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Genealogy The Search For A Personal Past

July 2024
15min read

A once laughable pursuit is now seen by historians as a serious way to explore where we came from and who we are

The stereotype of the genealogist has long been a familiar one in American popular culture. Like the Ichabod Crane schoolmaster and the prissy librarian, the genealogist was a specific type, easily recognizable and faintly ridiculous. She was the elderly lady in comfortable shoes examining musty records in search of enough cerulean in her veins to permit her to snub her neighbors with a clear conscience. He was the retired clergyman supplementing his pension by collecting fees for piloting nervous clients through the turbulent biographical shoals that stand in the way of admittance to patriotic societies. Genealogy, when it was practiced at all, carried an air of quackery about it. And even at its most serious it seemed a somnolent pursuit designed to help old people to while away their time.

If that was ever true (and like most stereotypical propositions it contained a sufficient kernel of truth to make it a useful short hand), it is no longer. Consider the following random examples of the current interest in American genealogy:


• The National Archives in Washington, D.C., once a favored spot for scholarly snoozing, now receives some twenty-three hundred requests for genealogical information every week.

• Frank Bradley of the Genealogy Room of the New York Public Library estimates that the majority of people who come in to start looking up their family histories are in their thirties or forties. The membership of the Daughters of the American Revolution is, according to a spokeswoman, “getting younger,” and the Boy Scouts have recently introduced a merit badge in genealogy.

• Alex Haley’s suspect but fascinating Roots is far and away the most popular book ever written on a genealogical subject. The television mini-series based on it pulled the highest ratings in history. It was estimated that 130 million people, almost half the population of America, watched at least one segment. John Jakes’s harmless flap-doodle, the fictional Kent Family Chronicles , sold close to 30 million copies in paperback between 1974 and 1980.

• Genealogy, once described as “history’s neglected stepsister” and dismissed as irrelevant by professional historians, is increasingly being accepted as a legitimate subject for study. Courses in genealogy are commonplace in American colleges, and historians such as Professor Pat Bonomi of New York University have called it “an invaluable tool in the investigation of American social history. ”

• Local genealogical societies are sprouting up like so many McDonald’s. Formerly limited to a few major cities, genealogical societies are now found from Allenspark, Colorado, to Zelienople, Pennsylvania.

• If a social phenomenon can be considered truly recognized when Madison Avenue takes official notice, then genealogy has arrived. Pan American Airlines runs a campaign noting that “all of us come from somewhere else” and offering to help passengers explore their “two heritages.” The Continental Trailways Bus Company has as a slogan “Take Our Routes to Your Roots.”

Both as an academic pursuit and as a popular American pastime, genealogy is clearly riding on a fast track.

This current acceptance has been very slow in coming about. Genealogy and derision have had a long and colorful relationship. In the Bible, Timothy warns us, “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies.” In The Acharnians Aristophanes poked wicked fun at sober Euripides’ fondness for reciting genealogies. The proverbial expression “to lie like a genealogist” is an old one. It appears that almost from the first moment there were genealogies—and they have been traced as far back as the Pharaohs—there have been genealogists eager to please a client or impress an audience without regard to the pesky standards of accuracy or even plausibility. In ancient Rome patricians who were descended from the founding fathers, and who were eager to maintain the rigid exclusiveness that preserved their sacra gentilica , proudly drew up genealogical tables and then had the results painted on the walls of their homes. Since almost everyone likes to be thought of as patrician, a thriving industry grew up providing plebian parvenus with busts of specious ancestors to worship and tables tracing clients back to Aeneas. It is a practice that continues in much the same form down to the present day. Probably the high-water mark of this sort of f akery is the genealogy of the Hungarian Esterhâzy family, which solemnly traced itself back to Adam’s grandfather.

Genealogy is a worldwide interest that appears in almost all cultures, but the pursuit as we know it in America usually comes to us with a pronounced English accent. The British have traditionally set great and bloody store by their ancestry. The War of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War were but two conflicts initiated because of variant interpretations of genealogical niceties. The famous suit of Sir Richard Scrope against Sir Robert Grosvenor is a landmark case in the history of genealogical litigation. Scrope was part of an army that invaded Scotland in 1385 and he appeared on the field with his coat of arms, a gold bend on a field of blue. He was angered to find Grosvenor with the same device. His appeal to the chivalry court was considered to be of sufficient moment to be carried to the king, who decided in Scrope’s favor. Grosvenor’s claim of descendancy from one who “came over with William the Conqueror” was not the first nor would it be the last to be disallowed.

