Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America

Article excerpt

Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. By François Weil. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 304, notes, index. Cloth, $27.95.)

The living are connected to past generations. Genealogist and historian alike work from this belief. And yet, while they sit side-by-side in the same libraries, often poring over the same sources, they do not feel moved to talk with each other. Whatever the differences, they do not derive from something intrinsic. Once historians joined with genealogists to form societies devoted to a common interest in the past. In sum, the discipline of history has changed, and so has genealogy. François Weil's Family Trees offers a succinct and insightful perspective on an often-neglected part of this process.

Americans fascinated with family roots expect to discover who they are, and they have been searching for very different, even conflicting, motives. On the one side is an aspiring elite, once colonial gentry in powder wigs and silk stockings, today social climbers, who dig up ancestral roots to establish their credentials as somehow superior to their fellow citizens. On the other side are the democratic genealogists inspired by American egalitarian ideals who preserve family past for private reasons. Rather than fix a coat of arms on a carriage door, they bought family Bibles that contained blank pages and forms for the recording of births, marriages, and deaths that would be passed on to the next generation. Genealogy was, according to Weil, a means for preserving a sense of moral connection over generations. As kin scattered westward and relationships became frayed, relatives grasped for blood ties. Families formed associations for the planning of reunions.

Both approaches have persisted, although in different forms. A late nineteenth century elite scorned the democracy and grasped for hereditary claims of distinction. Genealogy also was fused with the study of heredity and genetics to lend scientific support for deep racial and ethnic prejudices. Yet those who were snubbed by some were also pursuing genealogical connections for their own reasons. Genealogical work reflected American diversity with Irish, German, Jewish, and African Americans looking to their family origins. That trend has gained momentum since the Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement. The popularity of the television series Roots and the success of Ancestry.com are partial reflections of this process. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.