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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
In the early 1940s such genealogists as Dr. Arthur Adams and John Coddington moved to redress this. In 1966 a national board was established in Washington to certify genealogists as scholars compiling full family histories, American lineage specialists, and records searchers. New genealogical research was put under stricter tests of accuracy and documentation, and existing genealogies had to be reexamined. Even Milton Rubincam, a leading force in the movement to enforce standards, ruefully admitted to the Pennsylvania Genealogical Society that he had had to tear up charts and manuscripts of his own which purported to show that his paternal ancestor William Rittenhouse was a descendant of Rudolf of Hapsburg, of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and, of course, of William the Conqueror.
The fly-by-night scam artists are still with us. For a few dollars they will mail you genealogical information about as useful as looking up your own name in the telephone book. But the days are gone when someone stood a reasonable chance of getting into the prestigious Holland Society just on the basis of having a van in his name.
The second surge of national genealogical interest, which shows no signs of abating, came in the wake of the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Again Americans started turning back to their family roots, but this time there was a wealth of material available to the most casual investigator that would have overwhelmed the professional of a generation earlier. Information has been gathered, classified, catalogued, microfilmed, stored on computer print-outs, and deposited in libraries, archives, societies, and museums throughout the country. Thanks to modern microfilming techniques and expanding programs of record acquisition, many original documents previously accessible to only a scattering of diligent scholars can now be made available to almost any interested person. Two of the most famous repositories are the Mormon genealogical library in Salt Lake City and the National Archives. Detailed information on vital statistics, census records, and war records can be easily had from both sources.
If standards of the professional genealogist have improved and become more sophisticated, so have those of the amateur. Almost all genealogists agree that the obsessive pursuit of a noble lineage is passé. “The majority look on genealogy now as an avocation that is part fun, part mystery story, and part treasure hunt,” says Frank Bradley. “The victory in genealogy comes in finding out exactly who a particular ancestor was, not in showing how important he was.”
If anything, there seems to be a reverse of the old thirst for gentility. Clients now seem almost disappointed if they fail to find at least one skeleton in the family closet. Being descended from a Salem witch is particularly desirable. One man tracing his family back five generations was enchanted when he found an early-nineteenth-century birth certificate. The mother, when asked the identity of the father, was apparently unable or unwilling to come up with a name and simply put down “Gentleman.” Obviously, generational distance smooths over the rough edges of family history. If one’s mother runs off with a traveling salesman, it is scandal. If one’s great-great-grandmother did so, it is romance. Each generation draws its own distinction between passion and propriety.
The creation of a genealogy, whether done by a professional or an amateur, starts as a quest for names, dates, and places. We work backward, forward, sometimes sideways, each time trying to make a connection with a name from the past, and are frequently stopped by that dread abbreviation d.s.p. ("died sine prole"), which means we can pursue that barren limb no farther. But a list of names, however important, is just the beginning of a well-constructed family history. “There is no point in digging up an ancestor,” explains Dr. Kenn Stryker-Rodda of the New-York Historical Society, “if you’re not going to make him live.”
Americans are becoming more interested not just in who their ancestors were but also in how they lived and how it was they succeeded or failed at whatever enterprise, however humble. It is becoming apparent that the ever-increasing number of slim family histories, whether privately printed or merely typed out, are more than something to be distributed among relatives—they are a national education resource. “For years,” says Professor Bonomi, “American history was the story of the top 10 percent of the people. Now, thanks to genealogy, we are learning about the other 90 percent.”