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Excerpted from

How to Trace Your Family Tree


There is a moral and philosophical respect for our ancestors which elevates the character and improves the heart Next to the sense of religious duty and moral feeling, I hardly know what should bear with stronger obligation on a liberal and enlightened mind than a consciousness of an alliance with excellence which is departed, and a consciousness, too, that in its act and conduct, and even in the sentiments and thoughts, it may be actively operating on the happiness of those who come after it.

Daniel Webster

Ever since H.G. Wells published his fabulous novel, The Time Machine, men have shared his dream of a machine to journey into the past. Time and events in time have shaped our civilization, and therefore shaped us - our hopes and aspirations, our values and customs, even our language. The very blood of men who have long since turned to dust flows in our veins, and this knowledge has intrigued many philosophers. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "We are the children of many sires, and every drop of blood in us in its turn betrays its ancestor."

Therefore, it is no wonder that the past fascinates us, and that, sometimes, when we are alone with our own hearts, in flights of fantasy, we dream of a wonderous vehicle that will take us backward in time. Unfortunately, we do not have, very probably will never have, something built of wires, tubes, transistors, and sophisticated electronic devices which will do the job for us. But we do have the words and thoughts of those who have gone before us. These, coupled with our own imagination, are probably the closest we will ever get to time travel - the closest we will ever get to meeting our ancestors face-to-face, and experiencing the events that they did.

The science of electronics will not help us here, but the science of genealogy will. The word itself comes from two Greek words meaning birth and study, and is at least as old as the epistles of St. Paul, where it appears in the original Greek. The actual practice of genealogy is nearly as old as man him-self.

Virtually all societies have kept genealogical records, whether oral, written, or both. However, up until as recently as the sixteenth century, genealogy was almost exclusively concerned with the rulers or nobility of the various civilizations. The Greek and Roman rulers used genealogy to "prove" that they were descended from gods and goddesses. Numerous other nationalities including Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, and many Europeans (the English among them) used it to record the succession of their heads of state.

By way of an interesting sidelight concerning royal genealogies, Irish monastic chroniclers of the sixth and seventh centuries "traced" the descent of their kings back to Milesius (King of Spain around 1000 B.C.), then through Noah back to Adam himself. This, of course, is absolutely impossible, although these genealogies are considered to be accurate enough back as far as 600 A.D. The rest is pure embroidery.

This brings up an interesting point for the beginning genealogist - just how far back can a man reasonably expect to go? Unfortunately, the answer has to be that it depends. It is determined by many factors, some of them peculiar to individual families and others related to world history. For example, the national origin of an individual doing a genealogy will define certain parameters even before he begins. To examine specific cases, it may be possible for someone of Middle Eastern extraction to trace himself back to the seventh century, whereas it is highly unlikely for someone whose ancestors came from Indo-China to be able to go back further than two hundred years. No one of European extraction can go beyond the third or fourth century (and only a handful of royal lines can go back that far), but someone whose origin is in India may be able to go back more than a thousand years.

The above figures, it must be noted, presuppose optimum conditions. The great majority of us cannot hope to obtain results like this. We are a society of record keepers now, but this is a very recent development as far as history goes. No doubt the genealogists of the future will have an extremely easy time of it with our telephone directories, drivers' licenses, voters registration lists, and so on. The ponderous files of the Internal Revenue Service alone will practically complete their pedigree charts for them. But this doesn't help us now. We "old-time genealogists" will have to do it the hard way.

What kind of records do we have to work with? Of course, one of the first things that comes to mind is census listings. National censuses are valuable tools indeed for the genealogist. But the first census held in, any European country was not until as recently as 1085, and although it is probably numerically accurate, it is not specific enough. We speak here of the Domesday Book, the census commissioned by William the Conqueror. It was an ambitious project, the object being to record every field, wood, domestic animal, and human being in all of England. This was duly accomplished, but very few of the 283,342 people counted have their names listed.

At any rate, although this was the first European census, regular census-taking in England did not begin until 1801. The United States began regular censuses in 1790, and Scotland in 1755. Many other nations have since begun their own census programs, but in a genealogical sense, these are extremely recent records. However, there are still tax records, land records, wills, birth and death records, marriage records, military records, and other similar information that virtually all governments have kept. Depending on the information we begin with, the national origin of our ancestors, and the type of records we are searching, it is, of course, possible to go further back than census records, but oftentimes a good deal of patience, perseverance, and just plain luck is required.

In general, record keeping did not begin in earnest until the sixteenth century, but it has become increasingly more extensive as the years have gone by. It is possible to trace your own line back prior to 1500, but to accomplish this, you must almost of necessity be related at that point to one of the great families (the nobility) of that age. The ordinary man of those far-off days was not only unable to write his own name, but never had his name written down by anyone else.

Tags: Parenting and Families