- Historic Sites
Tracking Your Family Through Time And Technology
Genealogy is vastly different today from just a generation ago. Here’s what the changes mean to you.
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
The most intimate of history is connected to the grandest. When you think of genealogy and your own family’s history, you can’t help but think of the events that shaped the lives of all our ancestors: war, religion, and, above all, technological change. Technology fueled the endless migrations of the last centuries, atomizing communities and even families. And now technology is bringing rhem, living and dead, back together again.
During the last several decades the popularity of genealogical research has grown with the rise of new tools. Through this growth many who became separated from their families, and thus their family histories, have discovered that they can find themselves reunited with long-lost cousins and long-forgotten lore. These reunions tend to foster pride in who we are and who we once were—which is, at bottom, why people become interested in tracing their family histories in the first place. But in the beginning genealogy belonged to a relative few, most of them rich.
Some of the earliest and most ardent devotees of genealogical research in the old days were people interested in joining lineage or hereditary societies, organizations whose members had a common denominator in their ancestry. Some of the better known include the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (“To perpetuate to a remote posterity the memory of our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers”), Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (“Preserving the Memory of the Grand Army of the Republic and Our Ancestors Who Fought to Preserve the Union”), and, perhaps most famous of them all, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (“Historic Preservation, Promotion of Education, Patriotic Endeavor”). In order to join a lineage society, you must carefully document your ancestry back to the person in your family who fits the particular pattern and clearly illustrate your ancestor’s position.
The popularity of lineage and hereditary societies rose steadily on the patriotic tide that followed the 1876 centennial, but even so, few people had the luxury of looking into their family trees. In the words of the prominent genealogist Milton Rubincam, “At one time interest in ancestors was considered almost exclusively the prerogative of social climbers and snobs, of sweet little old ladies running around to boast of their royal forebears, and of elderly gentlemen who delighted in telling of their descent from Revolutionary War generals (who were probably buck privates, if they served at all).”
Then, as now, there was considerable detail work involved. It customarily begins today, as it did then, with your creating what is called a family group sheet, complete with names, dates, and places for each event (birth, marriage, death) in the lives of each of your close relatives. As you work back through time, you create a new group sheet for each immediate family; for the direct ancestry of four generations this means making fifteen sheets. Each sibling in each family also requires a separate sheet. Moreover, each event in each person’s life demands documentation. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, land records, tax records, military records, pensions, death certificates, funeral or cemetery records, obituaries, wills, probate records: The paperwork soon becomes mountainous.
Until recently anyone who had the necessary time, money, and resources spent hundreds of hours painstakingly recording such data by hand. It meant reading book after book, writing letter after letter, filling out innumerable index cards, and traveling from courthouse to cemetery, thumbing through files and ledgers and reading weather-worn tombstones, seeking a date or a name or an initial. Many researchers spent a lifetime compiling data for a single book or manuscript they hoped would be preserved among the collections of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or perhaps the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
After the National Archives was established, in the 1930s, thousands of records became readily available to the public. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—the Mormons—embarked on the immense project of gathering its record collections as early as 1894. Microfilm was developed during World War I, and by 1938 both the National Archives and the LDS Church were using it for record preservation. Easily copied and distributed, microfilm offered the genealogist infinitely greater access to a growing number of records. Today the LDS Church has more than three million records on microfilm, available through any of the church’s Family History Centers.
During the 1940s and 1950s genealogy societies and magazines began to spring up. Everton’s Genealogical Helper was first published as a fourpage quarterly in 1947; today each bimonthly issue runs to about 270 pages. Subscribing to such magazines and joining societies, budding genealogists formed networks across the country.