Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Genealogy: An Enduring New England Pastime


“This obsession with family and genealogy became an enduring part of New England’s culture.”   

David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America



“The builders of the Bay colony thought of themselves as a twice-chosen people:  once by God, and again by the General Court of Massachusetts.  Other English plantations eagerly welcomed any two-legged animal who could be dragged on board an emigrant ship.  But Massachusetts chose its colonists with care.  Not everyone was allowed to settle there.”  

David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America


Founders Memorial, Boston Common - William Blackstone Greeting (my husband's 9th Great Grandfather) Governor John Winthrop and Company.  (Puritans, not Pilgrims.)

47 comments:

NEW Communications said...

There is perhaps no pastime so gratifying - or so engrossing - as digging into your family's past. You must go in with an open mind and be ready for some surprises. But you learn so much about yourself.

Cranky Yankee said...

Thank you for pointing out that those who arrived with the Winthrop Fleet, which began the Great Migration (1630-1640), were Puritans. The 1620 Mayflower brought mostly Separatist Pilgrims, yet many people assume that the 102 passengers who landed in Plymouth were Puritans...a common rookie mistake. The Separatists wanted to separate from the Church and the Puritans wanted to purify it. Two distinct and very different groups.

There is also a lineage organization in Pennsylvania called the Welcome Society named for the ship that brought William Penn here in 1682. The Welcome is often referred to as the Quaker Mayflower.

Muffy Aldrich said...

Thanks Jack!

BlueTrain said...

My earliest ancestor in my line came from England to Virginia around 1650. Over 300 years later, I was the first one in my line not born in Virginia. Yet that ancestor was not English. He was German. So were some other ancestors, though all anglicized their names, sometimes more than once. None were Puritan. Few were pure. Most were prolific.

My wife's ancestry is much more documented. She's even in Burke's Presidental Families.

Edward Appleby said...

I never thought of this blog as having the pretention that most people associate with New England, but that was before I read that second quote you posted. I realize that the author is alluding to the mindset of the colonists themselves, but you betray your pride in that sentiment by sharing it.

Muffy Aldrich said...

@Edward - I am assuming the tone of your comment about aggression was not meant to be ironic. I find by far the most interesting places around the world are those where people take pride in their surroundings. This enables stewardship, which in turn results in a richness and depth of culture. An aggressive, unhappy person can "use" anything as a verbal weapon to flail at someone else, be it their genealogy, income, education, "manners", even type of car or house they own. But I do not believe the response to these trolls, Internet or otherwise, is appeasement through whitewashing history or clear cutting individuality, per your suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might appreciate the sentiment expressed in the introduction to a genealogical book written by a relative in 1853.

"I do not offer you a history of high dignitaries in Church or State, or valiant warriors who have won renown at the head of armies. Mine is a history of the yeomanry and artisan; of those who have earned their bread on their farms and in their workshops "by the sweat of their brow;" and if they performed well their part in their station,— however humble it may have been, — they are not to be despised, — but honored. The husbandman with striped frock and thick shoes, in his cornfield, the mechanic with his apron at the anvil, are often “nature's noblemen;" while he who wears a fine coat is sometimes little more than a coxcomb or a pedant.

I have labored to rescue from oblivion the names of those who have gone before us, to record their virtues, and to place landmarks where they resided; that those of us who are now on the stage, and those that come after us, may answer the question — “Who was your father?"

Too many, I fear, who are bound up in time present, care but little about the past — or the future I might perhaps add. I have seen some such; but, as has been well said by an eminent writer, —

"There is a feeling in all, save the obtusest of us, that will be heard in spite of utilitarianism, and we shall invariably find, that whatever tends to connect us in idea with the past or the future, tends also, and in a greater degree than any thing else, save revealed religion, to make us conscious that we belong not wholly to earth or to the present, but are portions of immortality. He who narrows his thoughts and wishes to the time being, may certainly reap some practical advantage from the limited application of his faculties, but it will be at the expense of higher and better feelings. The more we free our minds from the idea of time and space, the nearer we approach to the understanding of the Infinite, — to that which has neither beginning nor end, — and nothing does this so effectually, as the abstracting ourselves from the present in the consideration of the past.""

Muffy Aldrich said...

@Anonymous 9:27 - Thank you so much for sharing that. It is brilliant.

Chris said...

Hi Muffy, I am a long time lurker. I am wondering if the romanticized view of the old-guard New England culture you promote is genuine or a romanticization.

