How a Family Tree Connection Made History Homework More Meaningful

Pages and pages of History review to end the 2nd quarter of my daughter’s 8th grade year cost her the entire Sunday evening this past weekend. She had already worked half of the afternoon on Math. I walked into the dining room to find her staring at the page in disbelief – and doing nothing. It was after eight and she still had seventeen sentences to write. So I sat down to help her break the task down into mentally manageable pieces.

Her review required her to write a sentence about each of the terms and names listed on the review page at the end of the section. Simple enough, she had to leaf through the book to find the location of the bold terms, and inevitably, there were several on each page in the same order she found them on the list.

We turned to the page that contained the terms she was looking for and I noticed a name. George Catlin. On her mother’s side, my daughter has a long line of ancestors by the surname of Catlin. George Catlin was famous as a painter and author, and lived in the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. My daughter’s grandmother on that side of the family has a maiden name of Catlin. Years ago I traced the Catlin line back to the 1600’s when my daughter’s ancestor Thomas Catlin had arrived in Connecticut from England in or about the year 1630. A reasonable presumption led me to believe that George Catlin might be a relative of hers, being that the Catlin name wasn’t a terribly common surname of the period.

I opened her family tree file and looked back to the time period of when George Catlin lived which was from 1796 to 1872. My wife and I laughed when we both said we kept picturing George Carlin the comedian. Wikipedia stated George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania in 1796. My daughter’s Catlin line resided mostly in Connecticut until the late 1700s and they started moving west through PA, OH, IN and finally settling in Illinois. For a single generation they did live in PA, and it happened to have been about 60 miles away from the birthplace of George Catlin. This was encouraging.

The rest of the story unravels pretty quickly as I opened to look up the family tree for George Catlin. Most of the time you’ll find that historical figures have been traced already by someone, so the first place I looked for him was in the Public Member Trees. Sure enough there he was. With no immediate association I could find to my daughter’s family tree on that page, I clicked the name of George Catlin’s father Putnam Catlin. Things began to fall together.

Family tree connection to George Catlin


Putnam Catlin’s father was Eli Catlin and his mother was Elizabeth Way (Noted from a then-difficult to read document in my file identifying her maiden name as Ely or Way). It’s been years since I looked at these names but what I find interesting is how quickly I can recognize names I’ve researched in the past. Eli and Elizabeth were the connection I was looking for. Eli Catlin was Putnam Catlin’s brother. A match!

Quickly I filled in the connecting descendants of Eli Catlin in my family tree software. I haven’t been part of that family for nearly nine years so I hadn’t previously completed the listings of siblings that far back. A few minutes later I returned to the dining room with a chart showing my daughter’s connection to the individual in her history book. George Catlin it appears is my daughter’s first cousin, eight times removed.

Facts and sources are yet to be documented, but there’s enough information linking them in the Ancestry Public Member Tree to safely call this a 99% probability of a match. My daughter was surprised and pleased to learn this. She took a copy of the chart I printed and put it right in her history book.

The next thing she did was call her mother to tell her. “Dad figured out that I’m related to someone in my history book named George Catlin.” Her mother replied “he was an artist of some kind, right?” So much for discovery. Her mother had already heard of him but at least I succeeded in helping my daughter find her history homework to be more meaningful.

I told her “With ancestors here going back as far as the 1600s, you’re bound to be related to someone that was either historically famous or someone associated with a historical figure.” Pre-colonial ancestors arriving in about 1630 meant that her relatives shared this country with only about 4,600 other white inhabitants at the time (According to a reference on  Further, her family record states that Thomas Catlin and his family arrived and settled in Connecticut. Connecticut had very little record of any population until 1650, meaning my daughter’s ancestors might well have been among the first settlers of that state. Fascinating. She also happens to be related to Phineas Catlin, who the town of Catlin, New York was named for. But that’s another chapter.