Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Descended from the Rich and Famous?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Descended from the Rich and Famous?

Article excerpt

Does it really matter if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower and mine were probably cattle thieves?

Genealogy is a huge business in the United States, and some estimates have it at the billion dollar mark. There's a fascination to see whether we're descended from the rich and famous, and there are lots of companies that sell research tools to help people trace their ancestry.

I was interested for years in proving whether the family legend about being descended from a Cherokee princess was true, but I got lost in the confusing thicket of marriages and offspring.

So my attention was arrested by a recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine ("The Family Tree, Pruned," July) by a splendid writer, Richard Conniff. Genealogy, in his view, is fascinating, but ultimately meaningless.

Wait a minute, I thought. What about my grandfather who came to the United States at 14, all alone and not speaking a word of English? And what about that Cherokee princess? "Conjuring up a family tree and figuring out where we sit in it gives us back a sense of place, of connectedness," says Conniff. He points out, though, that going back 10 generations, to about 1700 - when that Cherokee princess would have been living - would give me in theory 1,000 other direct ancestors, and going back another 10, the number swells to a million.

He notes that because of intermarriage and the difficulty of travel, when one traces back about 5,000 years, "all our ancestors are the same." Rich and famous or an unknown peasant; slave or Nobel winning laureate; of African, Asian, or Caucasian descent, at one point we find we all have an identical genealogy.

The biblical prophet Malachi rejected the concept of genealogy, recognizing God as the ultimate Father of all, when he wrote, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers? …

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