Coming from Georgia, I am well aware of the view of The South as somewhere that time forgot, where manners and traditions are upheld and, in many ways, seems analogous to your view of New England. However, Georgia is just as full of strip malls, McMansions, and various other manifestations of rampant capitalism as any New Jersey or Chicago suburb.

A few years back, I took off for college in New England expecting a sense of genuine place and tradition that I found lacking in my southern communities and was sadly disappointed to find that Massachusetts was little more than a cold version of the place I left behind.

DCG said...

I loved Albion's Seed, I keep trying to push it on friends but it's an imposing tome.

BlueTrain said...

Obsession with geneology, ancestry and family is hardly an exclusively New England characteristic, as Chris has just pointed out. Indeed, it is something that is sometimes carefully tended by the unlettered and is in no way romanticized or iealized. There is, however, a word for it.

George S. Patton, the famous general in WWII, was a descendent of Hugh Mercer (as was Johnny Mercer). Hugh Mercer was present at the battle of Culloden in the uprising of 1745. But he was on the losing side and came to the colonies. He was killed at the battle of Princeton, New Jersey. The county Princeton is located in was renamed Mercer County and coincidentally, I was born in another Princeton in another Mercer County.

This was all mentioned (except the part about me) in a biography of General Patton. And on the first page of that biography, the very descriptive word "ancestor worship" was used indicate everything we are talking about.

American exceptionalism is something else, however, but I think some of the early settlers brought it with them. It seems to have flourished in the new soil.

Anonymous said...

My lineage includes a well-known Massachusetts family connected to two presidents, several French-Canadian families and Irish potato famine immigrants.

It is the latter two lines of which I am most proud. They overcame impediments by hard work and diligence.

Muffy Aldrich said...

@Chris, I greatly appreciate your question, and thank you for bringing up this issue. There is no easy answer. What I am describing is very real (so many moments, including a bay of boats or fields of lupine, look so much worse in our photographs than the reality).
There is no question that parts of New England, especially the most densely populated towns, have gone down the strip mall/McMansion path. But there are many pockets of what you describe as “old-guard New England” that still exist. I am hoping by describing them sufficiently I can do my bit to increase the interest in and preservation of them.
Beyond that goal, however, I simply find myself in some beautiful places with wonderful friends and family, and enjoy sharing what I love about them.

Edward Appleby said...

I didn't mean for my comment to read as harsh as it did. Not trying to be Howard Zinn here, I was just taken aback by that quote, and the presumption (my own, I admit) that the conceit of being "chosen" by God would be embraced (even by kinship) today.

I very much enjoy this blog and will continue to look forward to the great stories & photographs you post.

Muffy Aldrich said...

Thank you, Edward. The pride issue aside, that quote still makes me laugh for all of the obvious reasons. It reminded me of some of the humor of Will Rogers.

Cranky Yankee said...

Some of the comments made me think of the writings of the late Paul Fussell, particularly my favorite 'Class: A Guide Through the American Status System'.

sara said...

Well, I have a bit of a genealogy related problem. The Smithsonian has recently confirmed one of my ancestors survived the "starving time" in Jamestown by (apparently) becoming a cannibal.

Can't decide if this is wildly interesting or a little embarrassing. My parent's and grandparents' generation would have been horrified by confirmation of this news. I suppose it does prove we aren't descended from high-minded people like those who settled in New England.

In any event, the next meeting of the Jamestowne Society should be entertaining.

kdot said...

I am intrigued by your decision to crop out the Indians cowering behind Blackstone on the Founders Memorial relief. I walk past it several times a week and am always struck by their inclusion in the scene.

Muffy Aldrich said...

@kdot - The only editorial intention was to crop out a few friends and family who preferred not to be in the picture.

Greenfield said...

Don't worry, Sara--I've seen plenty of Yankees "cannibalize" each other--in business! It's an unfortunate truth that another notorious way New Englanders have been known to look at life, besides that "twice-chosen" bit, is "zero-sum." As in, if YOU are doing well, it must be coming out of MY pocket. I've known many old-timers who think like this!

Thanks for a wonderful post, Muffy; and to everyone else for the thoughtful and pithy comments!

Some of our ancestors considered quite "noteworthy" by genealogists today, my great-grandmother and HER mother thought too boring even to mention!

John D said...

I am always amazed who people are related too. America is truly a melting pot.

Anonymous said...

. . . I come from a long line of oppressed and downtrodden, nameless and faceless, German peasants.

