Birthplace Barking Up Whitman’s Family Tree

Descendants on Walt Whitman’s family tree gather at the Walt Whitman Birthplace  to celebrate the poet’s 200th birthday.

Descendants on Walt Whitman’s family tree gather at the Walt Whitman Birthplace to celebrate the poet’s 200th birthday.

By Sophia Ricco

Generations of Walt Whitman’s descendants will gather to find common history and explore their ancestor’s life at the Birthplace’s “Family and Friends” reunion.

Relatives and lovers of Whitman are welcome to attend the reunion, presented by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association on Saturday, July 27 from 1-5 p.m. A celebration of Whitman’s life in the poet’s bicentennial year, the free event will feature informative talks with genealogists, Whitman family artifacts, $5 discounted historic house tours, and a performance by Dance Visions NY. The good grey poet himself will be there in the person of Whitman personator Darrel Blaine Ford.

“We figured the relatives would be interested in coming back to celebrate the 200th year of Whitman’s birth,” executive director, Cynthia Shor said. “It’s memorable for the visitors to see them and the new exhibitions. Our doors are open and we are expecting a crowd.”

Over the years the Birthplace has encountered and collected information from Whitman relatives. Shor said more than 60 family members were invited to the reunion.

Although Whitman neither married nor had children he had many lateral descendants that branched from his wide family tree. The Whitmans have deep roots in Huntington as Walt’s grandfather and great-grandfather owned a large amount of land in West Hills.

“The Whitman’s were an old family in Huntington. They were among the earliest settlers,” historian Margaret Guardi said. “They intermarried with other old families. So when the Whitmans lived here, Walt had a lot of relatives in the area.”

Mixed into the Whitman family tree are numerous surnames familiar in Huntington: Sammis, Brush, Wood, Platt, Scudder, Buffet, King, Smith, Gates, Cole, Nostrand, Van Nostrand, Van Size, Velsor, Van Velsor, Young(s), Tuthill, McCunne, Sage, Woolsey, Carrl, Seymour, Colton, Treadwell, Seaman, Lewis, Kennedy, and Reed. Tracing shared ancestors, genealogists have found Whitman is related to Benedict Arnold, Shirley Temple, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Gates.

The Birthplace encourages anyone with these names to come and figure out their connection to Whitman with the help of genealogists April Lynne Earle and Bill Chamberlain. Earle will explain the process of researching and finding relatives with Genealogy 101. While Chamberlain – an expert in the town’s oldest ancestors – will focus on Huntington family lineages.

“We feel they will be helpful to the families that visit, with finding out more about their family tree,” Guardi said. “Whether they are related to Whitman or old families in the area, it will be interesting for them to find long lost relatives.”

Whitman family heirlooms will be on display, including a pen and ink stand used by Whitman, books with his signature, and two quilts bearing the Whitman initials in the stitching. The Birthplace also has a Whitman family bible that was a gift from Walt to his sister Mary Elizabeth.

“We want to draw the family members together,” Shor said. “They have a common ancestor. By looking at something that was alive for their ancestors, it will make him more alive to all his relatives.”

The reunion will also be an opportunity to take in a new addition to the Birthplace’s interpretive center that goes deep into Whitman’s roots. Photo restorer George Mallis aided the restoration of Whitman’s family photos and portraits for the exhibit that tell his life story.

“Each panel explains various times in his life,” Guardi said. “When he was a journalist, when he helped soldiers in the Civil War, when he was older and well-regarded as a poet. The newest panel deals with his childhood and going to school.”

Bringing Whitman’s words to life, Dance Vision NY will perform a contemporary piece, “I Hear America Singing, I See America Dancing” at 3:30 p.m.

“We wanted relatives and friends to see Whitman’s legacy in action,” Shor said. “It’s a different art form than poetry, so there could be cross-discipline appreciation.”