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Churchill's American Heritage

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Churchill's American Heritage
By Winston S. Churchill


WHILE recently assembling my grandfather's writings on America into a single volume entitled The Great Republic (reviewed in this issue. Ed.), I used it as the opportunity to research further my family's American forebears.

Winston Churchill was half American by birth - a fact of which he was deeply proud. In his first address to a joint session of the United States Congress, on 26 December 1941, he teased the assembled Senators and Representatives with the mischievous suggestion, "If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way 'round, I might have got here on my own!"

His mother, Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, New York, later Lady Randolph Churchill, was a noted beauty of her day and Winston, as a young cavalry officer, shamelessly used all the influence she was able to bring to bear in his quest to see action in different parts of the globe from Cuba in 1895 and the North-West Frontier of India in 1897, to the Sudan in 1898 and South Africa in 1899. Through his maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, sometime proprietor and editor of The New York Times, he had at least two forebears who fought against the British in the American War of Independence: one great-grandfather, Samuel Jerome, served in the Berkshire County Militia while another, Major Libbeus Ball, of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, marched and fought with George Washington's army at Valley Forge. Furthermore Leonard Jerome's maternal grandfather, Reuben Murray, served as a lieutenant in the Connecticut and New York Regiments, while his wife Clara's grandfather, Ambrose Hall, was a captain in the Berkshire County Militia at Bennington. Indeed I have found no evidence of any ancestor who fought with the British in this misguided conflict, which Chatham and Burke had been so eager to avoid!

Not only did Winston Churchill have Revolutionary blood in his veins but, possibly, native American as well. According to family tradition, Jennie's maternal grandmother, Clarissa Willcox, was half-Iroquois. Clarissa's father, David Willcox, is recorded as marrying Anna Baker and settling in Palmyra, New York in 1791. The implication is that Clarissa may have been a half Iroquois accepted into the family. The truth will perhaps never be known. It is unsurprising that such matters, most especially in those days, went unrecorded. What is certain is that Winston's mother, Jennie, and her sister Leonie, firmly believed the story to be true, having been told by their mother, Clara: "My dears, there is something you should know. It may not be chic but it is rather interesting...." Furthermore, the family portrait of his maternal grandmother Clara, which I have inherited from my grandfather, lends credence to the suggestion that she may have been quarter-Iroquois, with her oval face and mysteriously dark features.

In recent years, genealogical researchers have sought to cast scorn on the suggestion that Clara's descent is other than "American Colonial of English background" (see "Urban Myths," this issue -Ed.). But this fails to explain why, some 130 years ago, Clara would have told her daughters the story, at a time when it would have been deeply unfashionable to make such a claim. Nor does it explain the evidence of Clara's features which have little in common with the Anglo-Saxon. Furthermore, it is undisputed that the densely wooded country south of Lake Ontario around Palmyra, New York, where Clarissa Willcox was born, was the heartland of the Iroquois nation.

My cousin, Anita Leslie, in The Fabulous Leonard Jerome, quotes her grandmother Leonie, remarking on her exceptional energy: "That's my Indian blood, only don't let Mama know I told you!" While it is unlikely that the question of the family's native American heritage can be firmly proved either way, I have little doubt as to the truth of the matter. For me physical features speak louder than any entry in a register of births, but I leave it to the reader to make his or her own judgment of the matter.

WHILE compiling The Great Republic I read that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, had made available thirty years of their researches on both sides of the Atlantic (www.familysearch.org), dumping on the Internet the records of some 300 million individuals who had been born, been married or had died on either side of the Atlantic. The system is somewhat quirky, in that it refused to recognise my grandfather's name, but when I punched in the name of Jennie Jerome and her parents, suddenly an amazing family tree sprouted forth, detailing some 255 ancestors on the American side of my family, of whose existence I had previously been unaware. Many of the branches run back to before the time of Columbus, one even through twenty-eight generations to the West Country to one Gervaise Gifford born in 1122 at Whitchurch, Dorset. That particular branch of the family barely moved fifteen miles in the space of fifteen generations before William Gifford, born in 1614 at Milton Damerel, Devon, and who married at St. Martins, London, on 4 March 1683, sailed for America, dying soon afterwards at Sandwich, Massachusetts in 1687.

Of these 255 ancestors I discovered no fewer than 26 who were born in England but died in America. To me they are true heroes - for these were the men and women who founded the America of today. In the course of my researches, I suddenly stumbled on the fact that one of my ancestors, John Cooke, who died in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1694, had been born in Leyden, Holland, in 1607. Aware that nearly half the Pilgrims on the Mayflower had been known as the "Leyden Community" - Walloon Protestants escaping religious persecution -I was prompted to wonder if any of my forebears had made that momentous voyage.

Within seconds, using an admirable Internet search engine straight out of P. G. Wodehouse, appropriately named www.askjeeves.com, I was able to call up via the Mayflower website the full manifest of all 102 passengers and was fascinated to discover (assuming the Morman database to be correct) that Winston Churchill, ten generations removed, had not one but three ancestors who sailed on the Mayflower and who, more importantly, were among the mere fifty who survived the rigours of that first cruel winter on the shores of Massachusetts.

John Cooke, a lad of just 13, was one of those passengers, as was his father, Francis, and his future father-in-law, Richard Warren. I was further intrigued to learn that through them we may be linked to no fewer than three Presidents of the United States - Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Bush‹and to Alan Shephard, the first American in space and the fifth to walk on the moon.

The one question mark regarding this lineage is whether John Cooke's and his wife Sarah Warren's daughter Elizabeth was indeed the mother of Churchill's ancestor, Daniel Willcox, Jr., born c. 1656/57 at Dartmouth, Massachusetts. While the Morman database is clear on this point, the suggestion has been advanced that Elizabeth may have been the second wife of Daniel Willcox - therefore only the step-mother of Daniel Jr.- in which case the direct link to the Mayflower would not be valid. There is here a conflict of evidence as yet unresolved.

What is undisputed is that this injection of American blood, through my great-grandmother Jennie Jerome, kick-started to new triumphs the Marlborough dynasty which had slumbered through seven generations since John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, had won his series of dazzling victories that had humbled France's "Sun King," Louis XIV, at the turn of the 18th century. ,

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Mr. Churchill, Sir Winston's grandson, is a Trustee of The Churchill Center.