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Curious Family History


Barack Obama: Ye Olden Relative 'Twas a Bit Insane
Because Obama's the most prominent African-American in presidential history, many people overlook the other branch of his ancestry—that of his mother, which stretches back to Colonial times in America. Obama’s weirdest relative is his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jonathan Singletary, who in 1664 was found guilty of slander by a Massachusetts court after accusing an acquaintance of witchcraft. He was also a bit of a troublemaker, once arrested for stealing from the governor’s home, and another time accused of killing a man’s dog and throwing it on a fire. Subsequently, he was whipped and banned from Plymouth.

Obama has ancestors who owned slaves, but none in America were slaves themselves. George Washington Overall, a great-great-great-great-grandfather, and Mary Duvall, a great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, both owned slaves. Two of Obama’s great-great-great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War: Christopher Columbus Clark served in the Missouri militia, as did Harbin Wilburn McCurry, who was forced to fight after being arrested by Union forces in Arkansas and charged with fleeing south to avoid enlistment. Meanwhile, Obama’s great-uncle Charles T. Payne was part of the 89th Infantry Division that liberated Ohrdruf, a Nazi work camp in Germany, on April 4, 1945. Not all the fighters are on Obama’s mother’s side of the family. Obama’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Owiny was a warrior and leader of the Luo tribe, which defeated the Bantu armies in Alego, Kenya. Genealogical research and census records show that political ambitions may be in Obama’s blood: His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Mareen Duvall makes Obama a distant relative to Dick Cheney and Harry Truman. Plus, he shares his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents Samuel Hinckley and Sarah Soole Hickley with George W. Bush, making the two eleventh cousins.

John McCain: 200-Odd Years of War
McCain says that his family has fought in every American war, from the Revolutionary War through the current conflict in Iraq (his son, Jimmy, serves there with the Marines). John Young, a captain in a militia during the Revolutionary War, “caught the attention” of George Washington and “was welcomed to the general’s staff,” McCain writes in Faith of My Fathers. (McCain’s father was a member of the Society of Cincinnati, a group for descendants of officers in the American Revolution.) Prior to that, in 1764, Captain Young had tracked down some Indians who scalped his brother in the Battle of Back Creek, fought them, and returned with the scalp to bury it with his brother’s body. A few of McCain’s relatives fought in the Civil War—for the losing side. In fact, Salon revealed to McCain in 2000 that his great-great-uncle William Alexander McCain owned 52 slaves on his Mississippi plantation. He died fighting in the Mississippi cavalry in the Civil War. His son Joseph Watt McCain also fought in the war—kind of. He “passed out at the sight of blood” in his first battle and was left for dead, McCain writes. Another of William’s sons, McCain’s great-great-uncle Henry Pinckney McCain, became known as the “father of the Selective Service” for helping to organize the draft during World War I. McCain’s grandfather John “Slew” McCain Sr. was an innovator of carrier tactics and served under Admiral Halsey in the Pacific in World War II. (Halsey once remarked that Slew McCain was “not much more than my right arm.”) He was present at the signing of the peace treaty with Japan onboard the U.S.S. Missouri. McCain’s father, John S. McCain Jr., served as a submarine commander during World War II. Between 1968 and 1972 he was command commander-in-chief of all American forces in the Pacific, and ordered the bombing of Hanoi with the knowledge that his son was held captive as a prisoner of war there.


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