- Historic Sites
Genealogy The Search For A Personal Past
A once laughable pursuit is now seen by historians as a serious way to explore where we came from and who we are
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Genealogy is a worldwide interest that appears in almost all cultures, but the pursuit as we know it in America usually comes to us with a pronounced English accent. The British have traditionally set great and bloody store by their ancestry. The War of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War were but two conflicts initiated because of variant interpretations of genealogical niceties. The famous suit of Sir Richard Scrope against Sir Robert Grosvenor is a landmark case in the history of genealogical litigation. Scrope was part of an army that invaded Scotland in 1385 and he appeared on the field with his coat of arms, a gold bend on a field of blue. He was angered to find Grosvenor with the same device. His appeal to the chivalry court was considered to be of sufficient moment to be carried to the king, who decided in Scrope’s favor. Grosvenor’s claim of descendancy from one who “came over with William the Conqueror” was not the first nor would it be the last to be disallowed.
Until the middle of this century there was a great rush of clients thirsting for noble blood in their ancestry and not very particular about how it got there.
This kind of thing was exactly the sort of feudal European posturing American settlers wished to turn their backs on in the New World. They believed with Voltaire that “he who serves his country well has no need of ancestors. ”
Inevitably, prominent families began to emerge; kinship, particularly in Massachusetts, counted for a great deal in the development of the great New England dynasties. Of the twelve original directors of the Massachusetts Bank, nine were related by blood or marriage. As business became more complicated, Boston’s leading families responded with a dazzling display of interlocking marriages of convenience, state, and commerce.
For all their notorious closeness, in the early nineteenth century Boston families were surprisingly liberal in reaching out beyond their own family trees to graft on promising stock. As a result, writes the historian Peter Dobbin Hall,"men of obscure origins like Nathaniel Bowditch, son of an impecunious and alcoholic Salem mariner, and Joseph Peabody, son of a rural Essex County farmer, became founding fathers of families whose names are now inevitably identified with Brahminism. ” Although family background was important in Boston, formal genealogy was less so. The Cabots and the Winthrops knew who they were and didn’t need a genealogical table to tell them.
It was different in the South in the 1830s, where antecedents were not as well established as they were in New England. Under increasing fire from Northern abolitionists over the issue of slavery, many Southerners retreated defensively into an image-saving mythology. Warmed by the extraordinarily popular Scottish border novels of Sir Walter Scott, Southerners cast about to reestablish what they took to be their Old World heritage. In some ways this was an easy task: vital records of the early Southern colonial period are skimpier than they are in the North because a large number of Southern courthouses and city halls were built of wood and had a disquieting history of burning to the ground with the records inside. While detailed records of vital statistics form the bedrock of accurate genealogical research, imprecision and discrepancy were heaven sent to those nineteenth-century seekers of illusion. Connections that would not bear the scrutiny of present-day standards were made, and Southern families could see their lineages as what they had always wished them to be: more patrician, more courtly, more settled into tradition than those swarms of immigrants in the North who were criticizing them for the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery.
Of course, there is no evidence that the South was favored with a higher class of early settler than the North, but myths are often harder to kill than facts. This noble vision of the Old South was a strong influence on the writing of William Faulkner and other twentieth-century Southern authors whose works, according to one historian, “look back, past the South’s supposed aristocratic origins to the pre-settlement wilderness, an Eden whose native inhabitants were as unspoilt and unspoiling as the surroundings from which they drew their character. ”
The first great wave of national interest in American genealogy grew out of the 1876 Centennial celebration. This was the era of the founding of such patriotic organizations as the Colonial Dames of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution, both founded in 1890. As they were to do a century later, these organizations took a leading role in the development of local histories and genealogical studies.