The Early History of Genealogy in America

lupaglupa

2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 18, 2019
GeneTreeSourceLOC.jpg

Image Source - Library of Congress (link)

In the years after the American Revolution many citizens of the new country rejected the interest in family history and lineage that they associated with the royalty and nobility of Europe. In this new nation founded on liberty and equality, each person had the right to find their own status, unbound by the heritage of their forefathers. To brag about one's ancestry was seen as undemocratic.

When the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution approached, however, many citizens of the United States began to promote an interest in local history and many historical societies were formed, especially in the New England states. Members of these historical societies found town and village records in poor shape and began to advocate for the preservation of local records which held data not only on governance but also on the lives of the population. The men and women portrayed in records from the Revolutionary era were seen as heroes and heroines whose names and deeds deserved preservation. And naturally, those who could claim a link to Revolutionary ancestors began to look through their own family records, wanting to preserve that knowledge along with official, goverment records.

FamilyBible.png

Image Source - Library of Congress (link)

Most families, or at least those affluent and literate enough to do so, kept family records written in Bibles. Births, marriages, and deaths were noted for immediate family members, sometimes with details for times and places. These Bibles, often cherished family heirlooms, became the only source of information for later generations. But family Bibles were vulnerable to loss and the records in them to disappearing along with them. Finding a way to preserve family histories began to attract attention from the same antiquarians who had promoted the preservation of local historic records.

In 1845 the New England Historic Genealogical Society was formed in Boston, the first organization in the United States devoted to promoting family history. No longer ashamed to link themselves to prestigious ancestors, Americans began to research their family trees and to share their findings. In the 1840s about 45 family histories were published by those eager to set down their ancestry and relations. By the 1860s the number of books had more than tripled, and that did not include the tens of not hundreds of histories which were created and circulated only within families. In addition to putting known family records into print, Americans also began to put together family associations so that family members could meet and share information. So far had the post-Revolutionary disdain for claiming noble lineage been lost, that the Wilson family association in Vermont boldly traced their ancestry to Robert, Earl of Warwick.

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Image source - Library of Congress (link)

While the interest in family history in the United States has waxed and waned over the years, those of us who enjoy genealogy today owe a real debt to the people of the 1820s who recognized the need to preserve records - both civic and personal. Much that we know today about our ancestors would be lost if they had not decided to honor the soldiers and statesmen of the American Revolution.
 
Joined
Sep 28, 2013
Location
Southwest Mississippi
In the years after the American Revolution many citizens of the new country rejected the interest in family history and lineage that they associated with the royalty and nobility of Europe. In this new nation founded on liberty and equality, each person had the right to find their own status, unbound by the heritage of their forefathers. To brag about one's ancestry was seen as undemocratic.

Very True !
And while I can't blame them for their attitudes, it has complicated research for current professional & amateur genealogists.

those affluent and literate enough to do so, kept family records written in Bibles. Births, marriages, and deaths were noted for immediate family members, sometimes with details for times and places. These Bibles, often cherished family heirlooms, became the only source of information for later generations. But family Bibles were vulnerable to loss and the records in them to disappearing along with them.

Again . . . very much so !
And no matter the finest paper and leather binding of those Bibles, most have rarely remained intact.

But there is often more info in those family Bibles that one can find in an official archive.

Old letters as well.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
While NEHGS is the oldest genealogical society in America, interest in genealogy goes way back--for practical reasons. In many countries, land ownership was a family affair and in many places, the sudden appearance of an overlooked kinsman could negate a land sale. Church registers in Norway and Denmark (for example) date way back and it is possible to trace back to much earlier times. In fact, land records were (and still are) valuable trackers in genealogical research dating back to mediaeval times.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
To brag about one's ancestry was seen as undemocratic
It still is considered to be of poor taste in New England--although many people whom I know are rather knowledgeable about their forebears. One of my favorite quotations was repeated by my mother-in-law: that a person with nothing to boast of but his ancestors was like a potato--his best part was under the ground. ☺️
 

lupaglupa

2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 18, 2019
While NEHGS is the oldest genealogical society in America, interest in genealogy goes way back--for practical reasons. In many countries, land ownership was a family affair and in many places, the sudden appearance of an overlooked kinsman could negate a land sale. Church registers in Norway and Denmark (for example) date way back and it is possible to trace back to much earlier times. In fact, land records were (and still are) valuable trackers in genealogical research dating back to mediaeval times.
I think that gap in the US after the Revolutionary War is unusual - most places people have kept records and wanted to know their ancestors.
 
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