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  • #60 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: On "Classic" Genealogies Updated by Present-Day Family Associations: Criticism and Suggestions

    Gary Boyd Roberts

    Published Date : June 28, 2002
    Among genealogies of the last several decades, one type that has been particularly popular is the update by a contemporary family association of nineteenth or early twentieth-century genealogies. The desire to update such a work is certainly commendable, and the expenditure of time, effort and money, including often a large surname database, is to be applauded. Most often, however, coverage of the colonial and early nineteenth-century generations is left unchanged, and "updating" is only of the families of current members of the family association, or kinsmen known to them (sometimes a large group, all descendants of a great- or great-great-grandfather of the member). Sometimes, but not always, English-origins articles in the major journals are cited, abstracted, or copied, and occasionally "problem-solving" articles from the same learned journals that concern colonial generations or early pioneer settlers are also used.

    The genealogical public, however, would prefer, and would be better served by, a complete revision with will and deed abstraction, citation of military service or local office, and discussions of any identification problems for either head-of-family, wife or children. Some genealogical scholars would also ask (I do not) for an examination of pertinent town (selectmen's) and court records. Such an effort usually requires someone "on the spot" wherever the immigrant and his early progeny lived. Also required are genealogical instincts, for the solution of same-name problems, the extraction of all valuable data from administrations, deeds of gift, land grants, etc., and a thorough canvassing of the printed literature. Such facility with the records of several areas, or even several colonies, may be necessary as well.

    Among families on whom I have worked extensively, I have often been disappointed, in seeking solutions to tricky colonial problems, by (among others) the several new Strong genealogies, the Parke Scrapbooks, and the recent Calkins and Cogswell books. I have been particularly pleased, however, with several works by modern family associations that are the first major item on the family in print. Extremely useful for Cape Cod research is the four-part Nickerson genealogy, partly researched by Roberta Gilbert Bratti, now through the eighth generation. Among Plymouth families that are often Mayflower descendants, I especially commend the 1997 5-G William Harlow genealogy, edited by Alicia Crane Williams, and I have much used the 1980 Adam Hawkes of Saugus, Mass. genealogy by Ethel Farrington Smith. The Harlow work, like the 4-G study of the descendants of Philip Delano, covers an entire progeny - daughters of daughters of daughters as well as sons of sons of sons. The extension of the Mayflower Society's 5-G Thomas Rogers work, also of 1980, seems very partial; The Early Stovalls, by Neil D. Thompson (1987), is superb, but its successor is not.

    A few lessons seem clear. Some family associations have among their members skillful, scholarly genealogists still energetic enough to undertake and publish research. Other family associations need to hire a major genealogist for research and/or a professional genealogical editor. As regards data about the relatively near kin of current members, personal knowledge and undocumented private research may well be adequate, and many living members may prefer privacy about schooling, military service, occupation, marriage dates, and residence. Such privacy desires are undoubtedly best accommodated in the private research of siblings or cousins. Many works do, however, cover living persons, or at least their parents and grandparents, in great detail.

    However the family association wishes to cover its members and their near kin, the colonial generations of the family should be re-examined and, if possible, further documented by the kinds of sources listed above. If English origins are known - or if an association member has found clues that might lead to an identification - these origins or clues should be incorporated into either a short compiled genealogy of the family in England or elsewhere, or in the treatment of the immigrant. Coats-of-arms, if used as a frontispiece, or wherever, should be coats to which the immigrant was legally entitled. If the coat was simply used on a later tombstone, or by 19th-century descendants, ignore it. Genealogical sophistication is indeed required for the unraveling of late colonial or 19th-century "pioneer" problems, and only family association members confident in their own skill should volunteer as researchers.

    A final word about privacy and living kinsmen: by even the 22nd century, some of our descendants will want to know about us, what we know about pre-20th century ancestors. Reticence in updated genealogies about adoptions, children born to unmarried parents, incarceration, or cause of death (especially cirrhosis, drug overdose, AIDS, suicide, murder, or even lung cancer) is ultimately to be regretted. So as you write about yourself and close family members, be as honest and detailed as you wish our ancestors had been.

    My next column will again be a surprise.

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