Obviously, our ancestry already exists. The act of creating a family tree is simply recording those existing facts. We have a finite number of ancestors, but the number is so mind-bogglingly big that it may as well be infinite. If we had the capacity to record our forebears back to the Stone Age or before, we’d have billions of records.
The longest family tree in the world is believed to be that of Confucius, with more than 80 generations in it and about two million individuals. Most of us have about four generations a century, so that’s about 2000 years. I don’t know much about Confucius’ tree, but I suspect it is a patrilineal tree – following the line of father to son. We have more of these trees because they were kept for a purpose – to prove who was the heir for a property and who had the right to govern a property, to manage the staff or serfs of that property, and to rally a troop of men from that property to serve the king or queen when needed. In the days before civil records, the family tree was a very public thing, pretty much like our business directories today. Anyone was free to examine it and if they found it incorrect, could challenge and through joint agreement could insist on repairing the inaccuracy. The patriarch (a Roman term taken on by classically trained Englishmen) was in charge of the family tree along with all other family accounts.
No one, back then, would have dreamed of a need to make the family tree private. If someone belonged to a family important enough to warrant a tree, they were damn proud of the fact. It cemented their place in their family and they didn’t have to fight to be remembered. It most likely got them a spot in the family crypt or burial grounds, and somewhere to turn in time of strife. The head of the family had a responsibility to keep his family’s reputation clean, and this meant allowing no beggars (they could be found employment and given a hut on the grounds), no criminals (if innocent, the family could employ a lawyer to defend them and if guilty they could be got into the army) and no public dysfunction (mad people, raving alcoholics, opium addicts and those with diseases caught from prostitutes were discreetly cared for in institutions, paid by the house). It took a lifetime of training to be a successful patriarch.
However, a family tree was not required to be honest, being a step short of a legal document. Just unarguable. Ethically of course, it ought to be honest, but if the family closed ranks about an indiscretion and presented a unified front, chances were the false data would hold up. No DNA testing in those days to prove a point of paternity. Thus a tree from a few hundred years ago makes a good source but cannot be taken verbatim.
Details about the above image can be found at http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2094213 .
Nowadays we have different rationales for keeping a family tree record. I suspect that principal amongst them is a desire for family. It looks to me as if there are a few common points at which people begin their tree. One is when a first child is due, another is when the children leave home, the third is after retirement and the fourth is after a close family member passes away. I have a suspicion that in all cases it stems from a desire to have feel oneself within a close family unit when one’s family is in fact busy and distant. Not necessarily loneliness – just a subconscious awareness that the old style comings and goings, frequent family barbecues and big old style Sunday roasts with the extended family would be a pleasant thing to have in life and would bring a sense of belonging. It’s nice to feel anchored in family.
I’d love to research this in more detail. I hope someone does one day.
I have noticed also that it is those who live away from their ancestral homeland who are the keenest to trace and record their family. The descendants of colonists, for instance. It has long been a matter of amazement to me that those living in England are not so interested in their ancestry, when they are living right on Ground Zero. Oh, the photographs of churches, roads and coastlines I could take were I over there! The military records, the wills and portraits and family homes I could have viewed. But my distant British cousins who walk every day to work down the road that our 5 x Great Grandfather walked are oblivious to it all.
We all start small and get bigger. Most of us just start by curiosity about our great grandparents, that generation which is just outside of our own memory but close enough for our dearest relations to have known intimately. In my own childhood, these figures were shadowy names but the imprint of their lives were everywhere. Their pictures on the walls, their names in novels on the shelves, the trees they planted and the axe they used to chop wood were all still in the family residences.
We all have four sets of great grandparents, unless our grandparents were cousins which was quite legal until recent years. A family history project involving four couples is quite manageable and not likely to put off a beginner. For most of us, of course, it’s the start of a slippery slope to a project which takes 20 enjoyable hours a day if we let it.
Once we have researched our great grandparents we usually understand for the first time that they were people not so different to us. We have probably also recognised that at least one of our great grandmothers who had been a bland and shadowy figure all our life turns out to have been quite a woman in her time – remembered for her sense of humour or her ability to hold her own against housebreakers. She may have organised the church fundraiser dinners or smoked a black pipe, won prizes for her crochet, sworn like a trooper or driven a six-bullock team all alone – whatever it was, through our enquiries she will have become a person in her own right and this casts her husband in a new light too. That initial change in perspective is akin to a paradigm shift. We thought we knew our great grandmother sat in a rocking chair on their front verandah or beside the fire, knitting and listening benignly and proudly to their strong and healthy descendants. We thought we knew because that’s probably how she was in later years, due to age. The men of the family were never this hidden, being the breadwinner. For me, it’s that blossoming into their own personality which makes family history research worthwhile.
I sat very happily at this lower level of family history in my childhood. In an earlier post I referenced my start on this hobby/pastime/life vocation/obsession (see post titled John Burleton of East Harptree). A lot of elderly relatives gave me many details about family. I loved it but at the age of 10-18 I did not understand what I was doing. I could not coordinate the details. I diligently recorded random facts about relatives whose place in the family I did not understand, on a hundred scattered pieces of paper which eventually found a home in a shoebox provided by my mother. To be honest, most of my family seemed dull. Only my great grandmother Stella had the knack of bringing them to life (an earlier post introduces Stella). There was a morbid focus on the age at which they died, and what illnesses they had. I now recognise this as the state of mind of the elderly person who was talking to me but as a child it nearly put me off. What kept me at it was inheriting a family bible from one line and finding it full of marriages and births. It provided balance. Genealogy is about life, not death
I graduated soon enough from immediate family to wondering where my great grandparents came from, why their families left their homeland in the first place and moved to Australia. With the exception of one possible Aboriginal ancestor, everyone else came from somewhere for some reason. My new objective was to trace each ancestor back to their point of emigration. When – What Ship – Why. They were my questions for each ancestor. Since I was married by now, I had two family trees to research.
Twenty years later, I still have not completely achieved this. Across both trees I have five mystery people. However, I am now onto Stage 3 due to my cousin search – I want to take every line back to 1700, to about the eighth or ninth generation.
I can see stage four looming ahead – back to 1600 because this might enable linking with the early United States colonists. Oh yes – the family tree of 16,845 names and counting is nowhere near complete.