Do you think you have royalty, a politician, an entertainer, or an outlaw in your family tree? Many of us do. The connections are often not part of our direct line of descent (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents), but more often are through a collateral line (aunts, uncles, cousins).
Some people grow up with family stories about how they are related to a famous person. Proving a relationship to a famous person is sometimes the reason people become interested in genealogy. Many of these stories are based entirely on a shared surname. It's never a good idea to assume a relationship because the surname is the same.
If you find yourself researching a famous person, start as you would with anyone in your family tree. Famous people, whether they were born famous or not, generated many of the same records as our lesser known relatives. Begin with records relating to birth, marriage, divorce, and death; then continue with census, newspapers, land, and military records. Try not to make any preconceived conclusions. Wait until the records support that there is a connection to the famous person.
Don't start with the famous person and try to work forward to yourself. Rather, start with yourself and work backward (basic genealogy concept). In most cases, this will mean working back several generations on your direct line and then branching out to collateral lines.
Some resources that may be available for famous family members are:
Biographies: These can be in the form of a book written just about that person or Web sites like Biography.com. The famous person may be included in one of the biographical dictionaries. Some of these dictionaries are general and some cover a specific occupation or geographic area. Who's Who is a good example of this type of publication.
Periodicals indexes: These indexes will list articles in magazines, journals, newspapers, and newsletters. They are usually searchable by subject and author and are available at most major libraries. Some are available online.
Newspapers: These are a rich source of information for famous people. Life events such as marriages and death are very common items found for a famous person. There will also be main news features and commentaries by and about famous ancestors, especially if they were historical figures. Indexed historical newspapers are available online through Web sites like the Library of Congress Chronicling America, Ancestry.com, Newspaper Archive, GenealogyBank, Footnote, ProQuest Historical Newspapers and others. There are also local and state Web sites like the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection.
Online: There are many Web sites that feature the family trees of celebrities, presidents, royalty, criminals, etc. Use a search engine to find the site needed for your research. Many of these sites have no source citations and should be used with caution.
The main difference between researching famous family members and common ones is the amount of information usually found for the famous person. I come from ordinary folks and I have found no celebrities or famous people in my family tree. In my experience it has been difficult to find any written information about my ancestors. I have to dig and dig and I'm usually lucky to find even an obituary. But researching a celebrity or famous person can be different– the sheer volume of information written about them can be daunting.
Although I have not found anyone famous in my family tree, I have found someone in the family of my husband, Roger. His name was Commodore George Washington Nutt and he is Roger's first cousin, four times removed. James Nutt was Commodore Nutt's grandfather and he is also Roger's 4th great-grandfather. Commodore Nutt is not famous today but he was quite a celebrity back in the 1860s and 70s. He was a 36-inch tall dwarf in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York and toured all over the world in Barnum and other shows. He was discovered by Barnum in 1863 living on his father's New Hampshire farm. Commodore Nutt is most famous for being the best man at the wedding of the undoubtedly more famous dwarf, General Tom Thumb (George Stratton), who also part of Barnum's show.
There are many stories that have been written about Commodore Nutt. He was a regular news item up until he died in 1881.
It can be a long journey searching for a famous person who is hiding behind myths, half-truths, speculations, and lies. But the possibility of a famous person in your genealogy will make the search exciting whether the connection turns out to be true or not.