Anonymous said...

And, Anonymous at 10:23, they are probably fascinating people. It's amazing what you find out when you do the research! There are interesting ancestors in everyone's background...

J. Van Rensselaer-Van Epps said...

Muffy,

I’m a new reader to your blog (it’s actually quite sad that less than two years ago, I didn’t know what a blog was). I’ve read your blog on genealogy, and perused the vast majority of your other preppy topics. In 2008, I delved into the world of genealogy with the purpose of finding out more about my ancestors’ (both paternal and maternal). I’m originally from Albany, New York, the epicenter of my father’s Dutch patrician family, but what I knew very little about, was my mother’s family. She was born and raised in Connecticut of old puritan (Mayflower) stock. The discoveries that have been uncovered have been nothing short of fascinating.

I have a word of encouragement for all budding genealogists. The discoveries far outweigh the stumbling blocks you’re bound to encounter, so plough through, you owe it to yourself, because it’s your story! If you have New England ancestry you’re bound to encounter names such as: Corliss, Champlin, Uriah and Deliverance. Every new unveiling makes the next so much more tantalizing.

A big thank you, Muffy. Your blog is delicious.

J.

Anonymous said...

This post exemplifies one of the many reasons that I, as a newcomer, have learned to appreciate New England -- I have distant ancestors who came to Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime before 1690. One of them is supposed to have been an associate of Gov. Winthrop, too.

-- Elizabeth V.

Brad Cole said...

J. Van Rensselaer, I’m wondering why you used “Dutch patrician family” rather than Dutch patroon family when describing the Van Rensselaer’s. No doubt the Van Rensselaer’s were one of the elite and/or aristocratic Dutch families which settled in New Netherland, but would describing them as Patroons been possibly a bit more fitting? Also, I’m curious if you and/or your father are members of the Holland Society of New York http://www.hollandsociety.com ?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. Because of your site, Muffy, I did a little search on my ancestry. I was very surprised to learn that one of my ancestors came to Connecticut from England sometime between 1630 and 1637 (there are differing dates). He later became an apparently important figure in one of the towns governing bodies. That was fun to find out. I had spent several years working in the New Haven city government a while back, so I guess it's in the genes.

Being a Conn. Yankee, I think of New England as more than just picturesque towns with their greens and church buildings. There also is a certain attitude or ideology that is reflected in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, the Alcotts and others that helped shape this country and permeates New England to this day. I've never felt this in any other part of the country.

Cheers,
Gary

krispy1138 said...

My 9th GG came over with the Winthrop Fleet so perhaps our 9th GG's knew each other!

Kristina

J. Van Rensselaer-Van Epps said...

Brad,

I stand corrected, I should have stated patroon in place of patrician. Any, yes, we are members of the Holland Society of New York and numerous other lineage societies throughout New England, such as The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America (Connecticut).

J.

Anonymous said...

I note that at least some of these orders and societies require your genealogy to go back to an early male settler or ancestor. Is there a legitimate reason for excluding female ancestors?

Cheers,
Gary

Brad Cole said...

J. Van Rensselaer, Thank you for the quick reply to my comment/question and consent. Also, it’s nice to run across a fellow HSNY member here on TDP.

Gary, You wrote above, “Is there a legitimate reason for excluding female ancestors?” Is that a question or a comment ;-)

Joyce N said...

I want to wish you Muffy, your family, and all readers of your wonderful blog, a happy and safe Memorial Day Holiday!

Anonymous said...

Not to worry - we have plenty of 'societies' that cater to the female ancestor. I'm a member of Colonial Dames of 17th Century. You had to have been a direct descendant of a Colonial woman who arrived before 1650.

Kathie Truitt

Anonymous said...

Mayflower Society only counts male ancestors. No wonder I didn't pass my enthusiasm for it along to my son.

Cranky Yankee said...

To 'Anonymous 11:51 PM': You're partly right. Until recently, the Mayflower Society limited membership to descent from any of the 41 male signers of the Compact. About 3-4 years ago, they expanded that to include many of the wives and daughters. The number of qualifying ancestors is now 51:

http://www.themayflowersociety.com/membership-info16/membership-info

Check with the General Society historian in Plymouth or with your State Society historian.

Most state societies also offer the option of a separate and very inexpensive 'Junior Membership' up to the age of 18 which uses a qualifying family member's approved General and State Society lineage. This is a good way to get kids interested in their Mayflower ancestry.

