These Are the Presidents With the Fewest American Ancestors (and How Donald Trump Compares)
Though Donald Trump might not like to admit it, he has at least one thing in common with Barack Obama: Both presidents were children of people born outside the United States. (Donald Trump’s mother grew up in Scotland, and Barack Obama’s father hailed from Kenya.) Many presidents have had numerous American ancestors. But how does Donald Trump — and Barack Obama — compare?
FiveThirtyEight contributor Greg Guglielmo reports that he reviewed the family trees of all American presidents to determine the birthplace of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. Guglielmo found that Obama and Trump are two of just eight presidents with at least one foreign-born parent.
8. Chester Arthur
- 21st president of the United States
- In office: 1881 to 1885
Beginning the list of presidents with the fewest American ancestors is Chester Arthur, who had an American-born mother and a foreign-born father. Arthur’s father came from present-day Northern Ireland, and he had no American ancestors himself. Biography characterizes William Arthur as “a passionate Baptist abolitionist preacher” who emigrated from Ireland.
Arthur’s mother had several generations of American-born ancestors in her family tree. She gave birth to the future president in North Fairfield, Vermont. But as Biography notes, “Throughout Arthur’s political career, it was rumored, though never proven, that he had actually been born in Bedford, Quebec, Canada.”
Next: Here’s how Barack Obama compares.
7. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
- In office: 2009 to 2017
Guglielmo reports that Barack Obama comes next on the list of presidents with the fewest American ancestors. Obama’s family tree parallels Arthur’s in some unexpected ways.”Their American-born mothers’ roots in the U.S. trace back several generations. And their foreign-born fathers’ roots lie exclusively overseas (Obama’s in Kenya and Arthur’s in present-day Northern Ireland),” Guglielmo notes.
Furthermore, “Both men were wrongfully ‘accused’ of being foreign-born, which would have (potentially) disqualified them from the presidency or vice presidency under the Constitution’s natural-born-citizen clause.” So when Donald Trump spent years demanding that Obama show his birth certificate, he was taking a page out of the book originally written by Chester Arthur’s political opponents.
Next: This president had several relatives who signed the Declaration of Independence.
6. Herbert Hoover
- 31st president of the United States
- In office: 1929 to 1933
Guglielmo reports that Herbert Hoover had just one American-born parent: his father. Hoover’s mother came from Canada, but she did have American-born ancestors herself, including predecessors from both Connecticut and Pennsylvania. He reportedly also had ancestors who served the Patriot cause during the American Revolution and even signed the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Biography reports that Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa. He actually became the first president born west of the Mississippi River. But Hoover actually grew up even farther west due to some tragic circumstances. His father died when he was just six years old. Three years later, his mother also died. Then, Hoover went to Oregon to live with his maternal aunt and uncle.
Next: This president didn’t take much of an interest in his ancestry.
5. Thomas Jefferson
- 3rd president of the United States
- In office: 1801 to 1809
Thomas Jefferson, like Herbert Hoover, also had just one American-born parent, also his father. Jefferson’s mother came from England. And, like Hoover’s mother, she had American-born ancestors in her family tree. But even though we might find Jefferson’s ancestry interesting — especially as he numbers among the presidents with the fewest American ancestors — Monticello reports that Jefferson himself never took much of an interest.
He noted that his family claimed Welsh origins on his father’s side, though researchers don’t know much about the veracity of those claims. Researchers have little uncertainty about the English and Scottish ancestry on his mother’s side of the family. And they also know for sure that “There was nothing exceptional, then, about the immigrant ancestors of Thomas Jefferson, who arrived in the colony sometime during the 1660s and 1670s. Nothing known would suggest their preeminence in the century to come.”
Next: This president didn’t know much about his family tree.
4. Woodrow Wilson
- 28th president of the United States
- In office: 1913 to 1921
Guglielmo reports that Woodrow Wilson had just one American-born predecessor: his father. As the museum at the Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson notes, Wilson was born to a mother who emigrated from England. His grandparents came from Ireland and Scotland.
As the museum notes, only three of his great-grandparents are known to have immigrated to America. “Most of his extended family members in the United States were scattered through the northern states. Only his immediate family, and those of his mother’s sister and brother lived in the South before, during, and after the Civil War.” Wilson remained largely ignorant of his family’s lore, and poor documentation has also confused biographers “on both sides of the Atlantic,” according to the museum.
Next: This president had just one American ancestor.
3. James Buchanan
- 15th president of the United States
- In office: 1857 to 1861
James Buchanan also had only one American-born ancestor: his mother. That lands him in the top three among presidents with the fewest American-born ancestors. The piece of information that most people seem to remember about Buchanan is that he never married. And some historians speculate not only that Buchanan was gay, but also that he didn’t keep his sexuality a secret.
Biography reports that Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. His father worked as a merchant and a farmer. And historians characterize his mother as “intelligent and well-read.”
Next: Here’s how Donald Trump compares.
2. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
Despite the current president’s misgivings about immigrants, Guglielmo reports that Donald Trump also lands on the list of presidents with the fewest American-born ancestors. In fact, Trump’s father is the only one of the president’s ancestors to be born in the United States.
As Guglielmo points out, Trump actually made history by becoming the first president descended from an immigrant who came through Ellis Island. He explains that more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, and an estimated 40% of Americans can trace their roots back to one of those immigrants. “But for all of that magnitude, Ellis Island had not produced a president. Until Donald Trump.”
Next: This president’s family came from Ireland.
1. Andrew Jackson
- 7th president of the United States
- In office: 1829 to 1837
Only one president has fewer American ancestors than Donald Trump: Andrew Jackson. Guglielmo reports that Jackson goes down in history as the only American president with two foreign-born presidents and a total of zero American-born ancestors.
Jackson himself was born on the Waxhaw Settlement between North and South Carolina. But his parents and older siblings were born in what is now Northern Ireland and immigrated in 1765, just two years before the birth of the future president.
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