Genealogy The Search For A Personal Past


Americans had to go looking. The great dream was to trace a line back to the earliest settlers and then jump back across the Atlantic where the chase could be taken up again, preferably along the marble corridors of privilege. The task, legitimately undertaken, is all but impossible. It is certainly possible to trace oneself to nobility—as genealogists remind us, we are all related to Charlemagne. And it is perhaps possible to trace oneself back to early colonial settlers. But it is exceedingly difficult to be both early and noble. The hard facts were laid down by J. Gardner Bartlett, a pioneer specialist in British research. “Of the 5,000 heads of families who came between 1620 and 1640 less than 50 or not 1 percent are known to have belonged to the upper gentry of England, and less than 250 or not 5 percent can be considered as from the minor mercantile or landed gentry. No peers nor sons of peers, no baronets, nor their sons, but one knight and no sons of knights, were among the founders of New England. ”


When a desperate search for prestigious ancestry is linked with accommodating scholarship, the results can be startling. A family with the surname Cuthbert seriously put forth a claim to be descended from St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Unfortunately for this proposition, St. Cuthbert, who died in his island cell in 687, was a man of such an incorruptible and monastic nature that women were not permitted to approach his shrine until the Reformation. A prominent nineteenthcentury New York lady with social ambitions painted the coat of arms of the House of Orange on her carriage because she claimed a right of descent through one Anneke Jans of the New Amsterdam settlement, who was in turn descended from William the Silent. Subsequent research established the Jans claim was almost certainly specious or, if valid, could have come only through illegitimacy, which, by proper uses of emblazonry, would have required the matron to embellish her carriage with the bend sinister. “It is a queer commentary on human nature,” Jacobus wrote, “that people who would be shocked by illegitimacy in an American forebear would be so eager to believe that an ancestor was a bastard of the Prince of Orange.”

If one’s mother runs off with a traveling salesman, it is considered scandalous. But if one’s greatgreat-grandmother did so, that is romance.

The idea of maintaining social exclusivity through genealogy sometimes took an unanticipated turn in the late nineteenth century. In Manhattan a group of wealthy and influential Jewish families traced their ancestry from the passenger list of the St. Charles , which landed in New York in 1654. By 1888 Jewish Old Guard society had solidified into what was known as the One Hundred, those whose families had immigrated to the United States prior to 1860. The One Hundred, which prided itself on being better mannered than Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred, were almost as restrictive. For all his freshly minted copper-mine money, Benjamin Guggenheim could not match the social luster of the Seligman family until he persuaded one of the Seligman daughters to marry him, an event which at the time was roughly equivalent to an Astor daughter eloping with the owner of a hardware store.

Americans frequently displayed an ambivalence about genealogy. Although many of us liked to find traces of refinement in our own backgrounds, we disapproved when our neighbors tried to find some in theirs. Being caught taking genealogy and family background too seriously was an open invitation to be made fun of. President Franklin Roosevelt angered a meeting of the DAR in 1938 when he greeted them as fellow “immigrants,” but he got a big laugh from the rest of the country. Will Rogers liked to remark that although his ancestors may not have come over on the Mayflower , they were there to meet the ones who did. There is in fact much that is laughable about genealogy, with its tables and quarterings and family crests. A salesman once tried to talk the Crane family of Chicago, which had become wealthy in the plumbing-supply business, into buying a specially prepared Crane coat of arms. The device featured a sink and a bathtub underneath a hand pulling a toilet chain. The proposed motto was Après Moi le Déluge . The Cranes sent the man packing, but his idea was as valid as most of the millions of spurious family crests Americans have bought—and a lot more fun to look at.

While Americans were pursuing genealogy to varying degrees of seriousness—or simply deriding it—professional genealogists were starting to shore up their own calling. Until the middle of this century there were no prescribed standards set for them. “Any person, regardless of education, experience or natural ability, can set up to be a professional genealogist,” Jacobus wrote. “Very few genealogists are deliberately fraudulent, but many are so naive or careless or haphazard in their work that the results are fully as bad. ”