It's all relative

By Lisa Britton/For the Baker City Herald May 30, 2012 10:07 am

Bill Ward of Baker City has spent hundreds of hours researching his family’s history.
Bill Ward of Baker City has spent hundreds of hours researching his family’s history.

For the Baker City Herald

Bill Ward’s computer room is now a study in world history, from photographs of United States presidents to the historic Alnwick Castle that became Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films.

And he can trace his connection to it all — 33 presidents, the Royal family, Abraham Lincoln, Judy Garland. He can follow his roots back thousands of years.

“All the way to Christ,” he says.

This all started three years ago when Ward, 65, needed something to do during the long winter.

He suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which causes his fingers and toes to feel numb in cold weather. So he stays inside during the cold season, which can last pretty long in these parts.

He had a start on his family history thanks to his father’s cousin, who in the 1960s traced the family back three or four generations. He sent copies of his research to family members.

“I sat on my copy until three years ago,” Ward says.

He sat down at his computer and searched the name of his great-grandfather.

“I just thought I’d type in Ernest Alfred Ward in Google.”

One hit was a post from 2003 by a woman looking for information about Ernest Alfred Ward.

“I thought, ‘Who’s the heck this Bonnie?’” he says.

Turns out her grandfather was Ernest’s brother, and she’d hit a dead end trying to research that branch of the family tree.

“She sent me the first four generations so I started Googling them,” Ward says.

His major find was William Ward, who was born in 1603 and founded Sudbury and Marlborough, Mass. William Ward’s great-grandson was Artemas Ward, an American major general in the American Revolutionary War.

This family link was a jackpot — the genealogy of both William and Artemas had already been documented.

“Because they were famous, they’ve been researched to Christ,” Ward said.

Two charts on the wall document Ward’s research through three surnames — Ward, de Vescy and Percy (which goes through three variations, from Pierce to Pearce to Percy).

The art of genealogy has its own language.

The first generations are easy: father, grandfather, great-grandfather.

After that, you switch to numbers — your great-great-grandfather is one, and so on.

Ward can trace back to about 50.

Research isn’t always simple, like when surnames are spelled differently from one generation to the next.

“They don’t always have the death dates, and sometimes it’s ‘circa,’ ” he says.

As mentioned, Ward can trace his family roots to 33 U.S. presidents.

But that doesn’t make him unique, he says.

“Everybody has famous people in their family — they just can’t find them. I got lucky,” he says. “This doesn’t make me any more special than hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.”

He’s found some mighty interesting connections, too.

One of his favorites is how he, George W. Bush and Barack Obama share a common ancestor.

Ward and Bush are ninth cousins. Both are 11th cousins, two generations removed, to Obama.

He still shakes his head at that connection, but has the research to prove it.

“I didn’t tell anyone anything until I triple-checked all this,” he says.

When Ward began discovering these connections, he started sending letters to his distant relatives.

The result is his wall of photos — George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, Sarah Palin, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Prince William and Prince Harry.

Carter even sent back Ward’s letter with a personal note: “To William — Photo enclosed. Best wishes. Jimmy C.”

“When I saw that, he became my favorite president,” Ward says with a grin.

(He describes his political views as “I’m anti-political. I don’t trust either one.”)

Ward’s history includes some not-so-savory characters as well, including John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

But consider this: “Hinckley, Nancy Reagan and me are all 22nd cousins,” he says. “If he’d known, would he have shot Reagan?”

As he traces family ties through the charts on his wall, Ward connects his relations to historical events.

One was captain of the guards to William the Conqueror.

In 1653, one uncovered that the dean of Harvard was pocketing tuition instead of paying teachers.

One began building Alnwick Castle, which was featured in the Harry Potter movies.

That castle, by the way, was sold in 1297 to a Bishop Bek, who sold it in 1309 to Henry Percy — Ward’s relation from another branch of the family.

“It’s been in our family for all except 12 years,” he says. “My family has owned Hogwarts for 200 years.”

Ward has a few favorite websites for researching: and

And there’s always Google — he said a lot of people post genealogical information they find.

And along the way, you might just brush up on history — or learn something you didn’t know before.

“I love history, and I’m learning so dogarn much,” he says. “This has been a hoot.”

And he’s not done yet — every family line seems to lead somewhere else.

“This has been a three-year odyssey and it’s nowhere close to being done,” he says.