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History of Genealogy

Donna Potter-Phillips looks at the early development of genealogy.

Since earliest times, man has thought to leave a record of himself. Cave paintings in France, tombstone art all over the world, and even the petroglyphs and pictographs of Native Americans, all point to the fact that early man wanted to be remembered by those who would come after.

The Book of Kells is an illuminated book begun in Ireland in the 8th century; it presents the genealogy of Jesus found in the Bible.
“How far back does genealogy go?” a beginner might ask. And at first thought, Biblical references might come to mind as evidenced by all the chapters of begats. Family descent was important to the ancient Hebrews, in part because Hebrew males had to prove descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses, in order to hold the Levitical priesthood. The first eight chapters of the book of I Chronicles give genealogies from Adam down through Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs. I Chronicles 9:1 reads, “so all Israel were reckoned by genealogies…”

The genealogy of Jesus Christ is given twice in the New Testament, with variations between the versions. The book of Matthew, chapter 1, verses 1-17, gives one version of Christ’s genealogy from Abraham to Joseph and Mary. The common reference to Jesus Christ as being of the Tree of Jesse, comes from Isaiah 11:1, where it reads, “and there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Also from this passage comes the custom of setting out family descent in the form of a tree with branches.

Non-genealogists may point to 1 Timothy 1:4, in which the apostle Paul exhorts his listeners not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies…,” perhaps in reference to the Roman custom of the day. Genealogy was practiced by the ancient Romans to distinguish between the patrician class (those with proven noble ancestry) and plebians (commoners). Incidentally, the Romans were the first to give male children two or three names, personal names and the clan or family name.

The ancient Greeks employed genealogy as much as their neighbors, but their goal was to prove descent from a god or goddess. This was sought in order to achieve social status. Genealogy had a recognized place in Greek history from the 5th century, but was very unscientific by modern standards, consisting largely of material found in epic poetry. The two great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were the major epics of Greek antiquity. While the poet may have written about fictional characters, archaeological discoveries of the last 125 years have shown that many of the events Homer described were not fictional.

The ancient Assyrians also kept records, using a form of writing called cuneiform to inscribe clay tablets. Some 20,000 such tablets were unearthed in the palace library during archaeological excavations in the 1840s.

The ancient Egyptians kept records of their pharaohs and dynasties. The term dynasty is defined by Webster as “a succession of rulers, members of the same family.” The well-known King Tutankamen was a ruler in the 18th dynasty.

The ancient Chinese had a succession of dynasties, with the names of the emperors and other rulers all carefully documented. The first was the Qin Dynasty, from 221-206 BC, and the modern name of China comes from that ruler’s name, Ch’in. The last Chinese dynasty was the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911.

Chinese religions promoted active ancestor worship, so descendants had need to know the identity of their ancestors from this religious perspective. Confucius taught responsibility for ancestors, and ceremonies to honor these ancestors date back to his time (551? - 479? BC). Some Chinese people today have genealogies that date back a thousand years.

In his book Roots, author Alex Haley wrote of the African griots who kept the clan genealogies in their heads. Quoting from Roots, “The old man sat down, facing me, as the people hurriedly gathered behind him. Then he began to recite for me the ancestral history of the Kinte clan, as it had been passed along orally down across centuries from the forefathers’ time. It was not merely conversational, but more as if a scroll were being read; for the still, silent villagers, it was clearly a formal occasion. The griot would speak, bending forward from the waist, his body rigid, his neck cords standing out, his words seeming almost physical objects. Spilling from the griot’s head came an incredibly complex Kinte clan lineage that reached back across many generations: who married whom; who had what children; what children then married whom; then their offspring. It was all just unbelievable. I was struck not only by the profusion of details, but also by the narrative’s biblical style, something like: ‘—and so-and-so took as a wife so-and-so, and begat….and begat….and begat….’ He would next name each begat’s eventual spouse, or spouses, and their averagely numerous offspring, and so on. To date things, the griot linked them to events…”

The Maori people can repeat their pedigree back to about 1200 AD, when their ancestors first arrived in New Zealand, coming in canoes from other Pacific Islands. Not having much room for baggage, they carried their history in their memories as long oral traditions.

