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  • #4 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: After Tracing Your Known Ancestry

    Gary Boyd Roberts

    Published Date : April 11, 1986
    Summer is the education season in American genealogy--the two national conferences (sponsored by the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies), our "Come Home to New England" week and weekend seminar in New England, plus family reunions and vacations, when many of our members visit the Society. As always, I look forward to working with a sizable number of people--looking at their charts and adding whatever printed or manuscript sources here can readily yield. For more than a handful of visitors, however, I have examined their charts before and we have about exhausted what I can do for them. Our best researchers are the world’s authorities on their hardest problems and all of their ancestry knowable from printed sources, including some medieval English material, is already in their charts. These members, including some of my best genealogical friends, have done about everything I know to do. I should like to spend the rest of this column suggesting what to try after you have "finished" your own ancestry.

    Some people prefer to persevere on the same problems, and often they undertake "field work" (i.e. visit local court houses or cemeteries, find unexpected Bible records, or otherwise solve a major "pioneer" problem through primary records) and then visit NEHGS to trace all new lines introduced by their recent discovery. A first suggestion for research beyond one’s own ancestry is to trace that of a spouse or son- or daughter-in-law or brother- or sister-in-law or very good friend. A second suggestion is to compile a referenced, but not necessarily hardcover, genealogy of all your ancestry and give it to members of your family. Some genealogists will want to prepare a major scholarly book or multi-volume series (among our trustees Dean Smith has published three such volumes, aided by Melinde L. Sanborn). Other genealogists will pick a favorite immigrant ancestor (or Revolutionary-era forebear), and begin collecting material for a book on all of his agnate (male-line) descendants. This kind of study, too, often leads to book publication--recent volumes by the Society include such works on the George Cabot of Vt., Burgess of Sandwich, and Nash of Weymouth descendants (this last by the Newbury Street Press). Volumes that cover all of the ancestry and descendants of an eighteenth-century ancestor include Spooner Saga (also by the Newbury Street Press) and to some extent the 1996 Thomas Brewer genealogy.

    Other genealogists--with a large number of ancestors from one town--may consider a "town genealogy," with coverage of all early families or residents before a certain date. All of these formats can take years to prepare, but a large percentage of the books in our library have been compiled by family descendants. I do something else; I trace the ancestry of notable figures in U.S., British, and European history (in addition to tracing royal descents or connections to the late Princess of Wales, plus Mayflower or presidential kinships, I must also confess to looking for my own ancestors among forebears of these notables). Fortunately, my "Notable Kin" column has had to date four very fine guest columnists--David Curtis Dearborn, my longtime colleague in the NEHGS library, who compiled ancestor tables for President Clinton (with help from other researchers also) and Justice David Souter; Richard E. Brenneman, who studied the ancestry of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and novelist Stephen King (this last unpublished); John Anderson Brayton, who wrote on Tennessee Williams (later expanded into a book), Elvis Presley, Jimmy Carter, and Jesse Helms, plus "Hollywood Gothic and the Alabama Three" (these last Harper Lee, Tallulah Bankhead, and Truman Capote); and current NEXUS editor Scott Steward, on Vanderbilts and Sir Winston Churchill. Another friend has long been working on the ancestry of Pierre Trudeau and Richard Andrew Pierce has contributed five articles to NEXUS on Irish families behind JFK.

    What do all these examples mean to you? In sum, after researching your own ancestry or even when you tire of it and want something new genealogically to work on, try tracing the ancestry of in-laws, compiling an informal or scholarly multi-ancestor work, collecting data on cousins who all share the same surname, looking at all the other families in your favorite ancestral town, or tracing the ancestry of your local or state heroes--those people from your area who have gained world renown, and may well be your cousins. Any of these extensions of your own ancestral charts should keep you busy for years, please other members of your own family, and if you don’t finish a major project you’ll have the beginnings of a manuscript collection to pass on to your heirs or perhaps give to us.
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