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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The origins of American Genealogy

Nathan Murphy, a consultant at the Family History Library, mentioned a new book about the history of genealogy. The book is Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013. I must say that the book would only be of interest to those with a fairly good understanding of history and some experience in genealogy. But the book does address many of the same issues I have been thinking about and raising in my blog posts over the past few years. One great advantage that is coming from reading the book is that I am beginning to understand more of the details of how genealogy developed in America rather than having a vague idea. I am guessing that you would appreciate and enjoy reading the book, if you spend time thinking about genealogy as a subject, and not just thinking about how to do genealogy.

Another reason the book is interesting to me, is the fact that much of the research I have done with my own ancestors dates back to the early settlement of America. My Danish and English ancestors all arrived from England, Australia and Denmark back in the 1800s. My nearest ancestor who was born outside of the United States is my Great-grandfather Marinus Christensen who was born in Torslev, Hjorring, Denmark in 1863. My Great-great-grandparents came from Denmark, England by way of Australia, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But my Tanner line goes back to the 1680s in Rhode Island and some of those ancestors arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.

For me, the defining factor in all of my genealogical pursuits has been the fact that of my 16 Great-great-grandparents, all of them except two, were early pioneer settlers in Utah, California and Arizona. This fact has given me a real, present-day connection to all of my ancestral lines because I grew up in the same areas where they had settled in the 1800s. In each of my family lines there were those who did extensive genealogy. In three of the four sets of Great-grandparents, there are published surname books and in the Tanner line, there are several such books, some beginning with my Great-great-great-grandparents.

The scholarly level of those surname books varies and none of them have adequate source citations. I have mentioned before in these posts, that my interest in genealogy arises primarily because of the omissions and inconsistencies of those surname books and the less-than-accurate oral traditions transmitted to me by my family. For those reasons and others, I am acutely aware of the need for documentation.

Now, as I learn more of the details of the development of genealogy in America, I understand that much of what we have today arises from the same confrontation with undocumented transmission of history. Many of the earliest efforts in America to document genealogy came from a desire to document what had previously only been partially transmitted oral histories. It was not that the original documents did not exists, to some extent, but that there was little or no interest in preserving that history. It is astounding to me, that some of the same issues that prompted John Farmer to compile his Register, are the same motivations that moved me to get involved so heavily in genealogy. 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.
It helps and motivates me to know that my own ancestors are chronicled in that early genealogical publication and the subsequent one:
Savage, James, 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 Farmer's Register. Boston: Little, Brown, 1860.
I relate to these early genealogical efforts because the circumstances and the background of those antiquarian genealogists is so similar to my own and they had some of the same concerns about documentation and source citations.

It is interesting to me that after almost two hundred years of genealogical history in America, we are talking about some of the same issues that were raised by these early genealogists.

1 comment:

  1. The impetus for why Weil wrote the book is interesting to me. The author is a Frenchman who lives in France. He said he wrote a history of genealogy in America because historians in America have no interest in genealogy (in fact they look down on the subject) and also lacked interest in writing genealogy's history.

    Elizabeth Shown Mills has written extensively American historians' disdain of genealogists and our goals in NGSQ editorials while editor of that wonderful publication. American historians' dislike of genealogy hit me loud and clear while I was doing my Ph.D. in U.S. history at the University of Utah. After three years of intense study, my advisor asked to drop out of the program because what I was doing was so different from what historians do. In contrast, when I did my M.A. in England, English historians were much more open and accepting of genealogists and they were happy to allow me to do a genealogy-related topic for my thesis. In America, as Weil points out, there is a great chasm between historians and genealogists -- to the detriment of historians in my opinion.