When I was in the 10th Grade, I had to write a research paper for history. We were given a list of Civil War topics from which to choose.
- My choice: General Irvin McDowell
- Why?: Because his last name was the same as mine. And wouldn’t it be cool if I was related to someone famous?
Sadly, Irvin is not my long lost 3rd-Great-Uncle or even my 1st-Cousin-4x-Removed. He was just a very unskilled Union general1.
When I started researching our McDowell lineage, I fell victim to the very same surname trap. There’s a famous physician, Ephraim McDowell2, that I tried and tried and tried to find a genealogical link with. Alas, no! Another famous McDowell not remotely related.
What is it about human nature that makes us desire our fifteen minutes of fame, or barring that, bestows the need to borrow it from a famous relative? I wish I knew the answer. All I really know for certain is that it’s not unique to my McDowell branch of the family.
The Legend of Downing Street
My great-grandmother Binnie Hewitt wrote (in a handwritten history of her family that I am thrilled to have):
My mother was Hester Chandler Downing born in Semington, Wiltshire, England on July 20, 1849 and died January 17, 1930. Her father was Robert Downing. … Downing Street in London was named in honor of my mother’s uncle.
Grandma Binnie went on to claim a Downey relative that was employed as a cook for the Queen of England (that would be Queen Victoria, I believe) as well as another relative who was one of the dressmakers for the Royal Family.
Today, of course, researching the pedigree of Downing Street3 is just a mouse-click away. Not true when Grandma wrote her family history. Or when her family passed down the lore. Then, at a minimum, a special trip to a library would have been required. But why would Grandma have bothered with that? We all want to believe the family stories that are passed down. Especially if said story lets us brush up against fame.
The Coleman Lamp Legacy
While reading the Chilcoat Ancestry lovingly prepared by my grandmother’s sister, I came across this entry: Robert married Nancy Coleman, daughter of Nathan Coleman and Joanna Fall, on October 30, 1847. … Nancy is said to be of the Coleman Lamp & Store Company (not verified).
Great Aunt Jean noted that the Coleman claim-to-fame was not verified. Still, via the miracle of the internet, the legend was relatively easy to debunk (although, I did have to create a Coleman Lamp family tree4 and work backwards to see if there were any links to Nancy’s tree–a little more involved than just reading a Wikipedia article as I had done with Downing Street).
The Hilton Connection
The Hilton connection is less family lore and more a quiet whisper of possibility: Great-Grandma-Hylton always thought they were somehow related to the hotel-chain mogul, despite the different spellings of their names.
Because all of Grandma Hylton’s genealogical records reside in Panama and Jamaica, this brush with greatness has been more difficult for me to research than the others. So there is still an outside possibility that the Jamaican/Panamanian Hyltons are somehow related to the Norwegian immigrant5 that fathered the hotel dynasty. Anyone care to lay odds?
The Kentucky Bourbon Baron
This last anecdote is not really a family legend at all.
We recently bought a Kentucky Bourbon called Colonel E.H. Taylor Small-Batch, which led to the momentary consideration6 of whether said Colonel could be related to our very own branch of Louisiana Taylors. There is, after all, a Kentucky contingency to the Taylor clan.
More digging. More backwards-filled family trees. Same result as in the other cases. No relation… No fame.
I want to make clear that I’m not mocking my family or my relatives. I am simply pointing out an oddity that I’ve noticed, beginning with my own 10th-grade-self and continuing through my genealogical research (and, obviously extending into my alcohol shopping!).
I’d like to say it’s a universal trait, but I only have my own family upon which to base my assertion. Unless, of course, you’d like to share your own Family Brushes with Greatness?
You know I’d love to hear them7.
- Read more about our hapless non-relative Irvin McDowell here.
- The famous Dr. Ephraim McDowell… also not a relative.
- How did Downing Street really get its name?
- To create a Coleman Lamp family tree, I started with Wikipedia, who gave me the basic family info. Then I started a tree in Ancestry and went back three generations (i.e. the founder’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents) then took those lines forward via siblings to see if any of them generated the said Nancy who married Robert Chilcoat.
- Conrad Hilton, the founder of the Hilton Hotels and Resorts, was descended from Norwegian immigrants. As far as I have been able to ascertain about our own branch of the Hyltons, they originally hailed from England.
- I should be honest here and confess that it was me, and not my Taylor husband, who first considered the possibility of being related to the famous E.H. Taylor. I was particularly excited when I learned that this long-lost relative would also link us to Presidents Zachary Taylor and James Madison.
- I think it’s an illness, this desire to be famous… Unless, of course, you prove otherwise with your stories. Leave them in the comments section… For my sanity. Please!