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  • #41 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: Some Personal Notes -- or Why I Trace the Ancestry of Notable Figures

    Gary Boyd Roberts

    Published Date : November 24, 1999
    In the last two – and final – issues of NEXUS, the latter of which is now arriving in members’ homes, I treat notable British descendants of the Lygons (in America, Ligons) of Madresfield, Worcestershire. In the first two issues of New England Ancestors (Jan.-Feb. and March-April 2000) I shall treat notable American descendants of this clan. I had earlier identified my immigrant ancestor, Col. Thomas Ligon of Henrico Co., Virginia (whose father had previously been considered the American pioneer), and wrote on Col. Thomas’s father, grandfather and son, all of the same name, in The Virginia Genealogist 22 (1978): 253-55, 23 (1979): 80. I have mentioned parts of my own ancestry in the acknowledgments to The Royal Descents of 500 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States (RD500, 1st ed., 1993), on the dedication page of Ancestors of American Presidents (1989 and 1995), and in two previous Notable Kin columns – "Some Descendants – And Kinsmen of Descendants – of Pocahontas" and "New England in Texas," both of which were amplified in Notable Kin, Volume Two (1999). I also published my six-generation ancestor table in The American Genealogist (TAG) 55 (1979): 114-15. 

    Corrections and additions to this last-mentioned table can be readily listed as follows. My father, Jack Carl Roberts of Houston, died in 1990. My grandfather, John Christopher Roberts of Corsicana (and later Fort Worth), Texas, died in 1951; my great-great-grandfather Calvin H. Roberts, according to his tombstone, was born in 1822 and died in 1892; and my matrilineal great-great-grandfather was William Wade Peevey. Among my sixth-generation forebears, #s 34-35 lived in Johnston (not Johnson) Co., N.C.; #37, the wife of Brittain Langdon (1792-1876) of Johnston Co., was Margaret "Peggy" Carrell (d. c.1836); #39, the wife of Benjamin Stephenson (1796-1874) of Johnston Co., was Margaret "Peggy" Cross; #s 44-45 were not James Devin and Temperance Cox, but rather William Devin (c.1795-1840) and Elizabeth Croff of Pittsylvania Co., Va.; and #44, William Devin, was a brother of #47, Mrs. Lucy Devin Beck.

    Generally speaking, however, I often seem (at first glance to my readers) not to have spent much of my professional life tracing my own forebears. A bit of personal history in this regard will be useful. I was raised in suburban Houston and Dallas, Texas, and first became interested in genealogy as a result of seeing the movie "Royal Wedding" and being subsequently fascinated, at the age of about 8, by everything I could learn about the British royal family (told me as a story by a wonderful older babysitter named Mrs. Stephens). A bit later my paternal aunt revealed that her grandmother Devin was "descended from the Duchess of Devonshire." My maternal grandmother had succumbed to my request for her 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, and from ages 8 through 10 or so I eagerly read all the articles in it about English kings and various noble families from whom the several earliest Duchesses of Devonshire were descended. In college, by the way, I discovered the source of this family story – a Nolan/Nowlan/Nowlin ancestor of my great-grandmother Lucy Elizabeth Devin was a soldier in the army of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, father of the first Duchess of Devonshire.

    Genealogy, royalty, and noble English families were thus linked in my mind from childhood. I discovered my Ligon descents – my Boyd great-grandparents were second cousins, grandchildren of Ligon sisters of Halifax Co., Va – at about age 11. I then eagerly delved into medieval genealogy after first viewing the 1947 Ligon Family and Connections at the Virginia State Library in Richmond during the summer between 6th and 7th grade. Maddeningly, however, that volume did not mention my two great-great-great-grandmothers. My cousin Margaret Hardwick Miller unravelled our exact descent from Col. Thomas Ligon (mostly via Kentucky primary materials) when I was in high school and at the University of Texas. I explored English Lygon descendants (and the noted progeny of Dennis, Berkeley, and Mowbray forebears of the Lygons) at Yale, where I also traced the New England ancestry of my great-great-grandfather Ephraim H. Root (1813-1880), a New York native and son of migrants from Connecticut. In graduate school I developed from some more of Margaret Miller’s research my second royal descent, from Act. Gov. Jeremiah Clarke of R.I.

    Within this general narrative, a bit of "psychobabble" is perhaps not amiss. Genealogy was my form of wanderlust and ultimately rebellion. An intellectual boy, fascinated by history and uninterested in sports, was somewhat out of place in 1950s Texas, and I longed for the adventure and variety of different regions, leaders (kings, nobles, and gentry in addition to politicians and television stars), centuries, and types of distinction beyond business, sports and local society. The suburbs of Dallas and Houston seemed on the surface mediocre and self-satisfied; I longed also to meet and be a part of the world of substantial achievement. Sputnik was launched in 1957; in response, American educators introduced advanced placement or "major works" classes. From the 8th through the 12th grades I massively devoured huge Victorian novels and what were then considered the major classics of Western literature; and by my senior year at M.B. Lamar High School in Houston was determined to leave Texas, go East to college, and explore the world of nationally distinguished men and women, vibrantly creative intellectuals, and all-night philosophical arguments about religion and politics. Via advanced placement exams (some unique to departments at U.T.) and assiduous study, I compiled in my first several months in college the highest semester record in the history of the University of Texas. I was then accepted as a transfer student at Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Williams. I chose Yale (I had attended a father-son event sponsored by local alumni as a junior in high school, and was almost obsessively smitten at once, sight unseen) – and was thus finally able to enter the world I had idealized and longed for since childhood.

