Many Americans are interested in tracing their families’ histories back through the generations. For those with ancestors who arrived from Great Britain in the colonial period, one important tool for this work is often a family Bible or ledger containing careful records of marriages, births, and deaths. Historian Karin Wulf looks at just why those Anglo-Americans, including not just elites but ordinary people, kept such meticulous genealogical notes.
Wulf writes that one clue to the importance of family histories is found in the Protestant Bibles where they were often kept. The Old Testament is filled with long accounts of patrilineal descent that explain the significance of particular figures. And the editions of the King James and Geneva Bibles popular in eighteenth-century British-American colonies included large graphic elements illustrating these biblical genealogies.
“Perhaps embedding one’s own family history in the most important book of Christian family history created an authoritative echo,” Wulf writes.
Another model for British Americans was the contemporary attention focused on the royal line of succession. At the birth of a new child in the royal family, observers recorded details of the event. They even noted the child’s coloring to guard against the secret replacement of an infant heir who died soon after birth.
Just like many of their descendants today, British Americans were fascinated with the celebrity of the royal family. Many bought almanacs, playing cards, children’s books, and all sorts of other products related to the royals. And people in colonial communities were highly familiar with controversies and dramatic events around which branches of the royal line had a legitimate claim on the throne.
Biblical and royal lines of succession had an echo in Anglo-American inheritance laws and practices, which generally expected property to be passed from fathers on sons. William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries on the Laws of England devoted about a third of its text to rules of inheritance, including explanations of complicated extended family relationships. In cases where childlessness or remarriage complicated lines of descent “knowing your genealogy was crucial to securing your inheritance,” Wulf writes. “Generations could be caught up in the tangle of relationships as they sorted out just who was entitled to what.”
Of course, an interest in family lineages is common across many different cultures. But social systems and legal regimes help determine what that interest looks like. Patriarchal Protestantism and patrilineal inheritance rules may have been so engrained among British Americans that they appeared natural and neutral, Wulf writes, but “in fact they played a crucial role in organizing social, economic, and political relationships. Not coincidentally, but elementally, they encouraged genealogical literacy.”