The United States was born in a sudden and decisive repudiation of blood. By abolishing monarchy and becoming republicans in 1776, Americans turned their backs on the age-old tradition of birth and patrimony. No longer would it matter who your father was or who your ancestors were. In the new republican society, merit and talent were all that would count. Even the ancien régime had recognized that in the arts and sciences only individual genius mattered. Artists and scientists in the old order may have resided in hereditary monarchies, but they knew that they actually lived in “a republic of letters.”
Who remembered the sons of Homer and Euclid? asked Thomas Paine. The American Revolution was to extend this republican spirit of the arts and sciences to the entire society. Everyone in the future would be judged solely by his individual worth. “The Ideal of a Man born a Magistrate, a Legislator, or a Judge,” declared George Mason in his initial draft of the Virginia Bill of Rights, “is unnatural and absurd.”
Yet for a nation so conceived, so committed presumably to the rejection of birth and blood, the people of the United States throughout their history have devoted an enormous amount of energy, time, and money to genealogy and the search for ancestors. To explain this anomaly—indeed, to explain how the search for ancestors evolved in different forms over four centuries and eventually became a distinctly American mode of genealogy—is the burden of François Weil’s well-researched and readable book, Family Trees. Weil, who is chancellor of the Universities of Paris and professor of history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, knows America well, but he has sufficient distance to be honest and dispassionate about it. The result is a succinct history of genealogy in a nation that supposedly denies the importance of birth and ancestors.
Of course, before the Revolution the colonists were as interested in genealogy as their English cousins back home and resorted to it for a variety of purposes. Because of the intensity of their Puritanism, New Englanders tended to use their ancestors less as sources of genealogical pride and more as moral guides to living. But elsewhere in the colonies the gentry tended to seek genealogical sanctions for their social status, usually by acquiring coats of arms that they placed on their silver, coaches, dishes, and other items. Since the colonists lacked the heraldic and genealogical regulation that existed in the mother country, the wealthy among them were able to acquire signs of their presumed aristocratic ancestry more easily than the gentry in England. Indeed, says Weil, the colonists “could choose coats of arms as they pleased.” Even slaves in the upper South developed an interest in genealogy. In the late eighteenth century Virginia and Maryland permitted slaves to sue for their freedom if they could prove a white or Indian woman among their ancestors. Consequently, slaves with the appropriate lineage began initiating freedom suits that often freed a whole line of them.
Although the Revolution’s rejection of blood relations disrupted the Americans’ preoccupation with genealogy, it did not end it. Even many of the Revolutionary leaders could not help thinking that ancestry was important. Nearly all those who traveled to England in the years following the Revolution tended to look up their forebears. Jefferson was as keen as any founder in his desire to bring down the older patrimonial aristocracy in order “to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent.” But he nonetheless asked a friend traveling to London “to search the Herald’s office for the arms of my family.”
When he himself eventually got to England he was eager to look up his roots. But as he related in his autobiography, written in 1821, he found that the lineage of his Welsh father was lost in obscurity. Then, remembering the meaning of the Revolution, he mentioned the number of references he found of his mother’s family, the Randolphs, the most distinguished of the First Families of Virginia. The Randolphs, he wrote with about as much derision as he ever allowed himself, “trace their pedigree far back in England & Scotland, to which let every one ascribe the faith & merit he chooses.”
Given the Revolution’s repudiation of patrimony, many in post-Revolutionary America were embarrassed by their continued desire to learn about their ancestors. In 1815 Leverett Saltonstall, scion of a distinguished seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritan family, warned his sister that his search for his roots was to be kept quiet. “I should be unwilling it should be generally known that I have been engaged in this inquiry, because it would by many be attributed to vanity—by all who sprang from obscurity.”
But this initial embarrassment over the search for ancestry eventually gave way to increasing acceptance of the practice. Although Emerson declared that it was his “own humor to despise pedigree,” as early as 1822 he began recording information about his ancestors in a notebook. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Americans’ search for their roots had become increasingly popular, even more popular, observers noted, than it was in aristocratic England.
Weil nevertheless contends that this American interest in genealogy was very different from that in England. In the former mother country the pursuit of pedigrees remained dominated by a concern for social status. “In contrast,” Weil writes, “antebellum America’s passion for genealogy originated in the growing significance of the family as a moral, social, and political unit in the new republic.”
