George Washington is a figure who has achieved mythic proportions in American history. One genealogist even tried to give him mythic roots.
Albert Welles’s 1879 book was grandiosely titled The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia. B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-Five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States. Over 400 pages, it connected Washington to Norse god Odin and a number of other mythic figures, writes Yvonne Seale for The Public Domain Review. His book “shows just how useful nineteenth-century Americans found the Middle Ages to be when it came to shaping their understandings of their country’s origins,” she writes—but it also shows a nineteenth century fascination with the Vikings that stretched from Britain to the United States.
Lineage was important to nineteenth-century Americans for a number of reasons. To begin with, ideas about “good breeding” that originated in England reached America in the eighteenth century and became part of the law, writes historian Gregory D. Smithers. But they also acquired a uniquely American character. “Good breeding,” in the United States, was associated with “free white citizens,” Smithers writes. As the nineteenth century progressed, ideas about “good breeding” evolved into the kinds of eugenics arguments that the Nazis would eventually use.
At the same time, writes literature scholar Peter Mortensen, writers were beginning to examine “Vikings and the culture of the ancient Scandinavian North.” That’s where the adjective “Gothic” applied to literature comes from. These writers connected the North with democracy, he writes, because Germanic tribes such as the Goths became associated with the ancient Romans. This is where Odin comes back in—Welles described the All-Father as a real historical leader, one whose powers were echoed in his descendant Washington.
“From Odin, Welles traced thirty-two generations of descent down to about the year 1000 which encompassed figures both historical and legendary,” writes Seale. The genealogy connected Washington to a millennium of heritage of democracy and whiteness. Welles even went so far as to include Snorri Thorfinnsson, who many still consider the first white child to be born in the Americas.
“Rather than a nation which could trace its origins back only a hundred years or so from the time of Welles’ writing, or a continent whose colonization could be traced back to the voyages of an Italian Catholic,” she writes, "Anglo-American Protestants were cast as heirs to a long northern European tradition of exploration, conquest and colonization.”
It wasn’t the only time in the nineteenth century that George Washington was used as a model for the ideal American. Washington’s head was studied by at least one phrenologist, who concluded that he had a well-balanced brain. But even though Welles's research was in line with a lot of nineteenth-century thought, his book was mocked in his time. It was called “a rank and stupid forgery” and “a mere rambling collection of useless notes,” by other genealogists, Seale writes.
The idea of Washington’s Scandinavian heritage was just another weird corner of nineteenth-century pseudoscience until World War I, when German-Americans revived the legend in an attempt to prop up relations between their two countries. But the bigger focus on genealogy in America continues, from the thousands who still claim heritage from Washington to the success of family tree websites like Ancestry.com.