Kentucky

Obama, McCain seem to have Ky. ancestry

As everybody in Kentucky knows by now, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama will battle each other for the state's eight electoral votes in the presidential election Nov. 4.

What many might not know is that the candidates have something else in common: Both apparently have ancestral ties to Kentucky.

Reports suggesting that both Obama and McCain have Kentucky ancestries first surfaced on the Internet, but since have been supplemented by additional research from Kentucky genealogists. Indeed, Obama political supporters in other states recently have been touting his rural Kentucky ties as proof that he is a typical American.

Requests for comment from the Obama and McCain campaigns last week were not answered. But an Obama spokesman, Bill Burton, did not dispute the genealogical findings when questioned by The Baltimore Sun newspaper last year. Burton told the newspaper that Obama's ancestors were "representative of America."

According to the research, one of John McCain's great-grandmothers, Martha Melinda Kidwell, was born in Laurel County about 1853. The same sources indicate that Barack Obama had white ancestors living in Nelson County well before 1800, and that some of his later ancestors there owned slaves. Other reports indicate that McCain had slave-holding ancestors in Mississippi.

More recent research by Nelson County genealogists further suggests that a log cabin that has long been on display at a park in Bardstown was built by Obama's earliest ancestor there, Revolutionary War veteran John Overall.

Kentucky historian Ron Bryant, who has reviewed some of the online genealogical information, said it is difficult to evaluate without seeing supporting documents, such as marriage licenses and birth records.

"There's always a level of uncertainty in any genealogical research," Bryant said.

McCain's and Obama's supposed ancestral ties to Kentucky are only a small part of the genealogical material about them floating around on the Internet. It includes claims that McCain's great-great-great-great grandfather was a member of Gen. George Washington's staff in the American Revolution, and suggestions that Obama is related to both Vice President Dick Cheney and Old West gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok.

Kathleen Carter, vice chairman of the Bourbon County Democratic Party, said reaction in Kentucky to news of the candidates' apparent ancestral ties here probably would "run the gamut," depending on individual political or racial mind-sets.

"Don't you think ... there would be people who would be horrified to discover that they were related to (Obama) just because they're racist, or because they're strong Republicans," Carter said last week. "Other people would be just thrilled."

Carter added that she "would be horrified to discover I was related to McCain."

Obama's ancestral ties to Kentucky and Kansas — where his mother was born — are being touted by some of his backers, apparently in hopes of countering persistent rumors that the candidate is a liberal, an elitist or a Muslim who has nothing in common with average Americans. (He is a Christian, not a Muslim.)

U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, campaigning for Obama in his swing state, has noted Obama's Kentucky and Kansas ancestry, telling Virginia voters that Obama "is just like you."

Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. It is his mother's side of the family that has Kentucky links.

John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 to a father from Iowa and a mother from Oklahoma. His mother's ancestry traces back to Kentucky.

Reports of both men's Kentucky links apparently first appeared more than a year ago on the Web site of William Addams Reitwiesner, an employee at the Library of Congress who does genealogical research in his off hours. Reitwiesner's site lists ancestries for many U.S. political figures, including McCain, Obama and vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

The site states that genealogical findings on McCain and Obama are only a "draft" and should not be considered final.

Reitwiesner last week declined to discuss his genealogy research with a Herald-Leader reporter. He also has declined interviews with other newspapers.

A similar account of Obama's Kentucky ancestry also appears on the Web site of a group calling itself the Concerned Members of the Kentucky Historical Society. The group is not connected to the state historical society, a society spokeswoman said.

Susan Lewis, vice president of the Nelson County Genealogical Roundtable, said her group first heard of Obama's supposed Nelson County ancestry through a Florida newspaper account that cited Reitwiesner's research. After checking Reitwiesner's Web site, Lewis and fellow Nelson County genealogist DeAnna Fisher began their own look into Obama's Nelson County roots.

Lewis said Fisher soon concluded that John Overall, builder of the historic cabin that is displayed at Old Bardstown Village park, was Obama's earliest Nelson County ancestor. He apparently was Obama's great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, she said.

Overall, born in Virginia, fought in the Revolutionary War and received a land grant in Nelson County as a reward. He built the cabin on that land about 1784. The structure was moved to the Old Bardstown Village for historical display about 20 years ago, park officials said, long before Obama became a national political figure.

"The cabin is Obama's ancestral home, or at least one of them," Lewis said.

According to census data on Reitwiesner's Web site, Obama's great-great-great-great grandfather, George Washington Overall, and his great-great-great-great great grandmother, Mary Duvall, both owned slaves in Nelson County about 1850.

"It is amazing when you think about it," Lewis said. "Here you have a black man running for president and he is not descended from American slaves, he is descended from American slave owners. When you look into genealogy, you never know what you will find."

Meanwhile, Barbara Knox, a Scott County genealogy enthusiast, says she used Reitwiesner's data to trace some of Obama's Nelson County forebears to Bourbon County. Indeed, she thinks that David Bowles, a Revolutionary War veteran listed on a plaque at the Bourbon County Courthouse, might be an Obama ancestor.

"I can't swear it is the same man," Knox said. "And, of course, I'm assuming that his (Reitwiesner's) research is correct."

Judy Krahenbuhl, an amateur researcher with the new Laurel County History Museum and Genealogy Center, said she learned some time ago that information on the Internet suggested John McCain had ancestral ties to the county.

She then did her own research, turning up the 1880 Laurel County marriage certificate of McCain's great grandparents, A.D. Fletcher and Martha Melinda Kidwell. The Fletchers later moved on to Texas, where a daughter, Myrtle Fletcher, was born in 1885. She became John McCain's maternal grandmother.

"Based on what I've seen, I'm not doubting this," Krahenbuhl said. She noted that a community in Laurel County is named "Fletcher." Krahenbuhl said she's planning to send the information she's collected to McCain's family.

  Comments