Skip to main content

The Best Background

July 2024
9min read

When it comes to genealogical pride, there’s nothing to equal the modest satisfaction of a slightly threadbare, socially impregnable New Englander. A canny guide to the subtle distinctions of America’s most rarefied society.

New England snobbism is based on a regional reverence for that which is old. And as John Gould once wrote, “It takes considerable art to be snobbish without appearing so.” Thus the perfection of a devastating little sign you will see as you enter or leave the old shipbuilding town of Thomaston, Maine. It reads, “Thomaston, 1605.”

Simple. No need to explain that a certain George Weymouth of England founded the town fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. In fact, if such an explanation were included, the sign would lose its effect. By becoming informational, it would no longer demonstrate that specific brand of snobbism peculiar to New England.


Since old cities are, naturally, better than new cities, Boston, being the oldest, enjoys a very special place indeed in the reality, both past and present, of New England snobbery. And while the often-told stories about Bostonians and their engagingly snobby ways and attitudes can sometimes be amusing, it remains a fact that most are true.

“My goodness,” said a Boston lady when the Boston Transcript announced it was going out of business. “Whatever shall the country do now for a newspaper?”

That same lady was known to have said, when her husband was in the Antarctic for a six-year scientific expedition, that he was “out of town.”

I remember a brief cocktail-party discussion in a house on Commonwealth Avenue on the subject of the desirability of extensive travel. “Why should I travel,” one elderly matron piped in, “when I’m already here.”

James T. Fields, a great supporter of the “Chosen City of the Universe,” as he called Boston, used to delight in telling the story of a Boston man he personally knew, who, after viewing a production of Hamlet , was expressing his wonder at the genius of William Shakespeare. Finally he was moved to the ultimate praise. “There are not a dozen men in Boston,” he said, “who could have written those plays.”

Boston really is the center of New England culture and social life. Not because culture and social life in other parts of New England are not as good. In many cases, they are. They’re just not as old . I mean, formal dinner dances in Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, are very fine but, as the participants themselves say frankly, they’re “not Boston.” The Boston Symphony Orchestra travels to the Berkshires every summer, but when it returns to “the Hub” in the fall, Berkshire County, as writer Tim Clark says, “hangs up its tuxedo and pulls on the long underwear and overalls.”


The inclination of New Englanders to differentiate between good and bad by determining whether it’s old or new certainly fits many of our regional personality characteristics. Frugality, reluctance to change, reliance on the “tried and true,” abhorrence of all things showy or gaudy, pride in the past, a strong need for tradition and continuity—all these natural inclinations in our personalities result, not surprisingly, in our wearing slightly threadbare “old” clothes, joining old and comfortable-but-not-posh social clubs, owning old boats, attending old schools and colleges, living in old houses, and marrying into old families.

The New England stories about having to be born here in order to be native to the area are partially true. But more is required.

“I know I’ll never be considered a native here in Vermont because I wasn’t born here,” said my sister to her “native” neighbor many years ago after she had lived in Putney for fifteen years. “But my three children were all born right here in Putney, so they can certainly be called ‘Vermont natives.’ Right?”

“Well,” was the slow rejoinder, “if your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them biscuits?”

Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the President, was frustrated by this New England ancestry fetish all his life by always being referred to in the press as “an Irishman.”

Boston is the center of New England culture and social life. Not because such things in other parts of New England are not as good. They’re just not as 6F ld.

“I was born here,” he used to say, “my children were born here. What the hell do I have to do to be an American?” Well, perhaps not quite as much as he would have had to do to be a New Englander!

Proper ancestry starts with New England’s “First Families.” According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the requirements for a First Family were “four or more generations of gentlemen and gentlewomen; among them a member of his Majesty’s Council for the Provinces, a Governor or so, one or two Doctors of Divinity, a member of Congress not later than the time of long boots with tassels …”

