The internet has made the study of one’s genealogy relatively simple for those in the West. Genealogy is an enjoyable hobby for many people, as whether one believes in nature, nurture, or a mixture of the two, one’s genealogy may reveal interesting personal traits about oneself, as well as facilitates conversation between young and old members of a family. In addition, genealogy is similar but certainly distinct from Ancestor Worship, a practice in many societies, most notably China. Genealogy however has not always been so accessible a hobby, as before the internet genealogy meant long hours visiting archives and graveyards in the lands of one’s ancestors. Now, with the easy communication and easily shareable digitized documents allowed thanks to the internet, most people in North America and Europe may trace their ancestry back several centuries relatively simply. Furthermore, the history of genealogy itself reveals interesting facets of class, race, and religion in the history of North America.
In Europe before the settlement of North America, genealogy was an aristocratic endeavour, and a matter of necessity for them at the time. Proof of one’s aristocratic status was one’s established genealogy. After centuries of European settlement in North America, tracing one’s genealogy back to the settler populations became a popular pastime among many families, regardless of class. While I did not use the service myself, ancestry.com has facilitated this process for many people. Genealogy began to emerge as a major hobby in the United States as the Civil War began to pass into historical memory. The “Sons of Confederate Veterans” organization was originally the “United Confederate Veterans”, and the “Sons of Union Veterans of Civil War” was originally an organization called “The Grand Army of the Republic.” Personally, I have been able to trace both sides of my family back several centuries. Due to several relatively recent adoptions on my mother’s side, tracing that line has proved much more difficult, and has been mostly information from my Grandmother, rather than documented evidence as on my father’s side, such as ship’s records, militia rolls, and victualing lists; the latter being government documents detailing material assistance, such as livestock, to the new settlers. Apart from the adoptions on my mother’s side, important factors in the relative simplicity in tracing my paternal line was that they were middle class exiled Huguenots, Protestants from France, and were thus relatively literate by 18th century standards. Therefore, their surname did not change upon immigration to North America, and in addition, I am able to know the maiden names of my female ancestors along that line back to 1721, with only one exception. Unless one is from a society which practices ancestor worship, the WASPier one is, the easier it is to trace one’s genealogy.
Black people in the United States are particularly cut off from their genealogy. As slaves had the surname of their owner, they were subject to change throughout an individual’s life. For instance, a slave named John owned a by Mr. Smith would be John Smith, but if sold to a Mr. Jones, he would become John Jones. Furthermore, upon the abolition of slavery, the newly freed slaves would often change their surname to ones such as “Freeman” or “Blackman”, or after a historical figure they admired, such as Washington, Jackson, or Lincoln. In addition, since the names of slaves were not recorded upon their import to North America, merely the name given to them, complicates these matters further. Ancestries of slaves were recorded as one would record their livestock, many of these documents were lost during the American Civil War. This was discussed in the (heavily falsified) television series Roots. The author, Alex Haley, was charged with plagiarism, lifting phrases from a fictional work about a slave, and professional genealogists and scholars pointed to major flaws in Alex Haley’s work and methods. Despite the success of Haley’s book and the subsequent television adaptations, Haley was unsuccessful in his quest, and made some things up in desperation. Sadly, few Black people with long ancestries in the Western Hemisphere are able to trace their families back to before the abolition of slavery in their countries. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a piece of legislature in the Virginia government, which came to be known as “the one drop rule”, is an example of the historical importance of genealogy, it also became known as the “Pocahontas Exception”.
Under the terms of the Racial Integrity Act, anyone with non-white ancestry was deemed “colored” under the law, this included Blacks as well as Indians. However, many of the most prominent and oldest families of racially-segregated Virginia claimed descent from Pocahontas (1595-1617), the daughter of the Native Chief Powhatan. These included the historical figures such as John Randolph of Roanoke, an ardent early defender of slavery, as well Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy. As such, an exemption was made for those who had 1/16th or less Native ancestry. Many of those descended from European settlers in the 16-early 1700’s have some Indian ancestry, as there were relatively few European women in North America, and of those most were already married upon arrival; in the case of Catholic-colonized countries, most were nuns. As a salve for issues of race today, many white people claim some Native ancestry, and in many cases this may be true, the one maiden-nameless ancestor of mine may be one, albeit I am not positive as to this. This was extremely common at the time. The irony of this is obvious, not only are they claiming another ancestry, one which they would as a product of colonialism, they still would be white under the legal policies of the Southern United States in the early 20th century. The Racial Integrity Act also included mandatory sterilizations for the mentally infirm, Virginia would repeal the legislation in 1979.
Genealogy can be a fun and enlightening hobby. However, in the North American context it is still very much a product of colonialism. The genealogical history of many Black Americans has been taken from them, which in many ways steals from them a concrete sense of tradition and identity. Alex Haley’s Roots somewhat established a family narrative for Black people in the United States. However, the ancestors Alex Haley accurately described were literate, well-off, and respected members of the Black community for their time, undoubtedly helping Haley in his search. Personally, adoptions on my mothers’ side impelled me to search my fathers’, only to find another adoption. Using the ships’ records, militia rolls, and victualing lists, I was able to discern that David Langille left France with a wife and two children. David’s wife died before they left Europe, David marrying another woman along the way, Jean Jacques’ mother. David’s biological children, as did Jean Jacques’ mother, died on the voyage to the New World. Adoptions were much more common throughout history than today, often done on an unofficial, ad hoc level. Nevertheless, Jean Jacques’ eventual son was named David, family is not necessarily those with whom one shares blood ties. Genealogy is important as well as fun, lying between history and horoscopes, but with a degree of legitimacy lacking in the latter. I find it much easier to believe the habits and beliefs of one’s ancestors impacts a sense of self more so than the stars and planets. Genealogy however, is still very much a form of pseudo-history, rather than charting social norms, political trends, or conflicts, it simply tells a little story about a family. Nevertheless, one may contend the existence of ancestor worshiping societies across the globe attests to the fact that our ancestors hold a degree of power over us, and knowledge of one’s genealogy is a direct indication of the power of the past, that society as it stands is the sum of history.