10 Things You Didn’t Know about Rachel Maddow’s Roots

Megan Smolenyak
3 min readDec 7, 2017


Declaration of Intention (to become a citizen) for Rachel Maddow’s great-grandfather, John Smits

As both a genealogist and TRMS viewer, I suppose it was inevitable that I would peek into Rachel Maddow’s past, and now seems a fitting time to share a potpourri of gleanings since the g-word — genealogy — keeps popping up in political news, mostly with regard to immigration. Here are some slices of Ms. Maddow’s family history, including a few snippets of her own immigrant saga:

  • Rachel Maddow is one-quarter Dutch and one-half Canadian (with roots extending back mainly to Ireland and England). The remaining quarter of her ancestors were Jewish and self-identified as Russian and Polish at the time of their arrival in the U.S., but by today’s borders, their old country hometowns are located in Ukraine and Lithuania.
  • If you have any of the following surnames in your family tree, you could be related to Rachel: Bakker, Berhardt, Codnor, Cole, Goss(e), Israelowitz, Keijzer, Kelly, Maddow, Matuk, McGrath, Smits and, my personal favorite, van Ravenswaaij.
  • Like many of us, Rachel is sporting a modified version of her family’s original surname. Her Maddow great-great-grandfather came here with four young sons from Poltava, Ukraine. Their name at the time? Medwedof.
  • Her Dutch-born great-grandfather, John Smits, did whatever it took to make a living. Among his occupations over the years were conductor, electrician, merchant for a “grocer store,” shipping clerk for a silk mill, and watchman for a print works.
  • 1973 must have been a special year for Rachel’s Canadian-born mother. She became an American citizen, and less than a month later, gave birth to Rachel.
  • Ms. Maddow had a great-grandmother named Sarah Bernhardt, but no, it wasn’t that Sarah Bernhardt.
  • Her Dutch great-grandmother was 10 years old when she arrived with her family at Ellis Island in 1892, the same year it opened. By the age of 22, she was tragically widowed when her husband died from “perforation of bowels following typhoid fever.” She supported her young family as a confectioner making candy, finally remarrying and eventually having seven daughters.
  • The place on the planet that holds the highest cousin density for Rachel is the vicinity of Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. This predominantly Catholic half of her family tree has had large families for generations (my research indicates that her mother is one of eight children), resulting in numerous close and distant cousins for Ms. Maddow.
  • In terms of the Netherlands, it’s Leeuwarden, Friesland and Dirksland, Zuid-Holland Rachel should visit if she ever wants to walk in her ancestors’ footsteps.
  • Rachel’s father apparently has the ability to predict family history. When she was 23, he said of his daughter, “She’ll never run for elective office or anything like that, but she will do something with her drive and her ability to focus, and she’s incredibly articulate and a really fun kid at the same time.” Now we all know.



Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)