Tracing one’s ancestors has become a passionate pursuit for many people today and genealogy, or family history (as it is often described) is regarded as one of the fastest growing hobbies in the United States. Certainly, it is a centerpiece of the activities of the research library at the Cleveland History Center – it has long been so, but it is a far different pursuit today than it was several generations ago.
In western and other global societies genealogy initially focused on the tracing of lineages in order to support claims of inherited authority or wealth. Kingships depended on it as did the transfer of lands. The creation of the United States and its “absence” of an hereditary aristocracy somewhat undercut the importance of genealogy as an instrument to transfer power — but it remained central in matters of inheritance. But it many ways it developed as a different means to claim status, if not to a throne, but to a place of primacy in the creation of the nation. This took place particularly in the late nineteenth century as immigration and migration changed our national demography. Organizations such as the Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Mayflower Society were founded between 1889 and 1897. In an increasingly polyglot nation, the Daughters, in particular, worked to Americanize immigrants and all focused on the passing on of national values. Having deep roots in the nation counted, and these patriotic societies played significant roles in encouraging genealogy and the knowledge of our nation’s history.
The social changes of the 1960s would impact genealogy significantly. Alex Haley’s book Roots inspired many African Americans to look into their families’ histories – a job made difficult by slavery, but one which Haley’s book encouraged. At the same time an “ethnic revival” prompted many Americans to discover their own family histories and to claim a “heritage”. It was all part of a process of looking at the United States more as a diverse mosaic of cultures, rather than a homogeneous “melting pot.” There was a rapid growth of genealogical organizations that focused on Jewish, Italian, Polish, Slovenian, African-American and other identities within our city and nation, and concurrently a desire to learn more about ancestral cultures.
This broader pursuit of a family history has been catalyzed by the ever expanding global digitization of sources available for research as well as the growth of archival sources at institutions such as the Western Reserve Historical Society. Importantly, media programs such as “Finding Your Roots” with Professor Henry Louis Gates have shown the diversity of our family histories and the amazing ways in which that diversity is co-mingled over the years. There is a debate as to whether the study of lineage differs from a study of a family’s history – in a sense, the difference between an objective versus a personal approach. But the end result is still about families – the continuities that define them and the many intersections that link them more broadly to a community, a nation, and the globe.