Ken Burns series on FDR helps me discover my own history

William-Jennings-Bryan-and-Woodrow-WilsonSeptember 21, 2014- By Steven E. Greer, MD

I watched with fascination all of the episodes of the Ken Burns PBS series about the lives of Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt when, midway through the series on my TV screen, up popped a photo of William Jennings Bryan. I said out loud, “Hey, I know that dude.”

William Jennings Bryan was the Secretary of State under President Wilson during WW1.  He was also the Democratic nominee for president three times, but he is best known for his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and the Scopes Trial.

Why do I care? Well, I have long been told that we are related to William Jennings Bryan, and that my own brother Bryan is named after him. But that is about all I knew. I knew very little else, including the history lesson that I listed in the opening paragraph.

It turns out that my Great Great Grandfather on my mother’s side was the brother of William Jennings Bryan’s father. My Great great Grandfather, A.W. Bryan was William Jennings Bryan’s cousin. My mother visited her grandfather often and the whole related family of cousins all knew one another well, much as the Roosevelt clans associated with one another, as depicted in Ken Burns’s documentary.

The Bryan name died out on our side when none of the five children of my Great Great Grandfather had sons. However, to honor the Bryan surname (or likely to benefit from it much like all of the Roosevelts have done), many of my relatives have Bryan as a first name, including my own brother.

This might sound like a stretch to brag that I am related to William Jennings Bryan, but in the 1890’s and early 1900’s in Iowa and Nebraska, it was a small world and all of the relatives knew one another very well. There are many stories of my direct ancestors vacationing with the Jennings-Bryan family.

It is interesting to note that my mother’s side of the family is Scots-Irish as well as my father’s side. Again, so what? Well, I had no idea that I was even Scottish until about ten years ago.

How is it possible that I was so clueless about my ancestry, you might ask? Well, in the Midwest, people are not as obsessed about family heritage as they are in New York. When I moved to New York, I was amazed at how people would asked early on in conversations, “What are you?”.

I am just a white trash “American” in my mind, and fine with that. I do not believe that family lineage makes one either great or stigmatized, and that belief makes me very “American”.

Anyway, it is interesting to learn from where all of my reading and writing skills come. It sure was not my father, who is a math and science person. It filtered down from my mother’s side.

My own Grandmother had a Masters degree, spoke fluent German despite not being German, and taught English, all of which were rare for a women in her day. Her father was the Dean of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry. Her father’s father was closely related to people like the Secretary of State, etc. My own mother got married young, so she skipped college, but her English skills were passed down to me.

If you have not done so, you should watch the Ken Burn series on FDR. You will find your own family history lessons in it as well.

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