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The Genealogy of Communities

Most of us define family by genetics. Judy Rosella Edwards takes a look at intentional communities like religious movements, utopias and other self-defined groups within American society to share some insight into researching their genealogy.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 777 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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The nuclear family is the essence of genealogy. Most of the world assumes that at the core of every family is a child and at least one biological parent. Genealogical searches begin with surnames and a location where family life occurred from birth to school to work and, finally, death. In between are events like christening, marriage, and divorce.

Throughout history humans have created their own unique groups that include birth and death. Other events may vary from the norm. Obviously, such self-defined connections can create genealogical challenges.

There are many reasons for communities to appear. Financial circumstances and opportunities generate groups ranging from logging and goldmine camps to houses of prostitution. Political and religious beliefs lead to the formation of utopias, seminaries, and convents.

Skilled or successful individuals migrated from one community to another. At times, the community moved. For example, the early Mormons migrated from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and then to Utah. Not every individual followed. Some chose not to follow, while others perished at Haun's Mill or along the journey west. The move was not a straight line. Novice researchers don't expect to find pioneers crossing the Mississippi River - and then crossing back to Illinois, and then crossing again to reach Utah. Plus, the Mormons followed more than one pioneer route to Utah.

Religious groups are one of the most common communities. The definition of father, mother, sister and brother can be imposed on people who are not biologically related. The community defines labels and bestows familial names and work definitions upon residents. The 1900 U.S. Federal Census enumerator, identified the relationship of members of the Koreshan Unity utopian community as "pardner" (partner), except for the leader who was identified as "head." Members' occupations were listed as "assistant," except for the leader who was the "directress."

A variety of such groups, including utopias, appear in traditional genealogical records. Often we perceive these individuals as merely being "unrelated." Members of intentional communities (communities that are artificially created outside the traditional family community) are sometimes biologically related, either before or after joining the group. This is true whether a group is residential or a choice-based group such as a church or social organization.

Membership-based groups only appear in census records if they are based on an individual's primary place of residence. Enumerators often write the group's name in the margin on the census sheets. Intentional communities are not always democratic in the sense that they include a self-appointed leader or founder. Chosen leaders may come later. Initially the community has a single leader, or group of leaders, who envision and establish the community.

Intentional communities are unique in that admission requires permission or an order from a legal entity or an imprisoner, panderer, or religious leader. Membership includes adhering to the community's unique structure based on work roles. In most cases, work is in terms of skill or willingness to learn. In the case of poorhouses and golf course residential areas, admission is based on finances. Later generations may be born into the community, but they must obtain permission to remain and must follow the community's rules and practices.

Researching intentional communities is a bit easier with a search engine like that includes a keyword search in the advanced option. The keyword search will find terms like prostitute, logger, and placer. The search gets a bit more complicated for terms like "madam" which were commonly used in the South in place of "Mrs." Searching for "sister" will generate long lists of women who were members of a religious order.

The searching gets a bit trickier with occupations like "pardner," because the word is typically written "partner," even by those who pronounce it otherwise. Awareness of the terminology used within a community and how enumerators identified individuals makes searching much easier. "Pardner" is a term that came into use around 1785.

The history of an intentional community is the best source for beginning to research members associated with it. Nearly every community has a written history, by now. It may not be complete or focused on genealogy, but a community history clarifies terms and explains how the community worked and defined its members.

There are other techniques that can help anyone "read" an intentional community using traditional genealogical tools. In this series, we will examine how to research individuals within these membership-based communities.

Other Articles In This Series:

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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