First Families would include the Cabots, who, as the saying goes, talk only to God; the Lowells, who talk to the Cabots; the Adamses, acknowledged by most to be the foremost of all First Families; the Forbeses, perhaps the wealthiest; the Appletons, who made a fortune, as so many First Families did, in the textile industry after coming to Boston from their native New Hampshire; the Saltonstalls, who have sent sons to Harvard in every generation since Nathaniel Saltonstall graduated in 1659; the Peabodys, whose family fortune was founded by Joseph Peabody of Salem, who was a privateer during the Revolution; the Winthrops, who helped found the Massachusetts Historical Society; the Putnams, who, along with the Jacksons, Bowditches, and Warrens, led the Harvard Medical School throughout the nineteenth century; the Quincys, who include a President of Harvard; the Phillipses, who founded both Andover and Exeter; the Lodges, who have been senators as well as having held almost every good position in the world, including that of Harvard Overseer; the Emersons, whose member Ralph Waldo did very well in the writing field; the Eliots, who include presidents of both Trinity and Harvard… and so on.

In New England today First Family status still provides an important inside track insofar as obtaining an executive position is concerned. At least on the initial contacts. Outside New England is a different situation, of course—as exemplified by the often-told story of the young Bostonian who requested a family friend working at the Old Colony Trust Company to write a letter of recommendation to a Chicago firm to which he was applying for a position.

“I can recommend him to you without the slightest reservation,” wrote the family friend, who went on to say the young man’s mother was a Cabot, his father a Lowell, and his ancestry was all Peabodys, Appletons, Forbses, and Saltonstalls.

The Chicago firm replied that they really were looking for different information. “After all,” they wrote, “we are not contemplating using the young man for breeding purposes.”

Not every famous name from Revolutionary days necessarily founded a First Family, but it is of passing interest to note that, as E. Digby Baltzell writes, more famous New England or Boston men of national consequence founded First Families than, in proportion, did non-New England men. For instance, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, though espousing quite different political philosophies during their lifetimes, were great friends in their last years and even died on the same day, July 4,1826. Both were members of the upper class in their colonies, and both were natural leaders. But only John Adams founded a First Family. Baltzell feels that it has been men of conservative, rather than liberal, temperament who have been, for the most part, the First Family founders. And New England, as we know, has enjoyed an advantage in men of conservative temperament. Thus, John Winthrop founded a First Family. William Penn did not.

William Penn was a liberal thinker, a Utopian dreamer, a pacifist, a Quaker ("or some very melancholy thing,” according to the seventeenth-century diary quoted by D. Elton Trueblood in his book The People Called Quakers ). For the most part, the people who came over on the Mayflower and landed in Plymouth in 1620 were of that same gentle temperament. Brave and tough, to be sure, but definitely not of the upper crust.

So, in keeping with Baltzell’s theory, which does seem to hold true, New England’s First Families did not originate with the Mayflower group. Instead, most if not all New England First Families trace their American ancestors back to those of a more aristocratic nature who sailed over here from England in 1630 (and for a number of years thereafter) on the Arbella and fifteen other ships to found the Massachusetts Bay Company. These people, including a Saltonstall, a Winthrop, a Phillips, a Bradstreet (but no Dun—although a “Dunn” came over on the Mayflower ), a Quincy, and most of the other First Family ancestors, were conservative businessmen with a strictly puritan outlook on work, religion, sex, death, and the Hereafter. As we all know, they were Puritans. The Mayflower people were Pilgrims.

However, while the descendants of these two quite different groups of early settlers followed somewhat different patterns, both most certainly constitute proper New England ancestry. To be sure, a Mayflower ancestry doesn’t have the truly substantial clout of a First Family ancestry, due in no small measure to the fact that Mayflower descendants do not have the financial and political power that is automatically associated with First Family names. But it’s nonetheless very fine to be a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. And if, for instance, you’re a Chilton, you’ll be interested to know that the oldest passenger on board was James Chilton; or, if you’re a More, that Richard More was one of the children on the Mayflower ; or, if a Rogers, that Thomas Rogers signed the Mayflower Compact but did not survive the first winter, although, fortunately for some, his son did. So, if you’re descended from one of these three families or any of the other twenty families aboard the Mayflower who are now known to have presentday descendants, well, then you can join the society and also some clubs that attach importance to such things.

New Englanders are happy that of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, fourteen were from New England. Virginia had seven.

