click to view original photo

The History of Genealogy

In all the rush to discover the history of my family tree, it never occurred to me to research the history of genealogy.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1069 (approx.)
Labels: Beginner's Guide 
Short URL:

In all the rush to discover the history of my family tree, it never occurred to me to research the history of genealogy. Apparently, the term "genealogy" came from the Greeks; Genea "generation" and logos "knowledge." Thus, we have the "knowledge of generations." One source reports that the term was first introduced in the 14th century. Kind of ironic that the subject of genealogy heralds back a lot further back in time than most genealogy researchers have been able to take a particular family tree. If we take the time to run down the derivation of the word, "generation," we find it tracks back to "genus" which brings us to "origin," "race," and Greek for "kind." If the history of the word clarifies what a genealogist is doing, then perhaps a short history lesson on the subject of genealogy may enlighten us further and help us become better genealogists.

In my own meanderings of the subject, it seems everyone has their own pet theory on what motivates one to spend tireless hours pouring over records, glaring at computer monitors, and traveling great distances to a library or archive. You know, if you took a book of any subject and let 100 people read it and tell them to highlight what seems to speak to them about their motivations for delving into the subject in the first place, I wonder if you would ever get a consensus on any one thing. As a writer and author, I noticed the number-one genre read by readers and watched by viewers is the genre of mystery. We all start out not knowing about something, and want to know more about it. Can there be any more of a basic motivation than to want to know? I don't care if you're a scientist trying to crack generational mutations of DNA, a novice wanting to know more about his or her grandfather, or a professional researcher working on a client's family tree, it all amounts to the same thing.

However, genealogy may have a past, present and future ally or an enabler due to the quest for power and wealth and notoriety. Historically speaking, the run-of-the-mill peasant didn't really concern himself with who were his ancestors. Life spans were much shorter than today. You didn't burn the candle at both ends researching about Uncle Joe when your survival was based on burning those same candles to bring in a harvest.

You can be certain, though, that if proving your connection to a noble family or a rich relative meant a marked increase of wealth, prestige, or power, the subject of genealogy and the methods of collecting documentation would soar in popularity in some circles.

Another interesting social development which perhaps can influence the evolution of genealogy is the schism between groups of people. Let's take the example of the mass exodus of pilgrims and other nationalities from Europe to the New World. Disagreements, differences in opinions concerning how people should live out their lives, drove thousands across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the New World. Similar examples of strife are experienced in the microcosm of a family unit when Junior decides to join a despised or socially unacceptable group. Relationships are strained and rifts are created that disconnect generations. It doesn't matter if it is different views of religion, sexual orientation, or the type of profession chosen: the act of severing communications and thus history is the result. Sometimes these differences of opinion heal over after many generations, and sometimes they remain a barrier to future researchers.

There are to be sure, many untimely fires which swept away important warehouses, government buildings, city halls, and libraries. If they were caused by negligence is one thing, to be due to the British burning down the capital in 1812 is quite something else.

After the fireworks of 1776 were launched, America had new heroes to be related to. The old stuffy royal families lost a lot of clout. The daughters and sons of revolutionary solders started their own heritage. Historians and authors like John Farmer (1789-1838) led a path of a unique American brand of genealogy. Farmer has been credited with the creation of such prestigious organizations as the New England Historical and Genealogical Society and his Genealogical Register was the fore runner of James Savage's 1860 Genealogical Dictionary of the first settlers of New England.

To be sure, there have been numerous examples of individuals and groups who have contributed to the expansion and sprawl of genealogy. Such notable examples would be the Mormon Church and its founding of the Genealogical Society of Utah, and even Alex Haley and his works of Roots. Add to that, just about every contributor of documents and genealogical data posted on the Internet, and every wonderful genealogical society member who has contributed time, resources and due diligence to the cause to preserve our collective heritage.

Data and communication technology has increased the speed and reach of researchers to unheralded levels, and now with DNA, a tool to circumvent lost or destroyed documents, the linking of generations can occur rapidly. The subject of genealogy has not just been evolving systematically to help the research find data; it is also crossing the old rifts between societies separated by space and time.

Despite Papa's attempt at whipping out the history of his heirs, erasing evidence of future generations, DNA and other proven techniques and skills can bring back the branches of a tree long since believed lost. We can laugh now about the eccentric behavior of an old man who never again mouthed his foolish son's name because he dared to go to America. DNA itself has shown kindred among all men and women as it tracks mankind around the globe.

Yes, genealogy has come a long way baby. From dusty old bragging rights of a few, with more gold in their pockets than others, to a global-wide network which makes everybody cousins of a sort: genealogy has come into it's own. Wave off the weary old scholar who pickles body parts in a jar and who insists he is the only one that is heir-apparent to a science. Take heart in the notion that every time you spend time taking care of records, recording history, or posting a tidbit on websites, publishing it in mediums for everybody to use, you too are extending the history of genealogy.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles