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.
13 thoughts on “James Dean: Of Winslows and Wishful Thinking”
I enjoyed not only your look into Dean’s ancestry but the human interest story of a person who quietly pursued the earlier research you cited. I always look forward to your postings which similarly highlight the lives of the seekers as much as the subjects.
Thank you Paul!
The New England line that he was associated with was Hussey That indeed moved to the south. It happened, Zachary Taylor from Virginia had mayflower Ancestry
Oh Michael and what a thin line it is! Hope you are well my friend. Happy Holidays to you!
Being an umpteenth generation New Englander, I had a hard time with your line “good old Yankee Ohio.” Yes, I know of the Western Reserve history and that many Yankee farmers traded their glacial rocks for real soil. Still, as you said methods and procedures have evolved greatly since the mid-90’s. Thank you for pawing through the curiosity shop for a new topic.
Hi Steve: In truth, I was attempting to pay homage to my Yankee roots that had migrated to and through Ohio. No offense to a true New Englander intended to be sure!
Jeff, Slaughter/Slafter is an old New England name, from Lynn. My ancestor Mary Slafter married Isaac(3) Wellman and moved to Mansfield, where she died in 1793 at age 105. I haven’t yet followed up on her roots.
My grandmother’s maiden name was Winslow (she took her stepfather’s surname, as she was the man she regarded as her father), and I grew up hearing that Max Webster Winslow was from the Mayflower Winslows. When, as an adult, I started into genealogy, I started on my paternal New England lines (this was back when research required going to the National Archives at Waltham, the Mass. Archives at Columbia Point, and the NH State Library in Concord). Quickly I found a Winslow 3-g-grandmother. My Mayflower hopes were soon dashed, when I found her line went back to Kenelm, not Edward, with an asserted, but disproved, link to Stephen Hopkins.
A few years ago I started on Max Winslow, thinking that he might be from the Loyalist Winslows that went to Canada — family lore was that his forebears had for several generations been customs officers in the Niagara area. That was true, but it was his mother’s side, not the Winslows, and they traced back to Butler’s Rangers. The Winslows had crossed into Canada from Buffalo in the 1870s, and in preceding generations had slowly drifted westward from Plymouth. But, they too descended from Kenelm (making my parents step-9th cousins in descent from the immigrant Kenelm.
Still no Mayflower connection for me.
Jim, Your lines here remind me of my mom’s: “New England everywhere” and not a Mayflower ancestor in sight. Hey, still we keep looking, right? I keep thinking one will surprise me some day. Happy Holidays to you Jim. Always good to hear from you sir!
What a fun post! As best I understand the lineages, I am a sixth cousin of James Dean, back to our common ancestor, our 5th great-grandfather John Woolen (2) [1720-1765] of Dorchester County, Md. John’s great-grandfather, Edward Woollen (2), came to Salem, Massachusetts, as a child (age 9) in 1633 with his brother John and sister Jane/Jean. John was an aide to Capt. George Lamberton (of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow notoriety), and Jane married John Hall, a founder of New Haven and Wallingford, Conn. They arrived indentured to their aunt and uncle, William and Joan Wilkes. Speculation is that they were part of a Puritan group of about 100 souls led by Thomas Hooker who subsequently split with the Massachusetts Puritans and is today known as “the father of Connecticut.” To my mind, that would make James Dean a Puritan, regardless of Mayflower connections!
Hi Vicki – The Woolen name is definitely one I want to learn more about. I have strong connections to Dorchester County, MD too. My guess is we may be more closely related than we know!
Thank you, Jeff, for your post about James Dean and your moving tribute to my friend Richard Eugene Brenneman. I remember well working with Richard all those years ago on the James Dean NEXUS article later anthologized in Notable Kin, Vol. II (1999, published not by NEHGS but by the late Carl Boyer, 3rd of Santa Clarita, Calif.). Along with much other work, Richard also carefully and extensively traced the ancestry of Stephen King and the possible paternal ancestry of Norman Jean Baker alias Mortensen, the woman who became Marilyn Monroe. Richard was quiet and thorough, and we always welcomed his visits for his pleasant personality as well as the quality of his research.
Thanks Julie. As I dug into the ancestry of James Dean I was so compelled to learn more about the man who had studied it first. Mr. Brenneman sounds like a true treasure to me. Too often “our researchers” get forgotten in the rush. I’m honored to have found his work, and your words here have helped me know him a little bit better. Kind regards Julie!
I am a direct descendant of Joel Dean who moved from Massachusetts to Canada about 1800. One of his ancestral lines traces back to the Mayflower passenger George Soul. Through this line, I have been able to join the Society of Mayflower Descendants.