But keep in mind that among the immigrants to Massachusetts between 1620 and 1650 were at least twenty-four-named More and fifteen named Rogers. At least two immigrants to Virginia in the same period were named Chilton, according to Mayflower Families Through Five Generations , Volume II, published in 1978 by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Plymouth, Massachusetts. So a More, Rogers, or Chilton of today isn’t necessarily the More, Rogers, or Chilton who sailed on the Mayflower .

I regret I have no ancestors who came over on the Mayflower . But if I could be a Mayflower descendant, I’d like to be a Howland. John Howland fell off the Mayflower as it was rounding the tip of Cape Cod. “But it pleased God he caught hould of ye top-saile halliards,” wrote Governor Bradford about the incident in his History of Plimoth Plantation , ”… held his hould (though he was sundrie fadomes under water) … and then with a boat hooke and other means got into ye shipe againe. ” A few days later John Howland was one of a small group of Mayflower men “sente oute” to discover a locality suitable for their future home. Thus it was that John Howland stood on “Forefather’s Rock,” as Plymouth Rock is also called, five whole days before the rest of the Mayflower people landed on it! Now that’s one-upmanship.

If one does not possess a First Family name or have a Mayflower connection, all is not lost. The true basic need (in terms of genealogical snobbery, certainly nothing else) is merely a multigeneration New England ancestry. The farther back, the better—but it doesn’t really matter whether your people were distinguished scholars, horse thieves, intelligent or demented. Illegitimacy, incest, and executed ancestors, unless it was for stealing a horse, are exceptions to this broad-mindedness. Like everything else in our region, it’s the longevity that counts most. Longevity in New England .

I must say that Virginians always seem to go on about how Jamestown was founded before Plymouth and how they produced the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Chief Justice Marshall, and other such notables. It can be quite tedious to listen to that sort of thing. We New Englanders enjoy replying that of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, fourteen were delegates from New England. Virginia had seven.

To have one of those sixteen in one’s family tree is very much a plus. To a somewhat lesser extent, but still nice, is to be related to the likes of Rufus King, Nathaniel Gorham, or Caleb Strong, all of whom helped to frame the Constitution in 1787. Likewise, to have ancestors who were among the 119 people known to have dressed up as Indians and participated in the Boston Tea Party is something of which a number of today’s New Englanders are quite proud. If anyone says that he or she is related to Paul Revere, a Boston Tea Party participant among other historic achievements, don’t believe it, however. Although Paul Revere evidently had sixteen children by two wives, there are not any known direct descendants around today.

Rhode Islanders like being related to Roger Williams; in Hartford, Connecticut, the Hookers and Hayneses are proud that their ancestors Thomas Hooker and John Haynes founded their city; the Davenports have the edge in New Haven (their John Davenport first settled there); in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, there are Lawrences and Lowells descended from the original First Families who helped establish the textile mills there; Maine’s Knoxes are aware that their Maj. Gen. Henry Knox founded West Point and the National Guard before retiring in Thomaston. And on and on throughout New England.

Furthermore, in the genealogical sense, New England stretches right across America. The Mathers founded Cleveland, Ohio, and other Midwest towns; the Putnams are strongly associated with Buffalo, New York; the Perkinses with Cincinnati; William Greenleaf Eliot (grandfather of T. S. Eliot) established the financial foundations of the public school system of St. Louis; the Eliot children went farther west and helped build the city of Portland, Oregon; the Adamses helped develop Kansas City, Kansas, as well as Denver, San Antonio, and even Houston, Texas; Sherburne County, Minnesota, is named for Moses Sherburne of Mount Vernon, Maine, who helped write the Minnesota state constitution; Wisconsin’s first, third, seventh, eleventh, twelfth, and eighteenth governors were New Englanders; in Michigan the Sanfords, Fairfields, Martins, Mearses, Fullers, Tafts, Barbers, and many others have their ancestral roots in Vermont; Chicago, once called Fort Dearborn, was named after a New Hampshire general until they decided to name it after an onion; the man named Brigham Young, founder of Salt Lake City, Utah, hailed from Whitingham, Vermont.

The list could literally continue for hundreds of pages. As a result, there are millions of Americans living throughout the United States who consider themselves to be New Englanders, at least in part. As such, they have as much a right to indulge in a little New England snobbery as any of us.

Judson Hale is the editor of Yankee magazine. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Inside New England , to be published by Harper & Row.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.