Biden’s Biden Roots: Westbourne or Huntingdon, England or Maybe Nagpur, India?
I first researched incoming President Biden’s genealogy about a dozen years ago focusing on his 5/8 Irish heritage. Not surprisingly, there’s been a recent surge of interest in his heritage, particularly from people overseas hoping to claim him as a cousin or at least as having roots in their neck of the woods.
As often happens, more attention has been given to the surname branch of his family tree, so it’s not unexpected that three locations are already calling dibs on his Biden ancestry: Westbourne in Sussex, England, the Houghton-Wyton outskirts of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, England, and Nagpur, India (after a first generation in Chennai, formerly known as Madras).
Yes, India. Back in the 1980s, an Indian gentleman by the name of Leslie Biden wrote to then-Senator Biden about their shared ancestry, citing among other evidence an 1858 memorial to Captain Christopher Biden located in Madras.
I have fond memories of my days working in India, so need to confess to a bias. As soon as I saw Chennai/Nagpur as a contender, I wanted it to be so. The notion of both our President and Vice President having Indian ancestry appealed to me, but as a genealogist, I have to remain open to all possibilities, so decided to investigate. As is my habit, I started from scratch to be sure of each parent-to-child link in the chain. Fortunately, I had the advantage of a running start having already traced this branch back to the immigrant ancestor, William Biden.
Diving in, I quickly discovered that two of the claims converged — those of Huntingdon and Nagpur — as the Christopher Biden who went to India was originally from Huntingdon. This was a swift narrowing from a trio of prospects to a Westbourne vs. Huntingdon/Nagpur quandary.¹
I soon learned that the root of the confusion is two William Bidens born in England around the same time in the late 1700s. Biden’s immigrant ancestor who died in Baltimore, Maryland left a tombstone with a date of birth of 20 Dec 1787. It’s worth pointing out that this date should be taken with a grain of salt because birth dates didn’t carry the same import centuries ago that they do now. And birth dates for immigrants — even those arriving in the 20th century — are notoriously inaccurate in their death records because the information was given by survivors who had never been to the “old country” and didn’t have access to records that might have existed there. So it’s always prudent to take such dates — even when literally carved in stone — as an approximation.
The same people who uploaded William’s details on FindaGrave added a birth place of “Huntingdonshire District, Cambridgeshire, England,” and it’s easy to see why. Ancestry hosts 299 trees for this family and all but a few share some version of this Huntingdonshire place of birth for the immigrant. Those that were more specific mentioned Houghton. Most also include a middle name of Henry and parents — John and Anne (Beaumont) Biden. And this couple did indeed have a son named William Henry.
Chris to India and Bill to America?
As seen in this illustration from the Times of India, it’s this William Henry (shortened to “W Henry” here) that would-be Indian relatives of Joe Biden cite as a brother of their ancestor Christopher. Both they and the Huntingdon contingent believe this is the William who went to America.
Thanks to FIBIS (Families in British India Society), an invaluable genealogical resource, it’s easy to follow the trail of Christopher, a seasoned mariner, and confirm his presence in India, including his son Horatio who’s seen in the family tree above. So far, so good.
Turning our attention to Christopher’s brother, William Henry, he was christened in February of 1791, so not 1787 as on the Baltimore headstone, but close enough for consideration. Was there a way to prove or disprove that he was the one who went to America? As it turns out, yes, but stick with me because it gets a little complicated.
If you search FIBIS for all Biden entries, you’ll find plenty pertaining to Christopher and his family, but just a bit about a William Henry or W.H. Biden. Even so, it’s hard to avoid noticing that what’s there gives an 1843 death for a 52-year-old man — a fellow of the right name born around the right time, 1791 — to have been the brother in question. But if he died in Rangoon (then Burma, now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1843, he couldn’t be the same man who emigrated to and died in America.
Hoping to learn more, I turned to the British India Office Inventories and Accounts of Deceased Estates collection on FindMyPast. Once again, there were just a handful of entries, but if you examined each closely, you could spot a reference to his heir, a sister named Mrs. Anna Smith.
Having researched the nuclear family of Christopher and William Henry, I knew that they did indeed have a sister named Anna, but did she marry a Smith? This time it was the UK, Foreign and Overseas Registers of British Subjects, 1628–1969 collection on Ancestry that provided an answer. Yes, Anna Biden of Houghton in Huntingdon married a William Smith in Belgium in 1839, four years before the death of her brother.
This was too much coincidence to explain away. A man of the same name and correct age, a mariner like his alleged brother, left his estate to a known sister who had become a Smith by marriage. By cross-pollinating hyper-relevant resources available across several genealogical sites, I was able to connect the dots.
