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

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The First American Genealogy

It is interesting that so many people in the United States trace their ancestry back to the 102 passengers on the Mayflower when so few of the Mayflower passengers have any proven ancestry at all. In addition, the statement has been made that "if all the people who have been claimed to have come on the Mayflower to New England in 1620 actually had come on that boat, it would have sunk mid-Atlantic." See Alicia Crane Williams, in American Ancestors, Part II: Who Came on the Mayflower: Separating the Facts from the Myths. These two facts are important indicators of the state of affairs of early American genealogy.

Of these 102 early settlers to America, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants recognizes only 26 heads of families who have proved descendants. See General Society of Mayflower Descendants. This is the case because about half of the passengers died during the first winter in New England. Interestingly, the crew of the Mayflower are mostly unidentified and no family information is known about them.

So how many of our "documented" pedigrees go back to a book or record that was, in the words of the American Ancestors article, "mistaken, imaginary, or outright fraudulent." I have found that this is one of the major challenges of pursuing a documented pedigree back into the 18th and 17th Centuries.

Systematically careful documentation of the early settlers in America began in the 1800s, almost two hundred years after the first settlers arrived. The earliest of these books is acknowledged to be Farmer's Register.

See Farmer, John. A Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England ... To Which Are Added Various Genealogical and Biographical Notes, Collected from Ancient Records, Manuscripts, and Printed Works. Lancaster, Mass: Carter, Andrews & Co, 1829.

That book was followed by a more extensive work, usually referred to as the Genealogical Dictionary first published in 1860. 

See Savage, James, O. P. Dexter, and John Farmer. A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Showing Three Generations of Those Who Came Before May, 1692, on the Basis of the Farmer's Register. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1965.

Unfortunately, neither book cites any specific sources for the information. However, both books are considered fairly accurate. I find it interesting that the Genealogical Dictionary is supposed to include those who came before 1692 and my own ancestor, William Tanner, who arrived in about 1680 is omitted as are many other settlers in Rhode Island. 

How do we avoid the trap of relying on undocumented and unreliable information in compiling a genealogy? That is a basic question that has to be answered by nearly every researcher at some time in their work on compiling a family history. Even some of the most venerable and repeated stories passed down from our ancestors contain misstatements and outright fabrications. On the other hand, how do we overcome the tendency to become hopeless skeptics afraid to rely on even the strongest evidence? Somehow we need to navigate between those extremes. 

I have yet to examine a pedigree that goes back into the early 1800s, that did not have some serious issues with consistency or believability. Most of the present-day surname books avoid this issue by summarizing the background of the first named ancestor and then focusing on his or her descendants often without any documentation at all.

But what if you do not have ancestors in New England? Or even the United States? Well, then you have the opportunity to set the stage for all those who come after you. You can provide the sources and documentation so that future generations won't have to wade through fables and frauds.

Those of us with lines that go back into these early American settlers can use as broad a spectrum of sources as is possible to finally document our ancestors and perhaps, at some time in the future, begin to turn the tide of copies of unsupported genealogies. 


  1. I am sure my ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower. Some of my husbands ancestor, to my surprise, were here a fought in the Revolution.

    What amazed me was the probability that no present day relatives knew about their Revolutionary day ancestors.

  2. Interesting. My family, like so many, claims to have links back to the Mayflower. The name checks out and the family lore points in that direction. We do definitely have a revolutionary land grant in the family. Recently my interest has really been piqued and I started doing some independent research. Maybe I can surprise my family. Anyhow, I find it can be kind of expensive, so I've been using online coupons for family tree that I found. Cuts the price a bit. What other services to people suggest? I'm new to researching this way.