19th-Century American Genealogy

by Bob Brooke

In any culture, people generally begin to investigate their past during periods of stability and prosperity. In the United States, local history and genealogy first flourished during the period of peace following the War of 1812.

In New England, people began to write town histories, and families that had been scattered by urbanization began to reunite at periodic family reunions, from which grew family histories. As a group, the authors of the large, 19th-century New England genealogies generally didn't try to prove that they had a great ancestry. While they may have included some background on the family name in England and list Crusaders or other notable people who bore the same surname, they presented this information as general background, and for the most part they didn't claim direct descent unless they could prove it.

Instead, the New England genealogies focused on the immigrant ancestor and his descendants. Many of these works can be verified by other historical documents that have been published since. For example, by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Peabody-Essex Institute published the vital records of many Massachusetts towns from the earliest point up to 1850. It's remarkable how well the dates in them correspond with those noted in the early New England genealogies. The people who wrote these histories apparently did careful research, checking family records and talking to older people who still had a good memory of earlier generations.

On the other hand, 19th-century Southern genealogies tended to be quite fanciful and often had little basis in fact. If the family name was Montague, for example, the author would try to establish a link with the very greatest English families of the same name. There was a general tradition that all Southern families were of gentile origin, although in truth they were no more gentile than the people of New England.

In fact, most of the English who first settled both Massachusetts and Virginia were people of the middle or lower middle class who were seeking economic advancement. Generally, they had been able to save enough money to pay their passage to the colonies. There were, of course, those who came as indentured servants because they couldn't afford the passage money, and most of these settled in the South. But many indentured servants were also members of good families who had simply fallen on hard times as a consequence of the English Civil War of 1642.

Many other early settlers were hard-working people whose opportunities the law of primogeniture in England, under which a father's estate went to his oldest son, limited. This system of inheritance prevailed from the very top of the social order to the bottom. Noblemen and gentlemen might be able to set aside a little property to give to a younger son, or arrange for him to go into the military or clergy so that he would be provided for. However, merchants and farmers could do very little for their younger sons, except, perhaps, give them a small amount of money. Often it was this money that paid their way to America.

Early documents reveal that numerous early American settlers could write their names, so it's obvious that many of them had at least some education. In America, with little money and a great deal of ambition, industrious immigrants were able to find land and position and become very prosperous.

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