Until the middle of this century there was a great rush of clients thirsting for noble blood in their ancestry and not very particular about how it got there.

This kind of thing was exactly the sort of feudal European posturing American settlers wished to turn their backs on in the New World. They believed with Voltaire that “he who serves his country well has no need of ancestors. ”

Inevitably, prominent families began to emerge; kinship, particularly in Massachusetts, counted for a great deal in the development of the great New England dynasties. Of the twelve original directors of the Massachusetts Bank, nine were related by blood or marriage. As business became more complicated, Boston’s leading families responded with a dazzling display of interlocking marriages of convenience, state, and commerce.

For all their notorious closeness, in the early nineteenth century Boston families were surprisingly liberal in reaching out beyond their own family trees to graft on promising stock. As a result, writes the historian Peter Dobbin Hall,"men of obscure origins like Nathaniel Bowditch, son of an impecunious and alcoholic Salem mariner, and Joseph Peabody, son of a rural Essex County farmer, became founding fathers of families whose names are now inevitably identified with Brahminism. ” Although family background was important in Boston, formal genealogy was less so. The Cabots and the Winthrops knew who they were and didn’t need a genealogical table to tell them.

It was different in the South in the 1830s, where antecedents were not as well established as they were in New England. Under increasing fire from Northern abolitionists over the issue of slavery, many Southerners retreated defensively into an image-saving mythology. Warmed by the extraordinarily popular Scottish border novels of Sir Walter Scott, Southerners cast about to reestablish what they took to be their Old World heritage. In some ways this was an easy task: vital records of the early Southern colonial period are skimpier than they are in the North because a large number of Southern courthouses and city halls were built of wood and had a disquieting history of burning to the ground with the records inside. While detailed records of vital statistics form the bedrock of accurate genealogical research, imprecision and discrepancy were heaven sent to those nineteenth-century seekers of illusion. Connections that would not bear the scrutiny of present-day standards were made, and Southern families could see their lineages as what they had always wished them to be: more patrician, more courtly, more settled into tradition than those swarms of immigrants in the North who were criticizing them for the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery.

Of course, there is no evidence that the South was favored with a higher class of early settler than the North, but myths are often harder to kill than facts. This noble vision of the Old South was a strong influence on the writing of William Faulkner and other twentieth-century Southern authors whose works, according to one historian, “look back, past the South’s supposed aristocratic origins to the pre-settlement wilderness, an Eden whose native inhabitants were as unspoilt and unspoiling as the surroundings from which they drew their character. ”

The first great wave of national interest in American genealogy grew out of the 1876 Centennial celebration. This was the era of the founding of such patriotic organizations as the Colonial Dames of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution, both founded in 1890. As they were to do a century later, these organizations took a leading role in the development of local histories and genealogical studies.

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.”

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. ”

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.”

The pursuit of these family histories cuts across all social, racial, and religious sectors of the population. The Irish, according to the specialist B-Ann Moorhouse, tend more than other ethnic groups “to have one aim and one aim only—to find the exact place of origin in Ireland.” But due to the vagaries of spelling and pronunciation, and the indifference of immigration authorities in recording names properly, it is a major genealogical accomplishment just to identify the port of disembarkation. Professor Herbert G. Gutman’s scholarly The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 , has, with Alex Haley’s Roots , gained broad recognition for black genealogy, but successfully tracing an African heritage remains a matter of almost incalculable luck. Jews have been aided by Dan Rottenberg’s Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jeivish Genealogy , and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York offers help in tracing the European backgrounds of immigrant Jewish families. All too often the search ends in the memorial volumes that recount the names of those destroyed in the Holocaust.

Many opinions have been put forth to account for America’s growing interest in genealogy—the desire for a restless people to find an anchor; the heightened historical sensibility engendered by the Bicentennial; the fact that many Americans have discovered that working out a genealogy table can be as much fun as solving a crossword puzzle; the growing awareness of ethnic roots that reach back before the American experience; the understandable wish to appear more important than one’s neighbor; and even the author Jane Howard’s mordant theory that it’s all due to our spiraling divorce rate: “If we can’t figure out who our living relatives are, maybe we’ll have more luck with the dead ones.”

I think the reason is simpler and more basic. We are interested in genealogy because to ask who we are and where we belong in the scheme of things is the most natural and elemental of questions. Indeed, the current debate over evolution and creationism is a genealogical debate on the grandest scale. The surprise is not that Americans have discovered an interest in genealogy but that they had lost it for so long. What seemed a European affectation was actually a human need.

We feel as people always do, especially when they are feeling lost and perhaps a little frightened.

We want to go home.


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