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Interesting Genealogical Controversies and Great Writers

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  • Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)
    In 1889, when Whitman was trying to recover from the last stroke, which would eventually kill him, he was visited by Horace Traubel and Tom Harned, who noticed the famous photograph of Whitman and Do...
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861)
    Wikipedia Biographical Summary: "... Elizabeth Barrett Browning (6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England a...
  • Alexandre Dumas, père (1802 - 1870)
    Alexandre Dumas , born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie , also known as Alexandre Dumas, père , was a French writer, best known for his historical novels of high adventure which have made him one of the mo...

Let's see where we can go with this project. In the past week, I stumbled upon two great writers -- Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- whose genealogies are interesting and controversial.

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, claims to be a descendant of Joseph Whitman, son of Reverend Zachariah Whitman, a founder of Milford, Connecticut.

A recent book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores her family tree. Her father was born to a planter family who had been in Jamaica for four generations. The book looks at evidence for Elizabeth's grandfather being Creole and Elizabeth's father being terrified that the British society in which he lived after returning to England would find this fact out.

Walt Whitman

In his own words, here, he gives his genealogy, that he is a direct descendant of Reverend Zachariah Whitman, a founder of Milford, Connecticut. Yet, genealogists have believed for at least a century that Rev Whitman died childless, did not have a son, Joseph, and left his estate to a nephew.

My father’s side, probably the fifth generation from the first English arrivals in New England, were at the same time farmers on the own land, two or three miles off, at West Hills, Suffolk County. The Whitman in the Eastern States, and so branching west and south, starts undoubtedly from one John Whitman, born in 1602 in old England, where he grew up, married, and his eldest son was born in 1629. He came over in the “True Love” in 1640 to America to live in Weymouth, Mass., which place became the mother - hive of the New Englanders of the name; he died in 1692. His brother, Rev. Zachariah Whitman, also came over in the “True Love”, either at the same time or soon after and lived at Milford Conn. A son of this Zachariah, named Joseph, migrated to Huntington, Long Island, and permanently settled there. Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary, Vol IV, page 524, gets the Whitmans firmly established at Huntington per this Joseph before 1664. It is quite certain that from that beginning, and from Joseph, the West Hill Whitmans, and all others in Suffolk County, have since radiated, myself among the number. John and Zachariah both went to England diverse times; they had large families and several of their children were born in the old country. We hear of the father of John and Zachariah, Abijah Whitman, who goes over into the 1500s, but we know little about him, except that he also was for some time in America.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, daughter of Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett

Alexandre Dumas, père

As is suspected in the case of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alexandre Dumas' ancestors were Creole. Dumas' paternal grandparents were Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and Général commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint-Domingue — now Haiti — and Marie-Cesette Dumas, an Afro-Caribbean Creole of mixed French and African ancestry.[2][3] Their son, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, married Marie-Louise Élisabeth Labouret, the daughter of an innkeeper. Thomas-Alexandre, then a general in Napoleon's army, fell out of favor and the family was impoverished when Dumas was born. Despite Alexandre Dumas' success and aristocratic background, his being of mixed race would affect him all his life. In 1843 he wrote a short novel, Georges, that addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. He once remarked to a man who insulted him about his mixed-race background:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.