Climbing the Family Tree


A native of Oklahoma, HELEN M. LILIENTHAL is the wife of the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Most of her published work has been poetry, but she has collaborated with her husband on books and articles.

PERHAPS I ought to say in the beginning that I’ve never become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The fact is, I’ve considered it a rather subversive organization — not the present members, you understand; I don’t mean them. I mean their rude forefathers who made the D.A.R. possible. After all, those men were rebels, halfhearted as some of them were. A great-great-great-grandfather of mine, for instance, served only fourteen days before he quit to go back home to get the hay in.

No, the way Congressional committees are backtracking these days, looking into a man’s antecedents, it seems to me you just can’t be too careful what you join.

But it does beat me the kind of organizations Americans will think up. Not long ago I read of one called “The Daughters of Runnymede,” made up of descendants of signers of the Magna Charta, which evidently considers itself to be a very exclusive group.

That set me to wondering about my own forebears along about that particular time. I got to doing a little genealogical figuring and the result flabbergasted me. I’d known that everybody had ancestors in a general sort of way and that maybe it wasn’t a good thing to check them too closely, or at least let all the details of such checking get about. Every family was bound to throw off a black sheep now and then. What I hadn’t realized was how wide spread out your grand-to-the-nth-degree-parents can get after a couple of hundred years.

Most tracers of family trees stick to one narrow line, a son-to-father business. But when you go all out on what’s the real basis, that everybody has parents ad infinitum, you can really get confused, to say nothing of downright discouraged.

Take my family, for instance. It’s fairly simple since all my ancestral lines stem from the British Isles — England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland. The first branch came to this country from England in 1630; the last one from Ireland in 1800.

Erring on the conservative side and counting forty years to a generation, by 1610 I had (or could have had if medical science and general hygiene had been better at the time) 2848 living ancestors in what is now Great Britain. Again, to be conservative, if only one fourth of them were in England proper, that made 712 individuals, equally divided presumably between male and female. And around 1600, when Shakespeare was going strong, at least 1424 relatives in direct ascent from me were spread over the English countryside.

Now that’s appalling enough in its application, as I’ll tell you in a minute if you don’t see it yourself, but worse is to come. By 1490, when Columbus was trying to get off on his now famous voyage, these people had increased to 5696. And in the year 1210, when the barons were getting ready to close in on King John at Runnymede, the number had jumped to 729,112. By 1150 the famiiy numbered 2,916,448. This represents, you must keep in mind, only one fourth of the number of ancestors I had (or should have had) alive in that year. Perhaps I ought to add here that the entire population of England during the twelfth century was just about 2,000,000 souls — men, women, and children.

You see what this means. It means that everyone living in England at that time would be related in the future, so to speak, through me.

The only people who weren’t direct ancestors of mine were the ones who didn’t have any children, but even they didn’t quite escape — they must have been collateral relatives. Actually the family was now in real danger of becoming too inbred. The Norman Conquest came just in the nick of time to bring in an infusion of fresh blood. Also, of course, it opened up the continent of Europe to the family connection. They’re now spread all over the cemeteries of Europe.

but what really gets me is that I must be related to everyone alive now who has English, let alone British, blood. I’m thankful most of them are too remote to be considered kissing cousins. But it’s a queer feeling. Talk about the brotherhood of Man! This is it.

Fortunately one can be too far removed to be acknow ledged a relative. but that doesn’t hold for an ancestor.

No matter how far removed in time or geography, once a parent always an ancestor.

One should not carry this too far. It might not be easy to trace my own relationship to the Royal Family. Come to think of it, that family hasn’t been in England long enough to claim kinship with mine. But since a good fourth of my forebears were Scots, Queen Elizabeth and I probably have a common ancestor lurking somewhere.

I have to laugh when I think howinterested I was to see Anne Hathaway’s home in England because I thought that the contemporary members of my family must have lived in just such a house. When I visited Warwick Castle I wondered what position a relative of mine would have held in such an establishment — a clerk of some sort, maybe. Now I know they were the whole business — high as the lord, low as the swineherd.

You can see what a sturdy folk we are, surviving epidemics, pestilences, disease, war. Enough of us grew up to carry on the family line — or rather lines. Now that I have been thinking about it, I guess I can boast about my family too.