Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Guest Post: When Genealogy Becomes an Issue in Presidential Politics

Cleveland, Wikipedia.
Okay, so genealogy is always an issue in presidential politics. Campaigns lend themselves to questions of parentage, lineage, paternity, and race. Was Andrew Jackson biracial? Was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather African American? Did Grover Cleveland father a child when he was a bachelor, justifying the famous chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”?

During the last election, mention was sometimes made of Mitt Romney’s polygamous heritage, a topic I addressed in the article, “A Brief Guide to Mitt Romney’s Polygamous Heritage,” but attempts to racialize a white Mormon were largely non-starters since he was running against an African American with much closer polygamous ancestry.

We’re nineteen months from the next presidential election and candidates are starting to throw their hats in the ring, so the media is starting to explore genealogical questions.

Yesterday’s news revealed that Jeb Bush, member of the political Bush clan and former governor of Florida, selected his race as “Hispanic” on a voter registration application. He’s not Hispanic although his wife and children are, and I don’t care to get into any political or legal implications of his racial choice, but some of the news coverage mentioned a related story, that of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American heritage.

Warren, Wikipedia.
Elizabeth Warren was born in Oklahoma, and she grew up with stories of Cherokee and Delaware heritage (Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance, 5, 236). During her 2012 campaign for her seat in the Senate, her rival, Scott Brown, made as-yet-unproven allegations that she did not actually have Native American ancestry but had used the designation to qualify for affirmative action. If Warren runs for president, this story may start to show up in the media again.

A few points for when stories like this do show up in the media.

1. The media doesn’t do genealogy well.

Most of the stories about Elizabeth Warren’s heritage don’t even bother to check her genealogy. A notable exception is Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic, “Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?”

2. Genealogists don’t necessarily do genealogy well.

When I first started exploring this question this morning, I found a website that claims “The Genealogical Evidence Shows Warren Has No Native American Ancestry.” That strongly worded statement is based on a series of blog posts on the blog Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter. The author, Twila Barnes, states, “If one can't find an ancestor on any of [the reservation] rolls or in any of the records of the Cherokee people, then there is only one logical conclusion - they aren't Cherokee and they don't have a Cherokee ancestor.” (Source.)

Barnes’s statement here is a logical fallacy. If someone’s ancestor cannot be found on the Cherokee records dating back to 1817, it means he or she cannot file for membership in the tribe. It does not mean there is no Cherokee ancestry, and it most certainly does not rule out all Native American heritage, as the other website claims.

Barnes’s conclusion that “we have gone back about 188 years and still not found a Cherokee” (her italics) does not account for every ancestor in Warren’s family tree. (Source.)

Barnes comes to the conclusion that Warren has no Native American ancestry based on the Cherokee rolls combined with the racial categories listed in the United States Census and a few other government documents. She looks at Warren’s ancestry, primarily the Crawford and Harlin families, and assumes that since all the government documents she can find about the two family lines list their race as white that that means that every member of the family was, in fact, white. That is a fallacious conclusion, considering the history of race and the census in America.

Since it seems her work has largely concentrated on proving Cherokee lineage, she may be excused for not understanding the meaning and use of racial categories in the United States Census and other government documents. There is a good summary of the topic in Jennifer Hochschild and Brenna Powell’s article, “Racial Reorganization and the United States Census 1850-1930: Mulattoes, Half-Breeds, Mixed Parentage, Hindoos, and the Mexican Race.” (Harvard University Department of Government, in Studies in American Political Development, Spring 2008.)

An important point about racial categories in government documents: they were often based on the census taker’s perception of the person or community. My current project involves African American genealogy, and I’ve seen many of mixed race “passing” as white and occasionally a Native American listed as black, along with a number of racial errors in government documents. Here is one example of an error.

Laughlin McLean was listed as black in the 1920 US Census. He was not black; he was white Scots-Irish Canadian; but in 1904 he and his African American fiancée Ellen James had traveled from the northwest to Wyoming to be married since interracial marriage was legal there.

Why did the census taker list Ellen’s husband as black in the 1920 census? Laughlin must have been absent when the census taker came around to collect the family data, so the census taker must have looked at Ellen, considered that she and Laughlin were living in a largely minority neighborhood in California, and didn’t bother to ask the race of her husband.

Assuming that government records will correctly report the race of every member of a family back to the 1820s is not a conclusion that can be supported by the historical record.

Despite the fact that I disagree with Barnes’s methodology and conclusions, I’m not making any conclusions about Warren’s ancestry. Since her family is from Oklahoma and the South, Warren’s ancestry may include African Americans, Native Americans, or may be entirely white European. As Franke-Ruta concluded at The Atlantic, the best way to settle the question would be through DNA testing. “DNA ancestry tests are not dispositive,” she wrote, “and even a positive result would not be useful for tribal affiliation or CDIB [Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood] purposes. But it would silence her critics, and -- more importantly -- it would help her learn whether what she had spent her life thinking she knew about herself and her family was true.”

And that leads to the third point.

3. How many of our own family stories would stand up to intense media scrutiny? 

I am currently working on the story of a family that has been white for the past 150 years, and not only white but stridently and proudly white. As they find that their heritage is multiracial, it sometimes feels like I am sitting on the front row watching a slow-motion train wreck as the descendants grapple with questions of racial identity and history and the meaning of the family stories. 

Are you sure that the family stories you tell are accurate? Have you found documentable inaccuracies in your family history, or have you proved your family stories correct? How have you come to terms with discrepancies between fact and legend?

In closing...

These three points lead to an obvious moral: if you’re running for major political office in the United States, hire a reputable professional genealogist to double check the stories you’ll be telling on the campaign trail.


  1. Note that Sen. Warren has done DNA testing and has found indigenous ancestry, and note again Franke-Ruta's important conclusion.