Ken Burns Family History


Kenneth Lauren Burns, better known as the filmmaker Ken Burns, was born on July 29th, 1953 to Robert and Lyla Burns in Brooklyn, New York.  At the time of Ken’s birth, his father was a graduate student studying cultural anthropology at Columbia University.

The family moved around a lot when he was a child.  At the age of ten Ken arrived at Ann Arbor, Michigan where his father was teaching at the University of Michigan. He was thirteen when his mother died there of cancer, an event that affected him deeply.

Ken’s interest in documentary film-making began at the age of seventeen after he received an 8 mm movie camera on his birthday.  He started his own production company Florentine Films with Hampshire College classmates in 1978.  Their first success was Brooklyn Bridge in 1981.

His big breakthrough to national attention came with the 11-hour The Civil War which aired on PBS in 1990.  Many other major documentary projects on American themes followed.

Documentary film-making has run in the Burns family.  His younger brother Ric had cooperated in The Civil War documentary and is an accomplished doxumentary maker himself; while his daughters Sarah and Lily have been involved in subsequent documentaries.

Early History

Ken Burns’ paternal line was first found in Bath county, Virginia.  Abraham and Daniel Burns were born there in 1833 and 1841 respectively, the sons of Daniel and Agnes Burns.

There have been some claims that these Burns were descendants of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns.  However, evidence to support these claims has been lacking.  In fact Bath county, when it was first formed in 1790, was largely filled with English-origin settlers.

Abraham and Daniel both fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side and later claimed disability pensions.  Abraham was captured and imprisoned by Unionists during the fighting and, in order to win back his freedom, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Unionist cause.

He returned to Burnsville in Bath county as a blacksmith after the war.  His son William was also initially a blacksmith there.

Meanwhile Ken Burns’ maternal line showed him to be a descendant of Abraham Smith, a slave owner in West Virginia; as well as having a lineage that has been traced back to colonial Americans of Loyalist allegiance at the time of the American Revolutionary War.

Robert Kyle Burns, Father and Sons

Father.  Although both his parents were Virginian, Robert Kyle Burns, born in 1896,  spent his early years in West Virginia where his father William was a blacksmith and a mechanic at the local lumber mill.

When he was ten William was killed in a horse and buggy accident and the rest of the family returned to Virginia in somewhat straightened circumstances.  However, with help coming from an uncle, Robert was able to attend Bridgewater College as a day student.

It was at Bridgewater College that Dr. Robert Kyle Burns first made his mark as a biologist with his studies on the sexual hormones of animals.  In 1937 he was able successfully to change the sex of alligators from male to female.  He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1955.

And Sons.  His two sons, Robert Jr. and John, were both academics too.

Robert studied anthropology.  He was an expert on the peasant cultures of the French Alps.  His other love was photography. He taught photography courses from 1975 until his retirement in 1993.

John meanwhile followed his father’s footsteps in biology, but with a focus on insects and on moths and butterflies in particular.


Ken Burns’ Family Tree

  • Daniel Burns (1803-1868) m. Agnes Jackson (1803-1890)
  • – Abraham Burns (1833-1911)
  • – Sarah Burns (1840-1924) m. John Daggy
  • – Daniel Burns (1841-1908) m. Mary Harlow
  • Abraham Burns from Virginia m. Margaret Stephenson (died in 1896) around 1853
  • – Emma Burns (1855-1916) m. Martin Woodzelle
  • – Robert Burns (b. 1858)
  • – Agnes Burns (b, 1860) m. Francis Larue
  • – Mary Burns (b. 1862)
  • – William Burns (1866-1906)
  • – Jonathan Burns (b. 1869)
  • – Hattie Burns (1877-1929) m. George Graham
  • William Burns from Virginia m. Sarah (Sallie) White (1868-1952) in West Virginia in 1893
  • – Robert Kyle Burns (1896-1982)
  • – John Burns (1899-1962)
  • – William Burns (1901-1966) m. Euda Castleberg
  • Robert Kyle Burns from West Virginia m. Emily Moore (1897-1991) in 1924
  • – Robert Kyle Burns (1925-2001)
  • – John McLauren Burns (b. 1932) m. Sarah Nance
  • Robert Kyle Burns from Ohio m. Lyla Tupper (1923-1966) in 1950
  • – Ken Burns (b. 1953)
  • – Ric Burns (b. 1955), also documentary filmmaker, m. Bonnie Lafave
  • Ken Burns m. Amy Stechler (1955-2022) in 1982, divorced in 1993; rem. Julie Brown (b. 1966) in 2003
  • – Sarah Burns, filmmaker, m. David McMahon, with Amy
  • – Lily Burns, TV producer, with Amy
  • – Olivia Burns, with Julie
  • – Willa Burns, with Julie


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Written by Colin Shelley

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