Family Trees

Family Trees

A History of Genealogy in America

Book - 2013
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Harvard University Press

The quest for roots has been an enduring American preoccupation. Over the centuries, generations have sketched coats of arms, embroidered family trees, established local genealogical societies, and carefully filled in the blanks in their bibles, all in pursuit of self-knowledge and status through kinship ties. This long and varied history of Americans’ search for identity illuminates the story of America itself, according to François Weil, as fixations with social standing, racial purity, and national belonging gave way in the twentieth century to an embrace of diverse ethnicity and heritage.

Seeking out one’s ancestors was a genteel pursuit in the colonial era, when an aristocratic pedigree secured a place in the British Atlantic empire. Genealogy developed into a middle-class diversion in the young republic. But over the next century, knowledge of one’s family background came to represent a quasi-scientific defense of elite “Anglo-Saxons” in a nation transformed by immigration and the emancipation of slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, when a new enthusiasm for cultural diversity took hold, the practice of tracing one’s family tree had become thoroughly democratized and commercialized.

Today, attracts over two million members with census records and ship manifests, while popular television shows depict celebrities exploring archives and submitting to DNA testing to learn the stories of their forebears. Further advances in genetics promise new insights as Americans continue their restless pursuit of past and place in an ever-changing world.

Americans’ long and restless search for identity through family trees illuminates the story of America itself, according to François Weil, as preoccupation with social standing, racial purity, and national belonging gave way to an embrace of diversity in one’s forebears, pursued through and advances in DNA testing.

Baker & Taylor
Traces the history of genealogy in the United States, from its early preoccupation with social status and lineage, to a nineteenth-century search for Anglo-Saxon roots, to a twentieth-century acceptance of diversity and the introduction of DNA technology.

Book News
Weil is the Chancellor of the Universities of Paris and is professor of history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, so his analysis and insights pertaining to American history and culture include a fresh-eyed comparison with European culture. The popularity of Internet genealogy sites supports the idea that Americans are avidly interested in their ancestors, and that interest, as this study demonstrates, is not new to this era. Tracing interest in genealogy from colonial times, this history offers intriguing exploration of lineage, family, vanity, race, class, and a search for roots in American culture. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780674045835
Branch Call Number: 929.2097 WEIL
Characteristics: 304 pages ; 22 cm


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