The Purposes of the Family Tree

The ancient Irish were among the earliest civilizations to value genealogy. John O’Donovan, Irish language scholar, wrote in 1849, in his book, Miscellany of the Celtic Society: “Those of the lowest rank among a great tribe traced and retained the whole line of their descent with the same care which in other nations was peculiar to the rich and great, for it was from his own genealogy each man of the tribe, poor as well as rich, held the charter of his civil state, his right of property in the cantred in which he was born, and in which no one lawfully possessed any portion…if he was not of the same race as the chief.”

The basic family unit of Irish society was “true kin” with family members connected through male descendants of a common great-grandfather. This extended family formed the basis of inheritance, and provided evidence of the worth of an individual. It was this collection of family histories that was to form the basic common law of the Irish people.

Many of today’s surviving legal tracts and law books address the subject of ‘status’, and ‘social connections’ and contain genealogical works. Partly this is due to a belief in the constancy of certain principles, or traditions, as well as the belief in the wisdom of ancestors gathered from the collected knowledge passed on in their stories.

Many family “genealogists” today, content to plug the names and relevant dates of births and deaths of family members into their family tree templates and pedigree charts, feel satisfied that their mission is thus accomplished. They consider themselves “hobbyists”, not experts looking to advance humankinds’ knowledge by establishing truth, or creating new methodologies of scientific inquiry. They have good reason to enjoy the achievement of having documented family facts and events; to have recorded and saved for posterity those informal anecdotal recollections that may have become lost, entangled, or confused due to fading memories, creative editing, or reluctance to reveal inconvenient truths. But these same tables, templates, and charts do much more than merely create visual representations of who we are, and where we come from. They are more than legal documents meant to establish primogeniture. They educate.

Historically, in Western societies, the focus of family histories was on the kinship and descent of rulers and nobles, basically to support the legitimacy of claims to wealth and power. These histories were usually only of interest to persons who had inherited wealth or rank. Those who had not been granted anything of value might suppress or edit their family history to hide embarrassment or shame.

In societies that developed via a commitment to various complementary associations or groupings encompassing the social side of human nature, an individual’s identity was often defined by family network as well as individual achievement. If you asked someone who they were they might answer with a description of first their parents followed by their tribe.

Modern family history often explores different sources of status, such as the resilience of relatives who survived generations of poverty or slavery, or the experiences of family members who integrated across racial or ethnic boundaries. Some family histories even emphasize and celebrate connections to the famous, or infamous.

Family history can be seen as an extremely valuable and useful educational tool for children and adults. Family trees introduce the study of history and of one’s ancestors. They introduce the process of, and the resources available for, research. Being able to cull information from unusual sources is a skill that can translate to success in other research projects.

Study of the family tree can instill personal pride and help encourage a sense of belonging and introduce a child to role models from his/her family that can be looked up to and imitated with a purpose to equal or surpass. Shared in a classroom setting, family history can be a way for children to learn about the diverse backgrounds of their peers, and come to a broader understanding of their differences.

It is equally important to educate concerning the abuses of, and faulty “science” that was once attached to, genealogy. In Germany, during the early twentieth century, family histories, compiled to prove adherence to legal marriage requirements, were used to affirm an individuals’ ancestral affiliation with, and to identify those who could be excluded from, the “master race”. It was viewed as science, administered and regulated by “experts.” In Germany today, family history is still often perceived as an invasion of privacy rather than a source of self-esteem.

Much of the enjoyment of family history can be savored without the fear of violating any of the elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard created to establish minimums for credible genealogical work.

An Irish saying passes on this blessing: “May the roots of your family tree grow deep and strong.” The forests of human history are dense with many such trees. We should climb them, build our tree houses and enjoy the view, not worry about whether we’re an arborist or a dendrologist.

For information about the Genealogical Proof Standard:

For a thoughtful perspective on amateur versus expert genealogy:

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3 Responses

  1. Tammy Hepps says:

    Thanks for including a link to my post! I enjoyed yours as well.

  2. Tony Proctor says:

    Interesting about the Irish Matthew — I didn’t know that. I was a little confused about your use of the two terms ‘genealogy’ and ‘family history’. You started by equating genealogy with lineage and family trees — which is certainly where the term is derived from — but you then switched to family history. I’ve pondered over the difference myself (back in because the distinction is more pronounced in some countries. There will probably never be complete agreement, but I personally believe history is much more than family trees.

  3. Shalin says:

    Its all about the history of the family that carries to the future generation. Drawing a family tree should be done carefully with guidance as it represents heritage.

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