So no, Christopher’s brother was not the William who went to America. Leslie Biden’s assertion back in the 1980s was certainly plausible, but he didn’t have today’s luxury of so many documents at his fingertips. To my disappointment, Joe Biden does not have Indian cousins, and this means that the Huntingdon branch is also ruled out.² But eliminating the Huntingdon/Nagpur contender isn’t the same as proving the Westbourne counterclaim, so it was time for another round of sleuthing.
Westbourne Under Scrutiny
My way in with this part of the investigation was a snippet from the 1820 census in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. As a former Marylander, I knew of the proximity of this county to Baltimore where Joe Biden’s immigrant ancestry, William, would marry just two years later and reside for the rest of his life. And it’s not as if Maryland was riddled with Bidens at the time. In fact, these two were the only ones in the state in 1820. What intrigued me, though, was John. A brother perhaps?
I tried to follow John forward in time in Maryland and elsewhere, but after the next census, he disappeared. Still, I knew from my digging into the Westbourne Bidens that there had been a brother named John. James Biden (sometimes spelled as Byden) and Ann Silverlock had five children — John, William, Hope, Hannah, and James. But how could I prove that the William and John in this census were those brothers?
Taking into account that John vanished after 1830, I considered the possibility that he died sometime in the 1830s. If so, I hoped that it had been in Maryland, so turned my attention to estate records. The genealogical gods smiled on me because a little poking around revealed this gem — John Biden’s 1836 will specifying his brother William. William was also an executor suggesting that he was likely local in Baltimore.
But there was more. The will also left a watch to his brother James and wearing apparel to a namesake nephew, John Biden. As alluded to earlier, John and William of Westbourne were known to have a brother named James — back in England. Moreover, William didn’t have a son named John, but James did, providing another link back to the family in Westbourne.
All the pieces were fitting, but in case I wanted still more confirmation, a guardianship record stemming from John’s estate was filed in 1838. Upon his death, he had asked for his money to be invested for the benefit of his widow, Ann, but once she passed, the balance was to be distributed to William’s children. Ann hadn’t outlived him by much, so William assumed formal guardianship for the purpose of this distribution for his sons — William, James, Joseph, Henry, and George — just a couple of years later. This list mapped perfectly with William’s sons who had been born by this date, so there was no doubt that the William who was John’s brother was also the one who would become Joe Biden’s ancestor.
Then there was this detail provided in an article about the Westbourne claim. Henry Biden, another son of James who remained in England, supposedly visited his cousin Joseph (one of William’s sons) in Baltimore in 1868. Proof in the form of Henry’s travel diary is not readily available, but it didn’t take much effort to find a Henry Biden of the expected age arriving in America that year.
And though it might seem trivial, it bears mentioning that Joe Biden’s immigrant ancestor always appeared in records as William Biden and never as William Henry Biden. The same is true of the Westbourne William Biden. Even with all the other substantiation, consistency of this nature (or the lack of it) should be factored in. I’d venture that the same FindaGrave entry that borrowed an incorrect birth place from all those Ancestry family trees also borrowed and mistakenly bestowed a middle name upon William, but he was simply William Biden.
For those who might be curious about what kind of man William Biden, Joe Biden’s third great-grandfather, was, I invite you to browse this beautifully scripted inventory of his possessions from his estate to give you a sense. See if you can spot the family Bibles, bee hives, and 11 geese.
Joe Biden of the Westbourne Bidens
So it is with regret that I dash the hopes of Huntingdon and Nagpur, but with pleasure that I confirm those of Westbourne. Of course, there’s always the chance that the Huntingdon and Westbourne Bidens were linked further back in time. They’re about 150 miles apart and we’re already back in the 1700s, so it doesn’t seem especially likely, but all it takes is that one random inland ancestor who decided to go to sea, so I’ll end with that glimmer of a prospect.
¹ To simplify this article, yet another candidate was excluded. No one has made any claim for him, but starting from scratch uncovered a William Biden born in Surrey in 1791. He was eliminated because he did not have a brother named John and does not appear in any later records. He is believed to be the William Biden who died in 1799 and buried in the same cemetery as his parents.
² During the course of my research, I tripped across a reference to an article entitled “Captains Outrageous: tracing the maritime career of William Henry Biden” by Richard Morgan (FIBIS Journal Number 33, Spring 2015). Only after writing this did I allow myself to download and read Morgan’s excellent article. He also reached the conclusion that the William Henry Biden who died in Rangoon could not be Joe Biden’s ancestor, but did not speculate on the true ancestor. It’s almost a pity as this Biden led an adventurous life.