By now, just about everyone knows how proud Joe Biden is of his Irish heritage. I began researching his roots even before he became Vice President and wrote about his 5/8 Irish ancestry in 2013. That same year, I had the opportunity to meet him when he was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame, and since then, as is typical of his welcoming nature, he’s invited me to his St. Patrick’s Day events perhaps half a dozen times. Sure, he knows all the world leaders, but Joe has no problem mixing it up with “average Joes” like me.
So many of us know about his Blewitt and Finnegan roots in Counties Mayo and Louth, respectively — especially since his 2016 visit to meet his Irish cousins — but what about the other 3/8ths, the non-Irish portion of his family tree? What about his Biden line for starters?
1. The Biden family traces back to Westbourne (Sussex) and Portsmouth (Hampshire), England.
Joe Biden’s family hails from Westbourne in Sussex, England, though Portsmouth in Hampshire gets an honorary second. This is because two Bidens — Joe’s 3rd great-grandfather, William, and his brother, John — left Westbourne for America, while a third brother, James, stayed in England. Like his brothers, James initially lived in Westbourne, but moved roughly 11 miles away to Portsmouth around 1842, so much of the English Biden history over the last century and a half has taken place there. Curiously, most of the Bidens who reside in the Westbourne-Portsmouth vicinity today do not come from the same Biden family that has deep roots in the area.
2. No, Joe doesn’t have Indian cousins, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of diversity in the Biden family tree.
Until recently, there were claims that his English Biden roots led to a different location (Huntingdon), and had that been true, he would have had Indian cousins. Many believed this for decades, but the identification of Westbourne as the true hometown has burst that bubble. Even so, the family is still representative of the American mosaic.
This, for instance, is Joe’s second cousin three times removed, Dudley Biden, with his Turkish wife, Ourania. They married on February 19, 1921 in Constantinople, now Istanbul. The more you explore the branches of the family tree, the more living cousins you’ll find with ancestry of all stripes — Japanese, Russian and German Jewish, Puerto Rican, and so forth. And like Barack Obama, he has Hawaiian cousins. When I reached out to one to explain the connection, not surprisingly, the reaction was, “What!?”
3. Joe also has Canadian cousins, including some descended from Home Children.
For almost a century starting in 1869, the United Kingdom sent roughly 100,000 children to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. This Home Children scheme was similar to the orphan train movement in America, and both were intended for the children’s benefit. It was believed that poor, mostly urban, children, would have better lives elsewhere, but the reality is that many were abused as cheap labor by those who took them in.
Perhaps more shocking to us today is the fact that some were not orphans, and that’s the case with Joe Biden’s relatives. One branch of the descendants of the brother who remained in England fell on hard times around 1904. The family began splintering at that point with the youngest being placed in a children’s home.
In 1912, two of the youngsters in the family — Bertie and Nellie — were sent to Canada. These third cousins twice removed of Joe’s were later joined by at least one other brother who came and went a couple of times. Perhaps thanks to him, they knew that their parents were still alive.
While many children who were sent abroad this way suffered badly, indications are that Bertie and Nellie were among the fortunate. Both were adopted by childless couples who seemingly welcomed them, they were able to stay in touch with each other, and both married and had families of their own.
4. Joe’s family has a strong military legacy and sacrificed sons to the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Irish immigrants Owen and Jane Finnegan (Joe’s great-great-grandparents) lost their son Michael to the Battle of Cold Harbor in the Civil War, while another — Stephen — was badly injured. Both sons were immigrants themselves.
Kate Biden, mother of Edward Lee Biden (Joe’s first cousin twice removed), who was killed at Verdun in World War I, was so distraught that she died from grief soon after she received the news.
And in World War II, Joe lost his uncle, Ambrose J. Finnegan, in the South Pacific on Mother’s Day 1944. Though he would have been too young to remember, it must have been heart-breaking for his mother and grandparents, and only gently mitigated by a letter sent to the family by General MacArthur. The young hero remains missing to this day.
5. One of Joe’s ancestors was a blind fiddler.
Joe’s great-great-grandfather, James Finnegan, hadn’t been able to serve in the Civil War like his brothers. Why? Because he was almost blind. Records reveal that he was a musician, and in a will written just two days before he died, he left his prized possession — his violin — to his son, Ambrose, then ten years old.
The character of a blind fiddler has been referenced in painting and song over the last couple of centuries, but stitching together bits of information from James’s paper trail, it’s possible to determine that he was literally a blind fiddler. In spite of this, this immigrant and father of six who was widowed at 35, overcame his hardships. In the same will in which he gave his violin to his son, he also left a generous bequest to a local orphanage, all the more poignant given that he was fully aware Ambrose would soon be orphaned. Young Ambrose would go on to become the much-beloved grandfather whose stories Joe continues to share to this day.