I had five ancestors on the Mayflower, including Mary Allerton who died in 1699 at age 83. She was the last surviving passenger.

Anonymous said...

Brad,

It was meant as a serious question. I was thinking maybe records weren't kept at that time for women, or something like that. If it turns out to be mere bias, then that is a different thing.

Gary

Brad Cole said...

Gary, Fair enough. I can, however, only speak to the issue as it relates to the HSNY. There are two underlying reasons for continuing the policy of descent in the male line for membership. The first is that an object of the Society is to preserve the family names of the families that comprised New Netherland. Whether such a policy is perceived to be right or not, the surnames for the period and up to the present have followed in the male line, not the female. The second reason is that the Holland Dames provides an opportunity for women to participate in a society that is as sharply focused as the Holland Society and is restricted to women.

In any event, the policy is absolutely not based upon “mere bias.” None the less, there’s certainly been, and continues to be, much discussion and push for change. For what it is worth, I’m the father of two daughters and support the current policy.

Best regards, BC

Anonymous said...

Cranky Yankee,

Thanks for the info. I'm glad they've mended their ways.
We are all life members, and have three ancestors.

Anonymous said...

Brad,

The surname rationale makes some sense. I thought there might be something like that. I just didn't know. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Regardless how societies operate, our backgrounds are fascinating. I never knew that New Netherlands encompassed all the coastal area from DelMar to the lower Cape until I visited the HSNY site. I also came across the White Horse Tavern on the site. I have some friends who will really appreciate a visit to that pub - so that is on the near-term agenda!

Thanks, Brad. I appreciate it.

Cheers,
Gary

Rachel said...

I've been our family historian for over 30 years and truly love doing it. Each ancestor is as real to me as anyone living today, their stories bring history to life. No matter what trials I am going through I know I will survive just as my ancestors did. During the Civil War my TN family were Unionist in a southern state, my blind grandmother was taken from her home in the middle of winter while her home was burned by the rebels. She lived with her small children in a cave that winter. After hearing that losing electricity for a week isn't such a big deal to me. Her name will never be in the history books , she'll never be famous but to me she is a hero and is as worthy as anyone you'll find anywhere.

NEW Communications said...

Rachel, what an amazing story! I wish I had one as interesting to share. I've been following family history for more than 30 years, after I took a research class my freshman year of college that used family history to give students a sense of their ancestors' role in American history. I am certainly proud of my ancestors, but I am unaware of anyone who showed the courage and grit your grandmother demonstrated. As I said, what a story!

Marie said...

Family history is often better than a novel. My husband had an accused Mass. witch in his family and reading about why she was accused is fascinating. I have many of the original settlers of Milford and Branford CT in my line. They all packed up and founded Newark NJ. I admire their fortitude but not their often narrow minded views-but hey we can't pick our relatives.

NEW Communications said...

Marie, I so with you. I have a GGGG grandmother with an accused witch in her lineage, too, but I've never been able to learn much about her. This is a fascinating thread because no matter who we are, we have a rich history.

Vaiden said...

I can't remember how far back, but my direct ancestor was Isaac Stearns, on the Arbella with Winthrop. I'm lucky in my genealogical research as there is a two volume set of the "Genealogy and memoirs of Isaac Stearns and his descendents" that goes through 1901, and a distant cousin picked up from there. What do people think about these lineage societies? Do you get anything out of them other than a certificate?

Wayne Silverman said...

I have no relation myself to anyone in America before 1908 when my grandparents, bless their insight, left Germany and Russia and came to America. Exploring my genealogy I am awed by the courage they possessed. To leave country, family, and familiarity behind and arrive here penniless to take up the yoke in a new land and from such humble beginnings create a family.
When researching my wife's family (who's roots in this country date back to the mid-1600's)I am likewise awestruck when reading about their atlantic crossings (in those days it was not an easy journey) and the fortitude they all must have possessed to embark on such a perilous undertaking.
To each and all of them we should raise a glass now and then and thank our lucky stars they were made of such stern stuff!

scotmiss said...

We were able to trace my Father's side back to 1632, in MA, then to PA; eventually ending up near Ann Arbor in the 1830's. We have recorded deaths on my Mother's side in KY as 'scalped by Indians' . I cannot imagine getting on a boat (probably for the first time on one) in Britain sailing off to the new world. Even as a pioneer, if I were in charge, the furthest western point of the US would have probably been Springfield MA . Interesting reading! scotmiss

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