The Inca people managed to have a genealogical record despite having no written language. Living along the western coast of South America in the 5th century AD, the nine million Incas believed that their emperor was a descendant of the Sun God. And the emperor chose his administrators from among his sons and other close relatives. Only pure-blooded Incas held the most important governmental, religious and military offices.

The Haida Indians of British Columbia, Canada, use totem poles to commemorate the lives and deaths of their ancestors.
Among North American Indians, totem poles were sometimes a genealogical record. For centuries, totem poles were landmarks in the villages of Northwest Coast peoples. These tall poles, carved from wood, traced the histories of families and clans much like a family crest or family tree. Each figure on the pole was a symbol of a family characteristic, an event, or a totem, a power of nature to which the family had a special relation. Totems often took the form of an animal or spirit.

The Haida people, a group living on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, carved a mortuary pole when a high-ranking member of the community died. The Haida carved and erected a mortuary pole to commemorate that person’s life and the scenes and faces on the pole depict the deceased’s life.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, questions of kinship and descent became of great political importance. This was especially so when the hereditary transmission of fiefdoms of land had become established. Many privileges of the nobility and gentry depended on birth. A candidate for knighthood had to furnish proof of ancient nobility.

On a parallel track, beginners to genealogy often ask if it is indeed possible to trace their pedigree or lineage back to Adam. To answer this question, I always quote from The Ensign, February 1984, an article by Robert C. Gunderson, senior royalty research specialist at the Family History Library. “The simplest answer to this question is no,” he said.

“In my 35 years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years, and I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion, it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (circa 450 AD to 752 AD). Every pedigree I have seen which attempts to bridge the gap between that time and the biblical pedigree appears to be based on questionable tradition, or at worst, plain fabrication. Generally these pedigrees offer no evidence as to the origin of the information, or they cite a vague source.”

Ancient genealogy suffers from four marked defects: it can hardly be disentangled from mythology; it is fragmentary, frequently unreliable and contradictory; it confuses tribal origins with individual names; it is artificial in that often its main purpose is to offer a descent that would allow a person to qualify for office, priestly or secular.

In more modern times, many can with fairly reliable documentation, trace their British origins back into the 16th century. Thanks to a 1538 edict from King Henry VIII, it was required that ministers keep records of christenings, baptisms, marriages and burials. Certainly, the law was not fully complied with for about 50 years, but between the late 1500s and 1837 (when civil vital registration became law), these church parish registers are the main records one will find on one’s British ancestors.

In roughly the same time period, the lands that would become Germany began to keep similar records. The Scandinavian countries followed suit. This record keeping was first inspired, or required, by the Catholic Church and then, as countries broke with Catholic tradition, they kept the part of the tradition pertaining to the keeping of sacramental records and incorporated it into their new churches. In most countries, church parish registers pre-date any civil record keeping.

Britain has some very, very old records that could be considered a sort of genealogy record: the Doomesday Book (1086), the Magna Carta (1215), Exchequer Rolls (from 1152), Chancery Rolls (from 1199), Patent Rolls, Manor Court Rolls, and Fleet of Fines records (from 1190-1833). The College of Arms, established by royal charter in 1484, kept the heraldic records.

In America’s colonial days, most settlers were British immigrants who wanted to preserve such customs as the keeping of records. During the earliest years, the churches kept the vital records; later the towns took up the practice.

The first known civil law requiring vital records to be kept in the Colonies was passed in 1632 by the General Assembly of Virginia. This law required that ministers or wardens of each parish appear in court annually on 1 June and present the records to the clerk of christenings, marriages and burials for the preceding year. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted similar legislation.

After the Revolution, new interest was added to genealogy because people were anxious to establish connection with the heroes of the Revolution, or the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, or the members of the Boston Tea Party, etc. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was organized in Washington, DC, in 1890, to preserve the memory of those who fought for American independence and to foster patriotism. Eligibility for membership is based on direct descent from a man or woman who actively participated in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Dozens of other hereditary societies have come into being, following the DAR’s lead.

Did you know that the first genealogical society in the world was founded in 1845 in America? The New England Historic Genealogical Society was chartered in that year, two full years before a similar society was begun in England.

In a sense, while we wanted to become our own country, we never intended to forget our roots.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.


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