Riding the little train to Beverley (two cars, jerking across track switches, sighing and thumping as though this must be the last trip for the old train) we read in the London Daily Telegraph a quarter-page obituary of an apparently important English genealogist. This man spent his career as an editor for Burke's Peerage, and then, when Burke's went belly-up, for Debrett's Peerage. He also occasionally dipped down into the family histories of the merely landed gentry. These families keep their commissioned genealogies locked up in the safe on the estate, where the information is shared with other family members, rather than being given to public libraries. So it has been up to those weighty tomes of Burkes and Debretts, no doubt, to instruct many commoners as to whom they should look up. A high point in the decedent's life, according to the obit, was seeing Haile Selassie and Queen Elizabeth walking together in a funeral procession. "An emperor and an empress together!" he exclaimed.
This deceased genealogist, we are happy to say, appears to be part of a dying breed! Early American genealogies suffered from this same stultifying desire to prove oneself better than others by reason of family connection. Noble or royal ancestors were desired, because people believed that the genetic makeup was better, as in the case of champion livestock. And if the information didn't fit, the professional genealogists had little trouble in making it fit. In fact, one well-known genealogist has written that he has had no trouble simply omitting information about crimes or missteps when the general tenor of the family is above reproach.
Genealogy took a different turn in the twentieth century. The LDS church, whose members believe in the baptism of ancestors so they may be joined together in families in heaven, began to invest a considerable amount of money into copying old records not just of noblemen, but of ordinary folks, because the church was filled with ordinary folks having ordinary families, just as America is filled with ordinary people and their descendants. And the availability of lots of genealogical information led ordinary people to want to use this information to discover their family heritage. And of course America, the land of opportunity, has shown the world that nurture counts more than nature, and people of humble origins can make great achievements.
Here in England old habits die hard; and one of the oldest habits is believing that people are divided into classes by birth. When we pick up books of local history in England, we find that the Pedigrees of the lords of the manor are always included, and a good deal of attention is still paid to Coats of Arms. Now the plain fact of the matter is that while many people have ancestors who were afforded the right to display Coats of Arms in the past, those rights generally do not descend, except by primogeniture; and are extinguished when the title is extinguished. So it is plain vanity which leads many modern folks to display the Coats of Arms of their ancestors, as they are simply NOT entitled to display them! Nonetheless, souvenir stores have a good stock of sheets showing a surname and a Coat of Arms together, and people of the same surname happily waste their money. (Of course heraldry is not dead, arms are still granted, and the English College of Arms still flourishes, but modern titles are bestowed by the Queen at the request of Parliament.)
Perhaps the most important reason that we study genealogy is that we can understand the history of a region better by tracing the lives of people who lived there. So our study of miners, farmers, unwed mothers, ministers, people living on welfare, artisans, teachers, and their families has enabled us to understand the currents of life at particular times in history. An ongoing challenge is to understand why people picked up and moved from one place to another; was life so miserable where they were, or were they eager to try themselves in a new location, even a new country? And what risks were taken: risks of travel, risks of breaking up the family because all could not go together, risks of failure due to lack of capital or unexpected sickness.
Much of the fun of our genealogical work comes when we find a record of the parent of someone we have already identified. It's fascinating to see the thin traces left here and there in record books by our immigrant ancestors. Starting with the generations we grew up with, moving back bit by bit, we keep adding people to our family database, and we keep looking for their stories.
We have learned that it is extremely difficult to trace a family's actual immigration. Passenger manifests were not required early on, and many of those that were kept are lost. Names can appear with unusual spellings. American immigrants often did not bother to become naturalized citizens; it was cheaper to come through Canada and just live in the United States. Families on the move did not always leave good records of where they stopped on the way. So tracing ancestors involves a good deal of detective work, which we both regard as a challenge.
In Wisconsin last year, we learned about the lead mines, and we began to understand how Englishmen from opposite ends of that country -- from Cornwall and from Yorkshire -- might converge on this Midwestern land, meet and marry. In England we are learning how dreadful the condition of the miners was, and why a family might sacrifice almost everything to scrape together enough money to send first father and big brother, then later mother and the littler children, to America. In Wisconsin we found West Ella Highland Cemetery, founded by members of Elsa's family. It's taken us a while to understand that the cemetery was named after the then tiny Yorkshire farm village of West Ella, about ten miles west of the city of Hull, and that Elsa's grandmother, Ella Cadwell, was possibly named after the same English village.
England has been undergoing a bit of decentralization, and out in the country we find that the all-important parish registers and local court records are in the hands of local archives and record offices. After all the centuries that the British pupils memorized just the kings and wars and activities of the noble families, local history is coming into its own, and the incredible wealth of material in a land that has been civilized for two thousand years is incredible. Universities are all coming alive with programs in local history. Many of the ancient local documents have just been studied systematically for the first time within the last fifty years. Many are yet unexamined. And the advances in archaeology have spurred the research and intellectual curiosity. So it is quite fair to say that all England is having a huge renaissance in learning and preserving as much of historical importance of each and every locality.
This hunt and this learning is definitely a far cry from the accumulated pedigrees prepared by the classic genealogist. The English have quietly adapted their resources to the widening subject by supporting Family History Societies and Local Studies Centers. The Family History Societies can be found in most towns of any size; they are organized groups which meet periodically to exchange information and teach each other. They have published booklets of Monumental Inscriptions, careful copies of information taken from the rapidly decaying tombstones in their local cemeteries. Some of them are carefully transcribing parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Others are putting together web sites, providing research help for their American cousins as well as their own neighbors.
Local Studies collections are a new development in the public libraries. Their collections concentrate on the history, geology, folkways, agriculture, archaeology and general landscape of the area. Sometimes they include local authors -- the poet Andrew Marvell taught at the University at Hull, and was a civil servant there, and more recently former Poet Laureate Philip Larkin has been on the faculty there. Local Studies collections can provide visitors like us the kind of background information not included in tourist literature, for example, the economics of mining, or the development of knitting as a secondary income. The Yorkshire miners knitted each day while walking to and from the mines, and the resulting knitted socks and caps became a trademark export of the Yorkshire Dales.
The third leg of this stool is the Record Office where the official documents -- deeds, wills, records of baptisms, marriages and burials -- are kept and conserved, where it is frequently necessary to make appointments and wear white gloves and use only pencils but where that little vital detail may be lurking.
So while we may say we are doing genealogy, we are lightyears away from the Rich and Famous Gatherers. We're doing Family HIstory, and in the process are becoming enthusiastic amateur historians.
Lest this whole essay sound too righteous, let us hasten to add that we are interested in the old game of Who Are You Related To, and we do keep records of notable kin. So some of our grandchildren will be related to people like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Wild Bill Hickok; we hope that will give an opportunity for them to learn who those people were!