Finding your roots in a rootless world

Finding your roots in a rootless world


This column is a revised and updated version of an article that I wrote in 1990 that was published in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” in May 1991.

Genealogy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an account of a person’s descent from an ancestor or ancestors,” and also “the investigation of pedigrees, a branch of study or knowledge.” Some scholars, however, seem unwilling to acknowledge the second definition, frequently treating anyone doing genealogical research as frivolous and their work, insignificant.

Yet, over the past five decades, there has been an exponential increase in genealogical research. This sort of research deserves to be taken seriously, as it is a form of learning. The surge of interest in genealogy reflects a democratic and populist ferment in our society that has important implications for our culture.

I will offer a defense of genealogy in counterpoint to a longstanding tradition of belittling it, a longstanding denigration that may be the consequence of snobbishness and a conviction that somehow genealogical research is an un-serious waste of time.

In the past, “serious” historians all too frequently regarded genealogical research as an endeavor beneath contempt. However, today historians are beginning to understand the important dynamics that underlie the growing interest in genealogy and the essentially democratic impulse that it reflects.

Interest is genealogy is not new. Much of Genesis in the Old Testament is an account of lineage running from Adam to Abraham. In the New Testament, Matthew devotes the first 16 verses of Chapter I to tracing the ancestors of Jesus from King David through a succeeding 42 generations. In the Middle Ages, genealogy was a vital resource in establishing the legitimacy of kings and other feudal rulers.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain expanded an interest in genealogy from members of the aristocracy to members of the emerging middle class. In manufacturing, new fortunes were being made, and the emerging new middle class was, as Charles Dickens so aptly portrayed it, both crass and insecure. In attempting to disguise their humble origins, members of the new middle class commissioned genealogies, which invariably identified ancestors of distinction.

In the United States, industrialization and urbanization also created a new upper-middle class during the late 19th century. The dynamic 19th century American economy created a need for labor that attracted a torrent of immigrants to the United States from eastern and southern Europe. In response to a perceived threat that both the nouveau riche and the hordes of immigrants posed, the established elite in the United States turned to genealogy in an effort to legitimize and reinforce its hegemonic status.

Prompted in part by the American Centennial of 1876 and the labor upheavals of the time, ancestral societies were formed which linked upper-class Americans with the nation’s founders. Membership in newly formed societies such as the Sons of the American Revolution (1889), the Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), and the Mayflower Descendants (1897) was based upon lineage. Indeed, with the notable exception of genealogical research conducted by Mormons in keeping with their theology, genealogical research in quest of a pedigree was the norm in the United States for the first three quarters of the 20th century.

All of this changed dramatically, however, after the 1976 American Bicentennial and the phenomenal success of Alex Haley’s series “Roots” on television. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans became interested in tracing their ancestry and began do-it-yourself genealogical research. Why did a television series that traced black Americans’ ancestries back to Africa have such a profound effect upon white Americans? The groundswell of interest in genealogy had many origins, most of which were bound up with the fabric of American culture in the late 20th century.

One such reason was the diversity and mobility of the American population. Over the past three centuries, massive numbers of people have come to the United States, both willingly, and, in the case of the African slaves, under duress. Several major internal migrations have also taken place within the borders of the United States: the Western migration (and the consequent removal of the Native Americans); the population shift from rural to urban areas in the late 19th century, the large-scale migration of blacks and poor whites from the South to the North and West that began after World War I and continued beyond World War II; the move from cities to suburbs after World War II; the migration from the North to the Sunbelt that continues to this day; and, most recently, the immigration to the United States of thousands of people from Central America and Mexico.

Post-1945 internal migrations created the preconditions for the modern interest in genealogy. Carried by automobiles on the ribbons of the new interstate highways, Americans moved from one part of the country to another part in unprecedented numbers. Such relocations contributed to the breakdown of a relatively stable, homogeneous, family-centered culture. Before World War II, extended families tended to stay in touch. Family lore was passed on from older to younger family members. A person didn’t have to do research to learn about one’s ancestors — they were usually close by, both dead and alive.

During the past five decades, grandparents and great-grandparents began moving South or West to retire. Younger family members also often packed up and moved, frequently never to see their hometowns again. This lack of family proximity meant that family traditions — an important component of trans-generational cohesion — were less frequently transmitted from one generation to the next. By the time of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, relatively few people knew very much about their ancestral lineage.

Another reason for the current interest in genealogy is “generational distance.” During the early decades of the 20th century, first-generation Americans were often ashamed of their immigrant parents. They were much more interested in becoming assimilated than in knowing anything about their ancestors — an attitude that was frequently embraced by second and third generations whose ancestors had immigrated to the United States. By 1976, however, the passage of time had somewhat diminished such feelings. The descendants of immigrants began to become interested in their family backgrounds.

Perhaps a third reason has been the breakup of the nuclear family. The proliferation of divorce and single-parent households has contributed to a discontinuity in transmitted family history. Geographical distance from grandparents and great-grandparents has deprived younger generations of important sources of traditions. Because of such developments, for many people, even the relatively recent past has become hazy.

A fourth reason — admittedly more problematic — is the cultural vacuity of American life, a consumerist, homogenized culture. The dreary sameness of the suburbs, the wasteland of shopping malls, the repetitive emptiness of most television fare, the seemingly endless streets of homogeneous hamburger franchises, pizza parlors, muffler shops, and self-service gas stations have all contributed to dehumanizing and “de-individualizing” people. It is no wonder that so many Americans are beginning to ask themselves, “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?”

Adrift in a cultural sea of dubious meaning and marginal value, people today yearn for a genuine heritage. Faced with an unrewarding present and a precarious future, they seek refuge, comfort and certainty. Among the anchors they seek is a knowable past. Genealogical research can discover more than merely lines of descent. Long-lost traditions and values are often reclaimed. Finding one’s roots can create a sense of security in a mobile, rootless world. In the process of doing genealogical research, ordinary citizens can learn to use public records and develop an engagement with history. It may not be a particularly sophistical kind of research, but it is, nonetheless, genuine research.

Have I overstated the case for genealogy? Perhaps. But because far too many people doing genealogical research are regarded as “kooks,” perhaps the case for genealogy requires overstatement. Genealogy is not the pursuit of trivia, nor the province of would-be aristocrats, nor the modern-day equivalent of wood-working. The current interest in genealogy flows from a deeply felt psychological, sociological, and spiritual need, as people attempt to cope with the demands of the 21st century.

Readers who wish to learn more about genealogy should contact the Walworth County Genealogical Society (of which I am a member), at P.O. Box 159, Delavan, Wisconsin 53115-0159, or consult

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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