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Megan Smolenyak Headshot

Hey, Prince, Your Roots Are Showing

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Prince Rogers Nelson, better known simply as Prince, has the music world intrigued with the series of singles he's been releasing -- most recently, Breakfast Can Wait. Will a full-fledged album be far behind? We can only hope. But while we're in wait-and-see mode, I thought I'd take a peek into his past -- and by that, I mean his pre-Minnesota, pre-purple, ancestral past. Here are a few of the discoveries I found scattered in the branches of his family tree:

  • Among the surnames that appear in Prince's family tree are Bonnell, Brooks, Hardy, Head, Jenkins, Nelson, Phillips and Shaw, so those sharing these names could be related.
  • As with other gifted musicians such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Prince has a concentration of Louisiana roots. In fact, all four of his grandparents were born there, though Minnesota, Georgia, and Arkansas can also claim a piece of his heritage.
  • Twins run on both sides of Prince's family. His mother was one, and there were also twins in the Nelson branch on his father's side.
  • Due to the Great Migration, his once mostly Louisiana-based family dispersed to Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and Tennessee. His maternal grandfather, a Pullman porter named Frank Shaw, went north to Minnesota by way of Iowa. Though this might sound like a peculiar route, this same pattern can be seen in the family tree of Cory Booker, whose ancestors were drawn from the South to Iowa for mining jobs. And as a result of all this meandering, one of Prince's great-uncles is buried at Burr Oak on the outskirts of Chicago, the same notorious cemetery where one of Michelle Obama's uncles is buried.
  • Prince's paternal grandfather had 11 children by two wives over a 36-year period. This grandfather's parents also had 11 children, but in a more concentrated 14-year period. 22 offspring from just these two generations means that Prince undoubtedly has dozens, if not hundreds, of Nelson cousins in both Arkansas and Minnesota.
  • Six of Prince's eight great-grandparents were born into slavery, and as was unfortunately so common, one of his great-grandmothers was apparently the daughter of her one-time owner.
  • Within Louisiana, Prince has roots in Claiborne, Webster, Bienville and Lincoln Parishes. More specifically, the towns of Homer, Cotton Valley, Arcadia and Vienna, are all ancestral hometowns for the Purple One.

2013-02-07-NelsonHardy1880mcPrinceSmolenyak.jpg

1880 marriage of Ed Nelson to Emma Hardy, Claiborne Parish, Louisiana

  • One of his great-great-grandmothers could be considered a 19th century version of a cougar. After her first marriage, she took a second husband less than half her age. Her new, teen-aged husband was only five years older than his eldest stepchild. Even so, she managed to outlive him.