This distinction is hard to prove and Weil seems to retract it in a subsequent chapter. Americans, precisely because of their relative equality, were certainly as concerned as the English with social climbing and claims of social superiority. Yet Weil does describe in great detail the growing use of family history in order to teach moral lessons in antebellum America. New Englanders took the lead in creating antiquarian and historical societies, which in turn tended to foster genealogy. In 1820 the bicentennial celebration of the Pilgrims’ founding of Plymouth Colony was a particular stimulus to ancestor worship. In 1829 John Farmer of New Hampshire published The Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England, the first such volume that extended beyond the lineage of a single person. By insisting on the use of scholarship and not mere family traditions to substantiate antiquarian and genealogical claims, Farmer and his Register transformed the practice of genealogy in the United States.
In the 1840s a group of New England antiquarians established the first genealogical society and the first genealogical periodical in the United States—the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The NEHGS inspired dozens of New England works on family genealogies, including several books that told people how to research their family genealogy on their own. Why the New Englanders should have been the leaders in these genealogical developments Weil never fully explains, but that leadership certainly accounts for why New England at the expense of Virginia dominated the nation’s understanding of its colonial origins right up through the middle of the twentieth century.
By the time of the Civil War genealogists were claiming that their works were thoroughly American and thoroughly republican. James Savage’s four-volume Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England (1860–1862) was over 2,500 pages long and included, he said, “every settler, without regard to his rank, or wealth” who had arrived before 1692. As Americans became more and more interested in their ancestors, they created a need for what Weil calls “genealogists-for-hire”—professional and often not so professional pedigree hunters who were more than eager to meet this market need. This “democratization of genealogy”—something, claims Weil, “that had no equivalent in Europe”—inspired an expanding commercialization that gradually undermined the earlier familial and moral foundations of Americans’ interest in genealogy.
But as Weil concedes in a subsequent chapter, there was more to this undermining of the moral foundations of the Americans’ interest in their ancestors than the democratization and commercialization of genealogy. It turns out that many Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century remained obsessed with their “status-based pedigree” after all. Indeed, “no people on earth are more proud of their ancestors,” wrote the Austrian-born observer Francis J. Grund in 1839, “than those fashionable Americans who prove themselves descended from respectable fathers and grandfathers.” Precisely because Americans had “no distinct national character” and had “so many things to disgust & feel ashamed of,” said Sidney George Fisher in 1836, they necessarily had to claim an individual and collective connection—genealogical, political, and cultural—to England or to other civilized nations in Europe. New Englanders talked of their “Puritan stock,” New Yorkers claimed to come from distinguished Dutch families, and Virginians began to discover their Cavalier beginnings.
All these desires to own a pedigree encouraged the spread of genealogical frauds everywhere in the country, but especially in nineteenth-century New York City, which, says Weil, was “the capital of parvenu genealogy.” The consequence of all this pedigree hunting, declared The New York Times in 1879, was to turn the United States into “the most genealogical nation on the face of the earth.”
Many Americans came to believe that if they could establish a certain lineage they might have a claim on some English estate or on some colonial American property. The most famous of these many claims involved land in Manhattan on which Trinity Church was located. Late-eighteenth-century heirs of a Dutch woman of seventeenth-century New Amsterdam claimed that Queen Anne’s conveyance of this land to Trinity Church in 1705 was fraudulent, and the land, now worth a fortune, should be restored to its rightful owners. Although the heirs lost in court in the 1780s, they persisted with suits to recover the property over the next half-dozen decades or so, but kept losing. Even in the twentieth century some claimants tried unsuccessfully to revive the suit. The lure of money never dies.
Uncertainties over titles and lineages encouraged these sorts of scams based on imaginary domestic or foreign ancestors and estates. And there were increasing numbers of hustlers like Horatio Gates Somerby eager to engage in these genealogical frauds. Somerby satisfied his clients by forging genealogical data for them. He even invented for a rich Bostonian a connection with the great sixteenth-century English naval hero Sir John Hawkins. Gustave Anjou became Somerby’s most notorious successor. For over three decades Anjou fabricated genealogies for American clients seeking a noble ancestry. “He operated a mail-order business out of his home,” writes Weil, “distributing twenty-four-page catalogs that offered complete genealogies for a $250 fee.”
At the end of the nineteenth century America’s preoccupation with genealogy began taking a nasty and scary turn. Some Americans began using genealogy to claim that some “races,” by which they meant ethnicities or nationalities, were superior to others. “According to this racialized vision of American society,” writes Weil, “the Anglo-Saxons stood at the top of the racial scale.” While scholars such as Herbert Baxter Adams and popular writers such as Josiah Strong began emphasizing the Aryan and Teutonic origins of America’s institutions and culture, the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel created new conceptions of heredity—all of which gave a fresh rationale for genealogy and the claims of some to social superiority. Eugenics, or the science of “better breeding,” was born out of these new discoveries. As the distinguished sociologist Edward A. Ross explained in 1901, “race suicide” occurred when a superior race lost its “strong sense of its superiority.” To maintain itself the superior race, said Ross, required “pride of blood and an uncompromising attitude toward the lower races.” Genealogy could help sustain this process of better breeding.