    I was not disappointed – Yale, Sterling Library, New York City, the New York Public Library, my roommates and classmates, the many lectures I audited, New Wave cinema, the glorious old opera house on 39th in NYC (with Nilsson, Sutherland, Tebaldi, etc.), and Broadway plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams especially, opened to me, it seemed then, the entire Western intellectual world. Late in my Yale career – and throughout my graduate school years at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley – I began to combine my interest in royalty, love of genealogy, and passion for intellectual creation by tracing the ancestry of notable figures in American, British, and European history, and developing sociological hypotheses based on these findings. This work, I felt, was a unique combination of my experience, could become a genuine addition to knowledge, and might suggest trends, patterns, and perhaps even solutions to social problems, that would otherwise remain hidden or elusive.

    Thus, for me, the excitement of genealogy is in both the compiling of a sizable number of accurate pedigrees (those derived largely from the major classics of printed scholarship, not necessarily proved in each generation by documents I personally review) and the formulation of historical hypotheses they suggest. As I have noted in lectures and elsewhere, the ancestry of most notable American figures, five or six generations back, is very much the same as that of their less "distinguished" contemporaries. Often these latter, however, are themselves forebears of later notables. Since most Americans of colonial ancestry (Puritan, Quaker and/or Tidewater esp.) can claim between 500 and 2000 "household name" figures among 8th-12th cousins, the immediate ancestry of these notables appears often in the charts of genealogists I meet daily at NEHGS.

    Additionally, "The Mowbray Connection," my life’s work, contains at its center the Lygon cluster of early American immigrants whose noted progeny I am now covering in NEXUS and New England Ancestors. I thus ground my reflections on the genealogical evolution of much of the Western world on a very large clan (Lygons, etc.) that is a subset of an even larger "connection" – descendants of Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk (d. 1399, a great-great-grandson of Edward I, King of England), and/or Elizabeth FitzAlan (d. 1425, also a great-great-granddaughter of Edward I, and mother of two daughters by a later husband). These Mowbray descendants, and those of the Duke’s sisters, of the Duchess’s sisters or two double first cousins, and then of near kinsmen sharing over half the ancestry of the Duke’s children, include a large section of the Tudor-Stuart nobility and gentry, most major Whig clans of 18th and 19th century England, almost all of the 20th century British "establishment," many clans in the 19th century "intellectual aristocracy," over 250 (probably over 300) immigrants to the American colonies or the United States, and the various colonial élites, Boston-Salem merchants, Harvard-Yale intellectuals and "flowers of New England," tycoons, Social Register leaders, pioneers, and post-World War II suburban middle-class Americans descended from these élites and immigrants with royal forebears. A quarter of the ancestry of both Mowbray and his wife was continental and royal (Plantagenet, Capetian, and Hohenstaufen esp.); sharing it are many of the major families and historical figures of modern France, Rhineland Germany, and Austria – and sharing parts of it are many noble families of Spain, Italy, Sweden, Poland, northern and eastern Germany, and Russia. I have several times written on the intellectual underpinnings of "The Mowbray Connection," most fully in the 50+-page introduction to RD500. What I hereby admit is that indeed genealogically "The Mowbray Connection," much of my work on the ancestry of presidents and notables, and my studies of royal genealogy in particular, are derived from my interest in Lygons and my own New England ancestors (including Howlands, Lathrops, Stanleys, Dwights, Baldwins, Martins, Stoughtons, Scudders, etc., probably 40+ heads-of-family immigrants in all), via Ephraim H. Root or Quaker ancestors who moved from Cape Cod to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Tennessee to Texas, or from Rhode Island to North Carolina to Kentucky to Texas. From myself I thus move genealogically to much of the entire Western world, as do most readers and many of the NEHGS patrons I try to help.

    My own ancestry, however, is not special, but typical – and it is not the biography of individuals but the patterns denoting "typicalness" that interest me. I often tell patrons that I care "not one whit" about biography or "putting flesh on the bones"of ancestors or pedigrees. I care instead about kinships among large groups or large numbers of notables over several centuries or more. Such an emphasis is the result of childhood experience, intellectual wanderlust, and academic training. I am sympathetic to genealogists who wish to memorialize their immediate families with lavish detail and documentation – I depend on the collective accuracy of thousands of such efforts – but my own passion is for the skeleton pedigree, 20 or more generations in length, that when combined with other such works suggests something new and interesting about the genealogical evolution of the Western world. Movies, novels, paintings, operas, works of philosophy, and political events mirror entire societies, and reveal much of their cultural context. So too do pedigrees, and it is the delineation of at least some of their implications that is my life’s work.

    In my next column, I shall treat the Yankee forebears of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., current publisher of The New York Times.

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