Ken Burns researches his distant relatives

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Posted: Sep 09, 2014 1:20 PM
Ken Burns researches his distant relatives

NEW YORK (AP) — Ken Burns details the connections between two distantly related American presidents in his new documentary series "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," and in the process found his own personal ties.

Burns learned that he was a seventh cousin on his mother's side to President Theodore Roosevelt and an eighth cousin to both President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.

"After a while, we're all related to one another," said the documentary maker, whose 14-hour series unfolds over seven days on PBS, starting Sunday.

That's pretty much the case if you go back 3,000 years, said Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian at Ancestry.com. In Burns' case, it's a closer connection. It means one of Burns' 256 parental ancestors, from a grandparent to his 6th great-grandparent, is shared with Theodore Roosevelt. In the case of Franklin, it's one of 512.

He learned of the connection some three years ago in the midst of researching the series on the Roosevelts, when the New England Historic Genealogical Association looked into his family history.

Burns, whose series on the Civil War probably remains his best-known work, also has connections to two Abrahams: his third great grandfather Abraham Burns who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and a fourth cousin, Abraham Lincoln. That means one of 32 grandparents is shared with Lincoln, according to Ancestry.com

"That really blew my mind and buckled my knees," he said.

It's meaningful to Burns because his work is all about making connections, in historical terms and with an audience, he said. The stories of the Roosevelts have received considerable attention, but he was surprised that nobody had tied them together in a comprehensive way.

"You assume because Teddy Roosevelt is a Republican and Franklin is a Democrat, that they are far apart, and they aren't," he said. "There's more that unites them than divides them."

Burns said that one of his writers, Geoff Ward, told him that his grandfather cast his first presidential vote for Teddy Roosevelt, and all his life considered FDR a charming lightweight in comparison. Ward's father cast his first vote for Franklin Roosevelt, and regarded Teddy as shrill and obstinate.

"The film that we've made shows that both men are wrong, and I like that," he said.

Burns said he always regarded Lincoln as the greatest American president after George Washington. Although he thought FDR was the best president of the 20th century, Roosevelt rose in stature in Burns' eyes during his research to the point where the documentarian believes he stands with Lincoln.

The PBS series airs at 8 p.m. EDT each night, and is immediately repeated at 10 p.m. Meryl Streep provides the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt from her writings, Paul Giamatti voices Theodore Roosevelt and Edward Herrmann portrays FDR.

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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder@ap.org or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.