Prominent scholars and scientists urged genealogists “to think like biologists” and make genealogy “the study of heredity, rather than the study of lineage.” In 1906 Alexander Graham Bell and David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford, helped to form the Committee on Eugenics within the American Breeders’ Association. The goal of the committee was “to emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” Eugenicists created institutions to promote their cause and used the genealogies that had been developed in several states to target rural areas and their supposedly degenerate populations. “In Virginia, Vermont, and several other states,” writes Weil, “such genealogical studies of ‘dysgenic’ families resulted in the forced but legal sterilization of thousands of individuals” by state governments and local authorities. No longer was the search for ancestors an intellectual and sentimental pastime; the quest for lineages had become a central part of America’s racial politics.
Some Americans now saw the nation as a kind of extended family held together by the blood of kinship. Consequently, some Americans felt that they were more fully citizens of the nation than the more recent immigrants, especially if their ancestors had come to the New World in the seventeenth century or at least before 1776. New hereditary societies sprang up to reinforce these distinctions: the Colonial Dames, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and other such patriotic-hereditary organizations. All of them used genealogy as a means toward establishing their superiority to others in the nation. These efforts fed into the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s.
In reaction to the claims of the Anglo-Saxons, other races and ethnicities in America began forming their own societies and organizations. Americans of German, Huguenot, Scotch, Swedish, Irish, and German-Jewish origin all used genealogy and racial pride to counterbalance what they perceived as the undue weight of the Anglo-Saxons. Some African-Americans also joined in the celebration of racial lineages, often, as W.E.B. Du Bois explained, to create hierarchies of distinction among themselves.
This search for ancestors by all these groups intensified the commercialization of genealogy. By 1900 dozens of genealogists for hire existed throughout the country, including growing numbers of professional women genealogists. New genealogical societies and journals were created, and interest in ancestry spread beyond elites into the middle class. All this heightened interest in genealogy bred more and more examples of bogus heraldry and fabricated lineages, developments that writers like Thorstein Veblen and Mark Twain could not resist mocking.
Twain even wrote a novel, The American Claimant (1892), that satirized the pedigree hunters who dreamed of becoming heirs to an English fortune. The most spectacular of all the scams involved Oscar Hartzell of Iowa, who in the 1910s and 1920s persuaded thousands of Americans to contribute to his effort to recover the estate of Sir Francis Drake, whose only living heir he claimed to represent.
It took Nazism, World War II, and the civil rights movement to discredit the use of genealogy for racial and nationalistic purposes. But genealogy itself was not discredited. In fact, by the last quarter of the twentieth century it was popularized to the point where a large proportion of Americans seemed to be involved in a search for ancestors. The National Genealogical Society in Washington, D.C., founded in 1903, grew from 395 members in 1948 to over four thousand members by 1974. The Mormon Church continued to enlarge its compiling of genealogical records throughout the world. The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976, followed by a nine-hour television series, ignited an explosion of interest in recovering one’s genealogy. By 2005 a poll found that 73 percent of Americans had become very interested in their family history. They were not searching for pedigree any longer but for identity.
By the twenty-first century, genealogy in America had become a billion-dollar industry with millions of customers. The computer, the Internet, and the emergence of Ancestry.com as the largest Internet genealogy provider in the world (with over two million members and revenues in 2011 approaching $400 million) have made it possible for everyone to become his or her own genealogist.
At the same time the emergence of DNA in tracing ancestry has resulted in the return of genetics to genealogy—a renewed emphasis on biological connections that has its ironies and its dangers. The use of DNA to show that Thomas Jefferson was the likely father of at least some of the children of his mulatto slave Sally Hemings provided a new form of evidence that was more scientific than the older claim of family traditions. Companies sprang up to offer DNA genealogical databases for clients. Some of these companies catered specifically to African-Americans who were eager to establish their identities out of obscure ancestral roots. In 2006 Oprah Winfrey learned that she had no Zulu ancestry as family tradition claimed but that many in her family were Kpelle people from what is now Liberia. The black scholar Henry Louis Gates discovered French and Irish origins mixed in with his African ancestry.
For many people, the increasing use of DNA has revealed unexpected genealogical relationships and unforeseen ancestral and genetic complexities. Much of the DNA testing shows that we are all multiracial, that we are all related to one another to one extent or another. This may be the best and least-anticipated lesson to come out of all our centuries-long passion for genealogy.