Monday, March 08, 2010

Genealogy, American Style

Interesting discussion over at Genea-Musings here and here regarding the question whether an American of Colonial descent should be able to document his complete ancestry back ten generations.

The problems Randy brings up are rooted in our unique American history:

  1. Ours is a federal system of government. Any requirements for BMD registration were first imposed by 13 diverse colonies and their various governments, later by the states. These requirements have converged toward universal registration, but even today some states have policies that other states would never countenance.
  2. Ours is a secular nation. No state church means there is a bright line between civil and religious registration of BMDs, and no consistent policy among churches on registering them. (There are days when I wish all my ancestors had emigrated from Quebec.)

    Also, the penalties for skipping civil registration were less draconian than the potential costs of not inviting a priest to your wedding or neglecting to baptize your infant. The penalty for not reporting or recording a birth, marriage or death in Maine in 1844 was $1, and rarely imposed. That's pretty cheap compared to the twin threats of eternal damnation and mother-in-law disapproval.
  3. Ours was a country of frontiers. For much of our history land was settled before it was governed. This was true not only in the West, but even at the uninhabited fringes of long-settled states like Maine. BMDs here were recorded at the local level, generally with no requirement to report them to the county or state. If no local government yet existed, the events went unrecorded. Some couples traveled miles to the nearest incorporated settlement to ensure that their marriage intentions were recorded, but births and deaths in these families were recorded only privately, if at all.
In short, I agree with Randy that the chances of someone with deep American roots finding all 1,023 names in a ten-generation pedigree chart are negligible. The chances of finding these names through BMDs alone are zero. If your ancestors were African American or Native American, make that negative zero.


Something you missed. Early records were often destroyed in fires. There are at least three lines of my family where I have hit a wall because the records burned in a church, town hall or other fire. There was no central reporting at the time so the records are gone.


And the other thing that can happen is new information can blast nicely documented information into useless bits.

I'm American and had what I thought was long established and documented information. Richard Huckbody. His putative father, Nathan, was (I thought) my Great great great grandfather. Except that all of a sudden the Lincolnshire court records turned up the fact that Nathan had been transported to Australia some years before my Richard was born.

Sniff. (I lost about six lovely generations...)

Miriam Robbins

One more thing:

Michigan started vital records in 1867. The state did not require parents or doctors/midwives to register births or deaths. They were done census style, once a year, by the town supervisor or city clerk and the records sent to the county. The county clerk then recorded the info in the county libers and sent a copy to the state. This happened until about the early 1900s, when certificates were issued for births and deaths.

Thus, all the problems and mistakes associated with censuses apply for Michigan vital records for 30 or 40 years: moving, incorrect info, deaths of an elderly couple leaving a home empty when the clerk came by, etc. Add in possible duplicates, missed names, and mistranscriptions going from clerk to clerk at different locality levels, it's a wonder we descendants can find anything!

I'm sure other states had similar record gathering; the issues I've come across with early Minnesota birth records seem to confirm they were done the same way.

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