May 10, 2010

Ancestry and Paths of Power

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you been watching the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities trace their genealogy and perhaps it will inspire people to do the same for themselves. Each celebrity has had surprises as well as answers to their questions.

Have you ever seen your genealogy or worked on completing it? It’s a slow but fun process. One usually starts by talking to older relatives who are still alive about who their parents and grandparents were and where they lived.

There are many websites, agencies, and governmental information depositories to find documents and proof that your people existed in the time and place that you expect. The Census Bureau gives access to the individual records 72 years after the census, so you can look up records for residence and all the other fun information they recorded.

My father had worked on his genealogy, so we knew something about his ancestors. We know very little about the ancestry of my mother and my spouse’s parents. I had some time and jumped online to see what I could find.

It was fascinating to find records of our relatives in places like the 1920 census.


Eventually one may have to rely on the family trees that other people make – but websites that collect such information make it quite easy to gather that information. That information may not have any documentary evidence to back it up, but it’s still interesting even if the likelihood of inaccuracy increases.

If you go back far enough in time or place, other records may come into play, including local stories or anecdotes. In one such case, a line on my father’s side goes back to identifiable Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok says that his ancestry went back to Odin, who was the main god in Norse mythology.

The interesting thing I noticed while tracing my Viking ancestors was that there was a marriage that connected this line with another line that went straight to the first five generations of the English House of Wessex.

This marriage intrigued me since it brought together two kinship networks that in early generations had been warring with each other. I wonder if they knew since they were at least six generations later than the identifiable royals and Vikings. This had to be what we now call a political marriage, as they were combining kingdoms when they married.

It is easy for us to ignore the fact that love-based marriages and choice in marriage is a relatively new concept. In her book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz shows very clearly how once marriage evolved into a choice based on emotion.

Most of my searches go one or two generations and stop. These two lines kept going and going as more and more names were linked. It was quite exciting to trace the links especially as they kept going. However, I soon realized that the links were connected because they must be linked to people who were important enough to document.

It’s often the case that lives are documented only if they are important for the historical record or someone deems them important enough to record. This would apply to oral traditions as well as written records. Only the powerful or (in)famous are consistently found in historical records.

The exception would be in records like the census, birth records, or the like. Does the existence of such records equalize social class levels? And are all the records we produce accurate?

A research methods teacher once told me an old joke that our data is only as good as the lonely clerk who wrote it all down. Not everything that gets recorded, and then taken as fact, is accurate. That may be because our way of calculating some statistic is actually done for ease, not for accuracy.

My frustration in doing my genealogy are those dead ends where there is no record anywhere of who those people’s parents were or where they came from. Perhaps those people were not recorded because they were not deemed important enough? Most of the lines trace the fathers much more effectively than the mothers. This echoes the patriarchal power that defines many of these cultures.

Or are the missing records more a matter of technology? People at that time might have known all of this information but those records might not have lasted or perhaps they were destroyed in some disaster. I have many Irish relatives whose path stops at the same time history books tell us about the potato famine. Perhaps they were lost to that famine or they were the ones who emigrated through some means. Apparently, at that time, there were mass migrations out of Ireland, though no one was logging who went were and their hometowns were all listed as their port or departure, not their actual origins.

We might assume that technology will assure that the records we are keeping now will be kept for eternity. I’m not so sure. Think about how many computer systems you may have had so far – are they all compatible? I still have some floppy disks in my closet but nothing to read them since my computer now only uses USB ports and DVD drives. (I knew I should have backed those up!)

In 200 or 2,000 years from now, will all ancestral records that we now have still be intact and accessible? 2,000 year ago some people were writing some things down when the supplies were available but those records weren’t always kept from generation to generation. Political turmoil, war, disasters of all types put such records at risk. SO much can happen in that space of time.

Think of just how much information that would be! Generational patterns are fascinating – to learn about just five generations, one must track 32 people. Your two parents had four parents had eight parents had sixteen parents – who had 32 parents. And that’s only accounting for six generations.

What information survives over generations? Stories of the powerful -- or the unlucky-- whose lives affected the course of history. Power gives access to many benefits in society as it increases one’s life chances. It also increases one’s chances of documenting one’s ancestry and knowing more about how one’s family came to be. The nameless others are probably just as, if not more so, interesting but since they had no access to power, we will never know.


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I find it very interesting that you are so into your family history. A lot of people try to get away from their families but you are trying to find yours. I think that when I am older I will want to track down where I came from. Knowing where you come from hekps you with who you are today. And family in the bases of who you are today. I think whoever thought of the census was a VERY smart person.

family history is very intersting. ancestory is an imporant part of culture. knowing your roots can really point you in the right direction.

Geneology has been something I have been interested in for a long time. My grandparents on my father's side of the family have often told stories of our ancestors immigrating to Canada from Ireland and to the U.S. from England. I have been told of my "multiple-great grandmother," who was an unpleasant, disagreeable Jewish woman, but I take pride that I have some Jewish blood. On my mother's side, ancestry is a bit of a question mark for me. Adopted as a baby and with no family records, my mother has no idea of her ancestry. She has been told that her biological mother was partially German, but we know nothing else about it. I will probably never know my origins on my mother's side, but I can still take pride in my strong Irish ancestry and little slice of Jewish!

Family loyalty is stressed very much in our culture, I wonder what it would be like to find out things about your ancestors that you shouldn't really be proud of (like slaveowners for instance). Although it's not a personal reflection on you, since you werent alive when it was happening. But how far does knowing where you came from go?

Family history is very cool and fun to learn about. My grandpa made our family tree and i helped him with it. It was very fun and a great expierence. Very cool.

This is a great blog. I have always been interested in genealogy and tracing family history. I enjoyed that you not only talked about tracing family history, but also the patriarchal aspect. It is important when tracing history to keep in mind that women might not always be documented as evidently as men.

I think that it's interesting to learn about people who are in your family and what they accomplished. I would like to know if my family did anything that helped the world out. It's very interesting to see that we have so much history in our lives that we can go back and see our ancestors and see where they've come from. You can also find yourself by finding your past relatives. You can go "soul searching" and find out who you really are.

I am deeply curious about a better way to ask "What is the lineage of power?". I am curious as to how many still rich or powerful persons had ancestors who were likewise wealthy and influential. How far back and such.

Can you recommend any reading?

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