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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Will a Unified Family Tree be the "death" of Lineage Societies?

I was reading a couple of articles about joining lineage societies the other day and it occurred to me that both the authors ignored an obvious issue concerning the content of unified family tree programs and the Family Tree program in particular. 

Lineage societies, such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants or the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, have long thrived on exclusivity. Nearly all of these organizations have a fairly extensive application process that involves "proving" the applicant's ancestry, in most cases, with extensive documentation. Here is an example, from of an application form for Sarah Parkhurst (Sarah Tanner) ( U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.)

Now let's suppose that I wanted to join one of these societies such as the Mayflower Society. What would I have to do to prove my lineage to join? In the past, I might have even had to go to the extent of hiring someone to research my ancestral lines. But today, I can go to the Family Tree and see my connection to the following individuals who are my seventh great-grandparents.

If I knew that the Mayflower Society published a list of "gateway ancestors" that had already been accepted and proven as descendants of Mayflower passengers, all I need to do is establish my lineage back to these gateway ancestors and submit an application. Guess what? All of the documentation establishing my connection to these particular ancestors is already in the Family Tree. 

In fact, anyone who is a descendant of Thankful Tefft could, with very little effort, establish the necessary connection to apply for membership. So there goes all the exclusivity of the organizations. The same thing would happen if I wanted to join any other lineage society. My connections to their gateway individuals will ultimately be clearly established in the Family Tree with abundant sources. Likewise, all those people who aspire to belong to one of these organizations may ultimately find that they do not qualify. So membership in one or another of these lineage societies will become trivial for many, many people. For example, in the case of Joshua Tanner and Thankful Tefft, they have tens of thousands of descendants all of whom qualify for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, assuming they are interested enough to pay their application fee and annual dues. 

Of course, this has always been the case. The number of people in the United States who are descendants of one or more individuals who fought in the U.S. Revolutionary War probably number in the millions. But what is the attraction of belonging to an organization that nearly anyone can join because their lineage is publically available and easily verified online?

Granted, there are large volunteer, service organizations such as Rotary International and fraternal organizations such as Freemasonry, but lineage societies have other motivations. Going back to the articles I read recently, as I noted neither of the authors seemed to realize that for a huge and growing number of people, proving their descent from any particular group will become a simple as looking opening a program such as Relative Finder and then copying out the sources. 

Here is my list of relatives from Relative Finder who were Mayflower Passengers.

Of course, in most cases, the lineage societies are looking for direct descendants, but right now, the Family Tree is still under development and many of these early people are still mired in a swamp of conflicting data. Using the Relative Finder and because the information in the Family Tree is becoming more reliable due to sources being added, I discovered I am related to both my wife's mother and her father. Actually, the connection to her father was bogus because the common ancestor was not really my ancestor. 

What will be the impact of nearly everyone automatically knowing within a few seconds everyone they are related to?


  1. There is so much erroneous information in public member trees, whether created by individuals or in the "one tree" websites that, personally, I can't see them ever being much more than hints. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I also can't see any reason for them to bring on the "death" of lineage societies. If the point of lineage societies is that lineage must actually be documented and information or documents discovered in an online tree can provide the needed proof, that is a positive outcome.

    1. My point involves the unified Family Tree program. Substantial documentation or sources are being added constantly.

  2. I consider myself a VERY amateur genealogist. I am also a member of the DAR. NOt the Mayflower Society, although I think I could be if I wanted to. My experience with the DAR is different than what you implied in your article. We look to recruit and invite members to apply. We help people who are close to finding a patriot. THere are MANY people who cannot find the ancestors - and yes, it needs to be a direct line, not an 8th Cousin 2 times removed. Once you have a proved ancestor, the purpose of the group I am a member is many faceted. We support the local museum. We purchase amd place wreaths on verterans graves every Christmas, despite the below zero cold expected this Saturday. We fund raise for scholarships for Navajo children in AZ. We support including african American patriots who supported the revolutionary cause and helping their ancestors join the DAR. THere is a fair amount of frivolous stuff involved. We dress nicely and wear goofy ribbons with pins on them. But we do not spend any time hoping that no one else can join our ranks, or spend any time preventing people from accessing their linkage to patriots. Prior to the internet there were TONS of fake genealogies submitted to the DAR. THey are much for viligent in seeking accuracy than ever before. Off my hig horse now, but I found your article to be a bit condescending and insulting. I don't know if it was intentional, but I don't think the DAR is a threat to the exclusivity of genealogy that you seem to seek.

    1. I think you need to reread my article. I am not being either condescending nor am I trying to insult the DAR or any other lineage organization. I am merely pointing out that having a fully documented family tree that shows thousands of these veterans' descendants may change the way we look at relationships and thereby obviate the need for lineage societies. Perhaps the lineage societies should look ahead and start adjusting to the impact these types of programs will have on their organizations.