I recently learned that Orville and Wilbur Wright are my 7th cousins 4 times removed. We share English ancestors in the early 1500s.
While I am name dropping, I am also a 5th cousin 5 times removed to Henry David Thoreau with whom I share my 9th great grandmother who immigrated to America in 1638.
Neither connection is probably all that uncommon. Statisticians and geneticists have determined that everyone in the world traces back to a common set of ancestors about 3,000 years ago.
For anyone of European decent, those ancestors in common only go back about a thousand years.
When I was recruited to Durham, North Carolina 26 years ago, I believed I was the first in my family to settle here.
Then slowly I began to uncover that by the 1700s at least six ancestors created settlements within 150 miles of what would become Durham, six within a 60 mile radius and four as Tar Heels, before all migrating west and eventually into my native Rockies.
My cross-country move was, in fact, a reverse migration and homecoming 200 years later.
Now I learn that I am related to the brothers who put North Carolina on the map as “First In Flight,” 86 years before my arrival.
Both the Wrights and Thoreau are related to me through my relatives who created the first permanent settlement in what is now Idaho and from whom I draw my 5th generation Idaho roots.
It is probably more coincidence than genetic expression that I share traits such as innovator and naturalist.
Reading about them, including the phenomenal new biography by David McCullough entitled The Wright Brothers, reminded me that while my paternal grandfather had only a 2nd grade education, it was not unusual for his time.
He was a natural innovator.
My three other grandparents, one with an 8th grade education and the other two having graduated from high school were far above the national average for their time.
Even by the time my dad graduated from high school in 1941, only 23% of Americans had a completed a high school or higher level of education.
Around 1840, there were 100 colleges in America when Thoreau and one of my great-great grandfathers earned degrees.
But Americans at the time averaged just less than a year of schooling, with southern states a third or less of that.
Those who were enslaved were banned from learning to read and it was rare for even Presidents of the United States to have attended college.
By 1845 when Thoreau was building a small home on Walden Pond, nearly all of my ancestors had gathered on the Mississippi, and within a few months began a 2,000 mile exodus across the Great Plains and into the Rockies to make a homeland.
They were conservationists and innovators by temperament and necessity who enthusiastically embraced the “commons.”
During his two year observations around Walden Pond, it is Thoreau who may have been the first urban forester. He wrote during his two year experiment living there that:
“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and education.”
Thoreau’s writings inspired Fredrick Law Olmsted, who put them into practice a few years later with New York Central Park and later the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.
It is also Thoreau, rather than my later ancestors whom I most emulate when it comes to finding God and spirituality in nature.
Even by the era of the Wright brothers, whose father had taken some courses and whose sister had graduated from Oberlin, it was still extremely rare for Americans to graduate from college.
By 1910, only 2.7% held a Bachelor’s degree or higher. By the time I was born nearly four decades later, it was 6.2% and by the time I earned a Bachelor’s, 11% of Americans over the age of 25 held a college degree.
Today, slightly fewer than 1-in-3 Americans have a college degree or higher but over 88% now have a high school education or higher.
Knowing these things gives me perspective and context for embracing how small the world is and how the past holds solutions to any present or future problems.
It is also humbling. The next time I see you, I’ll remember that we’re related, Y’all.