Few cinematic icons have endured in our collective consciousness as well as James Dean. Nearly seventy years after his death, his short and quixotic life has caused many to study not only his life and legacy, but also the possibilities of his ancestry. Indeed, with over fourteen hundred James Dean family trees on Ancestry.com, it seems that interest in this proverbial 1950s bad boy isn’t going away anytime soon.1
For me, there’s still an unabated curiosity revolving around the possibility of Dean having Mayflower ancestry. A quick look at several biographies and a myriad of trees reveals all the “old names” (Dean included) that might lead back to our cousins at Plymouth Rock. Yet nowhere among them could I find anything definitive, beyond the most tepid of answers or the vaguest research. I kept expecting someone to say that Dean had descended from the irascible Doty or the pious Brewster, or perhaps simply confirm that all possible Mayflower connections had been unequivocally disproved. Thus far, I’ve only found one researcher who was willing to make a definitive statement: “no such descent has been found.” That conclusion was drawn in a mid-1990s article by author Richard E. Brenneman.2
Brenneman’s research on Dean—and my discovery of it, sadly coinciding with the author’s recent passing—has inspired me to revisit his work. In doing so, I discovered that even Brenneman’s well-measured genealogy doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of absolutely no Mayflower lines for James Dean—only that at the time of his article, none had been discovered.
Indicated here and elsewhere, Dean’s association with his relatives, a branch of the Winslow family, does lend some credence to the possibility.3 On top of that, Dean himself allegedly claimed to have Pilgrim ancestors. Still, even with all these Winslows and wishful thinking, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut path to finding any answers.
Given all this, I’ve wondered whether Dean’s family legends might have begun with the smallest grain of truth. Was it merely their association with the Winslows, or did something else compel the Dean family to claim Mayflower ancestry? So with a great heap of good old-fashioned genealogical hubris, I decided to try and verify any one line connecting James Dean back to Plymouth Rock—and find out exactly where and how the puzzle falls apart.
I was immediately met with two not-quite conflicting statements:
“…and [Dean’s father] Winton a Quaker from a line of original settlers that could be traced back to the Mayflower…” 4
“…Dean claimed that his mother’s lineage could be traced back to the original English settlers of United States who came over on the Mayflower…” 5
Both statements could easily be true, but neither makes it clear which parent might be a better lead. The odd detail that his father descended from “Mayflower Quakers” stuck out to me. I spent some time following Dean’s direct paternal family lines, but they quickly turned south of the Mason-Dixon. Though it’s certainly possible that some Puritan transplants could have ended up in the south, it’s not the first place I would look.
The better prospect, to me, seemed to be in Dean’s mother’s ancestry—but things quickly fell apart here, too. The best possible link I can come up with is his great-great-grandfather, Jeremiah Slaughter of Union Township, in White County, Indiana. 6 Unless Dean’s extended Winslow family is holding onto a secret page from some long-lost “Slaughter family Bible” there isn’t much to go on. But even so, Jeremiah Slaughter is often linked in family trees (quite cleverly via a few catawampus generations or two) to Lydia (Cooke) Vought, a likely Howland and Cooke descendant. 7 (Eureka!!!) However, this is where the trail runs dry.
The only bright spot is that “Jeremiah” states in census records that he was born in good old Yankee Ohio—so based purely on migration patterns, I hope you’ll forgive me if I still hold out hope of connecting Dean’s Slaughter lines to that Vought/Cooke family connection. Hey, it might be just a little East of Eden, but it’d be exactly what that Rebel Without a Cause said all along.
So, why am I chasing down these connections to nowhere? Well, I think any ancestry deserves to be reexamined after a generation—I see genealogy as an active and fluid pursuit. While the conclusions Brenneman drew regarding Dean’s Mayflower lines in the mid-1990s still appear to hold, there have also been many changes and additions to sources available since then. Access to all types of resources has grown exponentially since Brenneman’s work. All we can do as researchers is to keep reexamining what we know, and updating our conclusions as new information comes to light.
I’d be remiss too, in my discussion of the genealogy of James Byron Dean, not to mention researcher Richard Brenneman himself. Though I never knew Mr. Brenneman, by all accounts he was a quiet man who loved poetry as much as he loved contributing to genealogy. 8 Dean may have enjoyed a brief and eternal spotlight, but if it weren’t for Brenneman, and for the many who work in the trenches of genealogy like him, our understanding of his ancestry would be nothing more than family rumor. I hope that wherever Mr. Dean is, he knows how lucky he was to have had a Giant 9 spirit like Richard Brenneman, who cared enough to suss out the truths of his ancestry—and maybe even to have a fool like me who attempted to follow.
In memory of Richard E. Brenneman 1943-2022
1 As viewed on Ancestry.com, 27 October 2022: “James Byron Dean found in 1438 trees”
2 Richard E. Brenneman, Gary Boyd Roberts, New England in Hollywood, Part IV: The ancestry of James Byron Dean (1931-1955), Notable Kin, Vol. II, N.E.H.G.S., 1999, p. 142
3 Marcus Winslow 1900-1976 and Ortense (Dean) Winslow 1901-1991 of Fairmount, Indiana
4 David Dalton, James Dean, The mutant king; a biography, A capella, Chicago, 2001, p.2
5 MSN, Starsinsider, The short life of James Dean, online, September 30, 2022
6 Jeremiah Slaughter, mentioned in the image above is likely also the same man who married (2nd?) Philandra Franks at White County, Indiana 16 Sept 1866 pushing the boundaries of the original timeline as presented by Brenneman. See: Indiana, U.S., Select Marriages Index, 1748-1993, Ancestry.com, for the marriage of “Philinda Franks” to “Jeremiah Slaughter” FHL Film 2194436 p. 95. “Philinder Slaughter” is shown widowed in White County in the 1880 census.
7 Florence (Cooke) Newberry, The family of Elisha Cooke, Family Search International, 1934, p.59
8 Richard E. Brenneman (1943-2022); See also: www.keefefuneralhome.com/memorials/richard-e-brenneman/4879333/
9 East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, all being the names of films staring James Dean.