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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
By this time a keen sense of social distinction had made itself felt. For example, members of the DAR (who number some 208,CKX) today), must trace their lineage back to people living at the time of the American Revolution, regardless of their rank or station. The Colonial Dames, with a membership of 22,000, must trace themselves back only to officers and officials of the pre-Revolution period. It is a distinction that prompted one CDA member to remark, “The DAR is the Elks Club of American historical societies.” In fact, there are three separate Colonial Dame associations. Besides the CDA there is the National Society of Colonial Dames, which is said to have broken off from the parent body over a dispute arising from certain members who traced themselves back to Benjamin Franklin through his illegitimate son, William. For whatever reasons, each group now refers to its rival as the “other Colonial Dames.” Then, to remind us all that there is always one rung on the ladder of social prestige more remote than the one we are occupying, there is also the Colonial Dames XVII Century, established in 1915, whose members trace themselves back to officials in office prior to 1699.
The sudden interest in genealogy at the time of our nation’s centennial took two separate courses. There was the beginning of solid professional genealogical research into American social history as well as a popular desire to find illustrious ancestors hiding in the family closet. All this resulted in such fervor that one historian called it “a craze that swept America in the 1880’s and 1890’s.”
On the professional side, the New York Public Library acquired the largest public collection of genealogical source materials then available. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society was founded in 1869 and the following year began publication of a regular journal.
For the next fifty years professional genealogists turned out reams of scholarly, often little-heralded work. While many Americans were busy reassuring themselves how good their bloodlines were, genealogists were pointing out how difficult it can sometimes be to tell “good” blood from “bad.” A major genealogical study of the period—"The Tuttle Family,” published in 1883—traced the family of William Tuttle, a member of the lesser English gentry. The Turtles’ twelve children include a non compos mentis son, David; a daughter, Mercy, who murdered one of her own children; another daughter, Elizabeth, who was diagnosed as suffering from periodic dementia; and a son, Benjamin, who murdered his sister, Sarah, by hitting her on the head with an ax. Subsequent generations of Turtles produced two more children described in family records as “distracted” and “demented” and one more ax murderer. However, this troubled family tree also bore some worthy fruit. The mad Elizabeth was an ancestress of the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, whose family has come down to us as representing all that was best in our stern Puritan heritage. The Turtle family, of whom there are now more than a half-million descendants, has gone on to make significant contributions to American culture in politics, art, industry, and religion. But the nagging thought persists that if a metaphysician of the caliber of Jonathan Edwards can find himself genetically bound to a stray lunatic only a few generations back, there is little hope for the rest of us.
Donald Lines Jacobus, one of the founders of the new generation of professionals who helped raise genealogy from pastime to science, played a vigorous role in dispelling mythology with vivid statistics. Commenting in 1930 on the American assumption that our first settlers were of “superior stock,” Jacobus found evidence of many cases of lameness, bad eyesight, and other defects among the early New England settlers. A physician’s journal of 1650 told of sporadic cases of gonorrhea and six cases of sodomy recorded in a single community. “Certain it is,” Jacobus wrote, “that this original homogeneous stock, marrying almost entirely within itself, produced in some localities within a few generations a notably fine crop of imbeciles and other defectives.”
As important as this sort of historical research may have been (and contemporary historians consider it of the utmost importance), imbeciles and defectives were not high on the American list of desired elements in a family tree. Until the middle of this century there was a great rush of clients thirsting for noble blood in their backgrounds and not very particular about how it got there. Few were as fortunate as the French general Andoche Junot, who rose from Republican beginnings to a dukedom under Napoleon and was able to remark, “I am my own ancestor.”