Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Discovery of your ancestors vs. Setting out to prove who they are

I have had several discussions lately about two opposing views of genealogy. The first of these opposing views came in the context of an application for admittance into the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and similar organizations. Mind you, I think ancestral organizations fill an important roll in genealogy by promoting interest and maintaining valuable records. For example, the DAR have a substantial genealogical library. The two opposing views involve the way membership in such an organization is sought. One method is to begin genealogical research from the premise that the researcher is a descendant of someone who fought in the U.S. Revolutionary War and the opposing view is to do ancestral research and discover from the research that such a relationship exists.

In the first instance, the researcher is generally motivated by a family story or tradition linking him or her to a particular historical person. In Mesa, Arizona over the years, this issue came up most commonly in the context of researchers' attempts to prove Native American ancestry for the purpose of claiming benefits from an established Indian Reservation. Less frequently, the researcher would be trying to prove a connection with a specific historical figure or European royalty. In most of these cases, the researchers are firmly convinced that the connection exists, long before any valid genealogical data has been obtained.

This a priori assumption of some kind of historical connection to a famous person or group of people, is often viewed as a positive motivator for interest in genealogy. In fact, there are several programs, including ones in major online genealogy databases, that encourage these assumptions by linking people to famous celebrities or other historical people though the online family trees. I am certain that there are many very dedicated genealogists out there who were initially motivated by such a desire. Where this motivation breaks down is when researchers begin to modify their findings and manufacture connections that do not really exist so that they can gain entrance to the organization or claim a famous historical relationship.

During a period of American genealogical history, there were a significantly large number of genealogical businesses whose main purpose was to prove heirship to unclaimed fortunes in Europe, particularly England. This is not be confused with the research done to find heirs to unclaimed probate matters or other similar activities.

The opposite viewpoint involves the careful examination of ancestral lines beginning with the researcher and following lines back in time. In this case, it is entirely possible that an ancestor could be located who fought in a war or was a member of a European Royal Family, but that discovery comes about as a result of careful research extending family lines.

In my own family, the ancestral lines have been extended to five potential ancestors in early Colonial Virginia all of whom have the exact same name. In the published accounts of this family line, the assumption is made that one of these families is related to a distinguished New England banking family of the same name; Morgan. This view is held, notwithstanding the lack of a provable connection between any one of the five possibly unrelated Morgan families in Virginia and the New England family.

Both my wife and I have had similar experiences with patrons when we were working in the Mesa, Arizona FamilySearch Library. On several occasions I was asked to help people with proving the last connection to a famous family line. Most recently, my wife had a patron who just needed to prove that one more of her ancestors was a descendant of a Native American to substantiate a link to an Indian tribe.

I think that the amazing stories of my ancestors is more than adequate compensation for the time and effort spent in discovering who they were. I certainly do not wish to discourage anyone from investigating their family, but I would suggest that searching back in time may bring more satisfaction that attempting to prove a connection to an ancestor merely for the reason of establishing membership in some sort of organization.


  1. There are probably better of your articles to post this comment on, but I didn’t want to bury it too deeply. And it does kind of apply to your comments about discovering our ancestors. It applies more to your several articles about looking for records rather than people, all kinds of records, and getting to know where your ancestors come from.

    My wife and I frequently read my wife’s hometown newspaper, the Bergens Tidende. We like to keep in touch with what is going on there. How many genealogical researchers do you think do that? Read the current daily news of their ancestors’ homes? It’s a great way to get acquainted with an area and easy to do with so many newspapers now online. You never know what you might stumble on. For example, just a couple of days ago I was reading the paper and ran across this article:

    which reports that Kartverket, the Norwegian Mapping Authority who “bears nationwide responsibility for geographical information, operates the national property registry and undertakes all property registration in Norway,” has digitized and posted online 8000 maps from their historical map collection, maps drawn in the 1700s and 1800s.

    The map collection is here:

    I don’t know how long it would have taken me to stumble across this collection if I hadn’t been reading the newspaper. It has also occurred to me that our local paper over the past year has had a lot of articles covering the history of our city. Neither my wife or I are from here and enjoy learning about the area but how much more would such articles mean for someone whose ancestors lived here during the applicable years but moved away later. I wonder if many local papers are starting to have such articles as a way to keep local readers subscribing? It’s a great resource for genealogists.

    1. Very helpful and interesting comment. I will look at the website and write a blog post about it. Thanks for all your insight.

  2. Single-surname research is alot like that, in that you start with the assumption that you are related to anyone whose ancestors shared the surname in question. On the other hand, you also take the people you have and work them back.

    1. Single surname research starts from the false premise that surnames are an indication of relationship.