Family History in New England

How Family Trees Grew in America

Early genealogy in America was an extension of the European quest for verification of aristocracy, heraldry, and legitimacy. Tracing one’s genealogical roots in colonial America was seen as an attempt to claim social status recognizable within the British Empire. This aim was contrary to the character of the new republic’s belief that all of its citizens should be considered equal in fundamental worth and social standing. As celebrations honoring the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War heroes became more and more popular, the pursuit of “antiquarianism”, which the colonists defined as a focus on local history, became more and more acceptable as a way to honor accomplishments of early settlers. Ever since, there has been an evolution of America’s unique approach to genealogy which has shown divergence among the social classes and has shifted over time.

Before the late eighteenth century, a private quest for pedigree, lineage, and social status that mirrored the British approach dominated colonial genealogy. Some settlers chose to investigate their roots for moral, affective, and religious reasons. Slaves brought from Africa sought to preserve the memory of their ancestors in their time of bondage.

Exclusive pedigrees were soon rejected in favor of more democratic principles, and families during the Revolutionary period began keeping their own oral traditions, family records, and memorials. Families viewed genealogy as a means to keep the memory of ancestors alive or to establish kinship for family unity. Family trees were difficult to validate and to produce, as published resources and centralized recordkeeping was nearly nonexistent.

The post-Revolutionary period witnessed a growth in local histories, biographies, and historical societies. It was during this era that the first genealogy books and journals were published, the first genealogy network was created, the first genealogy library was built, and the basic standards for the use of evidence and resources were established. This period also saw the first career genealogist and an increase in the application of genealogy research to settle estate-claim cases and other related litigious matters.

Before the Civil War, and quite diverse in view from the earlier pretensions of the colonial elite, Americans began to practice genealogy out of a developing cultural belief in political, economic, and social equality. They came to see this study and practice more and more as a science that would help reinforce a sense of self and the significance of the family as a civic, moral, and social unit.

From the 1860s to the mid-20th-century, racial purity, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for knowledge of ancestral descent and brought to genealogy a more contemporary ideological relevance than it had before. The language of race, heredity, and eugenics invaded the genealogical sphere, and many white Americans described themselves self-consciously as Anglo-Saxons and claimed racial and social superiority over other races and ethnicities.

Claims to racial and national superiority were basically debunked by the effects of World War II. Genealogical interest in the U.S. readjusted its aims once again. The civil rights movement, and a new interest in ethnicity and heritage planted a refined American genealogical culture; one we know today as more attuned to the common people and their sometimes multicultural, and multiracial family histories.

Genealogical research in the United States first saw systemization in the early 19th century. John Farmer (1789–1838), an American historian and genealogist, born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, capitalized on the increasing acceptability of “antiquarianism” to frame genealogy within the early republic’s ideological framework of pride in one’s American ancestors.

In the 1820s, he and fellow antiquarians began producing genealogical and antiquarian tracts. These efforts led to the creation of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, one of New England’s oldest and most prominent organizations dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of public records and private monuments. These primary sources would otherwise have gone to ruin, or been lost and forgotten.

In 1823, the New Hampshire Historical Society was established and Farmer contributed to its organization and success being elected Corresponding Secretary in 1825. Farmer was subsequently elected a Corresponding Member of the Historical Society of Massachusetts, and later to the Historical Society of Rhode Island, the Maine Historical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society. Until his death, he was Corresponding Secretary of the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society.

“A Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England”, published in 1829, is thought to be Farmer’s greatest work. The Register records the names of thousands of persons, their dates of birth, death, offices held, and places of residence through the seventeenth century.

With the advent of the Internet, genealogy has become a major fixture in the American consciousness. The emergence of DNA brings the return of biological evidence to genealogy thus raising new, fascinating, and sometimes troubling questions about the identity of individuals and groups within American society.

We owe much to the growth of genealogy in America to a Farmer who died in 1838 at the age of 49.



The American Archivist, Reviews, Vol. 77, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2014

Weil, Francois. Family Trees, A History of Genealogy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-674-04583-5.

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