Genealogy: What Matters to You?

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by author John Sedgwick with a title that refers to an old, familiar conflict: “The Historians Versus the Genealogists.”[1] Sedgwick begins by describing how historians typically view genealogists.

At a time when history has been so widely and blissfully ignored, and not just by our president, millions of Americans are busy spitting into DNA-collection tubes, scrutinizing old newspapers and tracing their family history back as far as they can via the website Ancestry and other services. Historians like me tend to scoff as these attempts.

He then describes an event that altered this view: the discovery that he was related to Harriet Gold, an early 19th-century Connecticut woman who married Cherokee Elias Boudinot. Both are featured in his new book, Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation.[2] Unsurprisingly, the couple’s union was not particularly celebrated by Gold’s family or community. The new couple left New England for the Cherokee Nation.

Importantly, Sedgwick made the discovery of his genealogical connection to the story only after he had finished the book.

As a historian, I couldn’t take the story past the facts. But as Gold’s relative, I felt I could hear her brother’s shrieks [in opposition to the marriage] and imagine what she must have felt while fleeing Cornwall and entering a strange new land full of rising tensions. The whole lot of it.

For Sedgwick, this single experience shaped a new view of the value of genealogy. It helped him feel.

[I]t delivered a more felt connection to the story than straight historiography had been able to provide. Obviously, history can’t depend on genealogy. But history shouldn’t scorn it, either. History can make use of the genealogical perspective and its transporting empathic power.

Sedgwick’s op-ed is both brief and slight. Its primary purpose appears to be publicity for Blood Moon, which was published just a week earlier. Even then, there are so many small points to argue that it’s hard to know where to start. So I won’t be doing that here. Instead, I’ll focus on his boiled-down assessment of genealogy:

History and genealogy, after all, are two radically divergent takes on the past. The first says, “This matters.” The second says, “This matters to me.”

Re-stated, genealogy is an egocentric view of history. Considering this idea prompted me to examine my own experience with genealogy.

It began in 1979, when my great-grandmother hand-wrote and distributed multiple copies of the “Gregory Family Tree,” three pages of what she knew about her and her recently deceased husband’s families. I was 12 that year when I first saw “1798” scrawled next to the name of my earliest known ancestor, John Gregory. Until then, the only things I knew about the world before I existed were vague concepts of 1776, the “War of Northern Aggression,” and the fact that Cherokees used to live where we lived then in western North Carolina. I cared about none of those things, but I did care about that “1798” written in my great-grandmother’s hand in reference to our family.

In terms of my initial interest in genealogy, Sedgwick is right. It was entirely about connections to me.

After earning a Boy Scout badge in genealogy, my fascination soon faded, as did a long list of other short-term interests that stumbled in and out of my adolescence. I didn’t think about genealogy again until 2005, when my interest re-emerged, and I began to study, research, and write in earnest. It was in this process that genealogy surprised me in at least two different ways.

First, as I studied the various aspects of my ancestors’ lives (religious, occupational, military, ethnic, etc.), a clearer and broader picture of America’s development began to emerge. And that picture, now a mosaic of many smaller pictures, was far larger than just my family, far more complex and nuanced than the vague notions of historical events and processes I’d had before. For me, genealogy served as a doorway to history, particularly American history.

Second, the more research I conducted, the more I developed an equally strong interest in others to whom I have no direct relationship. A search for records of my Gregory family in Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (now St. George’s United Methodist Church) did not turn up any references to them. But sitting in the church’s tiny archives, I stumbled across the story of Richard Allen, a man born into slavery in 1760, who bought his own freedom and ultimately founded and became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His significant community-building work in Philadelphia made him a true Founding Father, but one that had long been forgotten outside of the AME Church and some small, local circles.

I wanted to know more, so I embarked on a two-year genealogical research project of Richard Allen and his family that resulted in two articles for the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine.[3] It also resulted in an infinitely deeper understanding of African American history during the Federal period and a deeper understanding of my African American friends and neighbors now.

Of the twenty-five compiled genealogies and record abstracts I’ve published in genealogical journals in the past eleven years, none of them are about or contain my own ancestors. My interests have become much broader. And I know I’m not alone in the field.

Genealogy, then, is not (necessarily) an egocentric pursuit. But in my case, it might still be argued that it’s what “matters to me,” if only because what matters to me is now more than me.

Pretending that genealogists are all cut from the same cloth with the same purposes and perspectives is as foolhardy as any broad generalization. To be clear, I believe that any motivation to study genealogy is a valid one. My purpose here is simply to prompt self-inquiry and to ask, “What matters to you?”

What does genealogy mean to you? Why did you start it? And do those same reasons compel you now? What did you determine to learn through genealogy? And what did genealogy teach you that you didn’t expect to learn? There are no incorrect answers, but I’d be curious to hear some of yours.

 

[1] John Sedgwick, “The Historians Versus the Genealogists,” New York Times, 12 April 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/opinion/sunday/historians-versus-genealogists.html : 16 April 2018).

[2] John Sedgwick, Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

[3] Aaron Goodwin, “Richard Allen, First Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 46 (2010), 197–212; “The Richard Allen Family of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 47 (2011), 25–46.

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