Potter-Phillips looks at the early development of genealogy.
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.
“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…”
Book of Kells is an illuminated book begun in Ireland
in the 8th century; it presents the genealogy of Jesus
found in the Bible.
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
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
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.
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
Haida Indians of British Columbia, Canada, use totem
poles to commemorate the lives and deaths of their ancestors.
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,”
“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
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
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.
article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue
of Family Chronicle.