.com/

http://www.energyofanation.org/waves_of_irish_immigration.html

http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/The-10-most-popular-Irish-last-names-2-133737553.html?page=3

http://names.mongabay.com/ancestry/st-Irish.html

http://www.udel.edu/soe/deal/IrishImmigrationFacts.html

http://www.wikipedia.org/

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Obama & Romney Are Related! Genealogy Infographic

In time for the 2012 election countdown, I recently did some genealogy research to learn more about the background of both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, and guess what—they’re related!

What’s more: they’re also related to several former U.S. presidents, English kings, outlaws and celebrities. This is really huge! So huge in fact that our team at GenealogyBank decided to create this Infographic to show many of these surprising genealogical findings.

Click the image for the even bigger full-size Infographic version.

Obama & Romney - Who Knew? We're Related! Genealogy Infographic

Obama & Romney Are Related?

Yes. Obama and Romney are both direct descendants of King Edward I of England, who was the eldest son of King Henry III and himself a father to numerous children by his two wives, Queens Eleanor and Margaret. King Edward I was perhaps the most successful of the medieval English monarchs. Known as “Longshanks” due to his great height and stature, King Edward I stood head and shoulders above other men of his time, towering at a height of 6’2. Romney and Obama are chips off the old block, both over six feet tall. Romney measures in at 6’2 and Obama at 6’1.

Several U.S. Presidents as Cousins-in-Common

The 2012 presidential candidates not only share a royal ancestor, they also have many distant cousins-in-common. These distant relatives form the impressive lineup of United States presidents featured in the White House Family Reunion photo in the Infographic above.

Obama and Romney’s U.S. president distant cousins-in-common include:

  • James Madison – 4th President of the United States
  • William Harrison – 9th President of the United States
  • Zachary Taylor – 12th President of the United States
  • Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President of the United States
  • Benjamin Harrison – 23rd President of the United States
  • Grover Cleveland – 24th President of the United States
  • Warren G. Harding – 29th President of the United States
  • Calvin Coolidge – 30th President of the United States
  • Richard Nixon – 37th President of the United States
  • Gerald Ford – 38th President of the United States
  • Jimmy Carter – 39th President of the United States
  • George W. Bush – 43rd President of the United States
  • George H.W. Bush – 41st President of the United States

Early American Presidential Roots

Obama and Romney also have deep early American roots in their respective family trees. Mayflower passengers Edward and Samuel Fuller are both direct ancestors of Mitt Romney. They were part of the group of Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Romney is also a distant cousin to the early American President Thomas Jefferson, and Obama is a distant cousin to President George Washington.

Wild West Outlaw Kin

Another interesting ancestral find was that each of the presidential nominees is a distant relation to notorious American Wild West gunslingers. Wild Bill Hickok is a distant cousin to Obama, and William H. Bonney a.k.a. “Billy the Kid” is a distant cousin to Romney. Also noteworthy is that Romney is a relation to famous American actor Clint Eastwood, who has starred in many hit Western movies such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Star-Studded Family Trees

Both of the 2012 election candidates share their family trees with Hollywood megastars, as well as other celebrities ranging from renowned American artists to British royalty.

Obama is a distant cousin to the following celebrities:

  • Brad Pitt – Hollywood Megastar
  • Elvis Presley – King of Rock & Roll
  • Georgia O’Keeffe – Famous American Artist & Painter
  • Robert Duvall – Hollywood Actor

Romney’s family tree also has many movie stars and famous people. His distant cousins include:

  • Clint Eastwood – Hollywood Megastar
  • Alec Baldwin –Hollywood Actor
  • Princess Diana – Former Princess of Wales
  • Katherine Hepburn – Earlier Hollywood Megastar
  • Julia Child – Famous Chef, TV Personality and Author

Both Have Foreign-Born Fathers

President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to parents Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. The Infographic features an old photo of Barack Obama II as a child with his mother Ann.

President Obama’s father was born in 1936 in Kanyadhiang Village, Kenya. The Infographic features an old picture of President Obama’s dad Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., as an infant with the president’s paternal grandmother Habiba Akumu Obama.

Governor Romney was born in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, to parents Lenore and George W. Romney. The old family photograph in the Infographic shows the governor as a baby with his mom and dad.

Mitt Romney’s father George W. Romney, the former governor of Michigan, was born in 1907 in Colonia Dublán, Mexico. The old picture in the Infographic shows Romney’s father as a child with Mitt’s grandma Anna Amelia Pratt Romney.

Who knew the presidential candidates shared so many family connections? We’re continuing our ancestral exploration into the 2012 U.S. presidential candidates’ family trees. Make sure to stay tuned by following us here on the blog and on Facebook, Twitter or G+ to get more Obama and Romney family history.

It’s a great day for genealogy!

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GenealogyBank – more than 3,700 newspapers from across the country

GenealogyBank has newspapers from all regions of the United States … small-town weeklies to big-city dailies and all of them of high interest to family historians.

Here are just a few of the over 3,700 titles:

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
The Journal offers wide-ranging coverage of daily life and culture on the southwestern frontier, both before and after New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood.

Congratulations to my cousin Sarah Heath Palin!

Genealogists will love the fact that the new Republican choice for Vice President – Sarah Heath Palin is a descendant of multiple Mayflower passengers: John Tilley, John Howland, Stephen Hopkins, Elder William Brewster, Richard Warren and other well known New England families.

I am also descended from those Mayflower passengers …. so we’re cousins.

She is also a descendant of the Rev. John Lathrop – famous to genealogists as the “gateway” ancestor of many US Presidents, inventors, actors and celebrities.

No doubt in the days ahead we will see stories of how she is related to our other cousins: George Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Dick Cheney, George Washington, King George III, King Henry VIII, Abraham Lincoln and the list will go on and on.

It’s a great day for genealogy!

Wild Bill Obama

May 27th was Wild Bill Hickok’s day – I wrote about how easy it is to find newspaper articles about him in GenealogyBank.

Wild Bill Hickok is in the news again – when Barack Obama mentioned his family tradition that he was a distant cousin to Wild Bill – James Butler Hickok (1837-1876).

(Photo: Texas Observer Blog 27 Feb 2007)

Don’t you love it when politicians talk about their genealogy!

The New England Historic Genealogical Society does and issued a statement yesterday verifying Obama’s family tradition:

Obama and Hickok are sixth cousins, six-times removed. Their common ancestor is Thomas Blossom, who came to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1629 from Leiden, Holland. Obama’s 4th great-grandfather, Jacob Dunham, was 6th cousins with Wild Bill. Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann, is also a Dunham.

“The ancestry of Wild Bill Hickok was published by NEHGS some years back, which showed he descended from the Blossom family of Cape Cod, an early family written up in one of our scholarly publications,” said Child. He added, “Since we had also recently done the ancestry of Senator Obama, finding this connection was a little easier.”

Click here to see the Obama – Hickok family tree – Wild Bill is related to Obama through his mother Polly Butler.