Prepping for America250?: Why your historical organization needs to consider genealogists

I’ve been sitting through the America250 prep for my state. As a genealogist, I’ve seen a well meaning – but somewhat disconcerting – attitude appear through the entire process. Suggestions made by genealogists are acknowledged but rarely incorporated. There’s often an implied suggestion that the work being done by those genealogists is somehow separate from the work of doing “accurate history” being done by historians during the celebration.

The approach contains multiple incorrect assumptions. First and foremost, it assumes that genealogists aren’t historians. That’s true in some cases. Genealogy is a second, third, or fourth career in many cases. Genealogists tend to come from a number of different fields, including IT, accounting and more. Some – including me – come from the field of history. My education is in academic history; my internships were in public history. My trajectory is actually fairly common among “first career” genealogists. The genealogist you’re speaking to may actually be trained as a historian. Second, it assumes methodology.

Genealogy, in its current state, is complicated. There’s a widely held image of genealogy as someone staked out in the archives looking for names and dates simply so they can trace their family as far back as possible. Today’s genealogy is more diverse: looking for missing heirs of the deceased; identifying unidentified military remains; tracing family histories so that individuals can learn the stories of their ancestors; public history; and more.

And yes, you read correctly – public history. Genealogists have begun applying their research techniques to what has been called microhistory. Because their research focuses on the individual, they can tell the story of history from the bottom up in a way that the few of the more traditional techniques offer. The depth and detail of those stories can be an effective way to personalize the history for the public exploring it. They’re not visiting an old house but someone’s home.

Examples of this process include:

Witness Stones

Dr. Hilary Green’s Hollowed Grounds Project

GU 272 Memory Project

and more….

In preparing for America250, I would challenge historical organizations to work to overcome the historian-genealogist divide. Learn from your community’s professional genealogists. Explore how their research techniques can give you much more than names and dates but can help you tell the story of the veteran of color who enlisted in 1778, the women of the community, and more.

I have Canadian ancestors. Can I still qualify for an American lineage society?

Yes! Of course, it depends on when and where your ancestor arrived in Canada. Some regions of Canada saw an influx of American immigrants in the mid to late 18th and early 19th century. You may hear the terms “New England Planter,” “United Empire Loyalist,” or “Late Loyalist.” Each of them arrived a different time and may qualify you for a different society.

“Late Loyalists” were called Loyalists because they had to swear a loyalty oath. However, most were economic migrants, taking advantage of land grants in what is now the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Many were related to American Revolution vets, and through them, may provide a qualifying line to the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution. See my article on French-Canadian patriots in the summer 2019 issue of the National Genealogical Society Magazine for more details.

“United Empire Loyalists” fled to Canada during the American Revolution, either to escape the conflict or to support the British cause. There’s a Canadian lineage society recognizing them: https://uelac.ca/. Most loyalist families arrived in the United States in colonial period and may have been there for several generations prior to the War. As a result, their descendants likely qualify for a colonial society.

“New England planters” were brought from New England (largely CT, MA + RI) in the 1759 to 1764 period to Nova Scotia. (See https://archives.novascotia.ca/townships/planters/ for details.) The goal was to replace the Acadien population with English families. Many of these families had strong colonial roots. Their descendants likely qualify for a colonial society.

Questions? Contact us.

How old were those who fought in the American Revolution?

To identify “service” during the American Revolution, we generally look at those born between the 1710s and the 1760s. However, that’s all types of service. If we narrow it down to military service, what ages are involved?

Militia service requirements provide a good guideline for the Army. Connecticut required men to serve between ages 16 and 60. The Museum of the American Revolution places the ages for Continental service between 15 and 40, which would correspond with the more intense demands of that service.

Ages for the Navy (and privateers) are harder to pinpoint. Compiled Military Service Records for the Navy do not include reference to age. Cabin boys seem to have been in the 10-15 year old age range. In an article on the Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution website, Charles R. Lampson mentions a 14 year old receiving a significant share of a prize in 1779. Officers were apparently in their 30s to 40s. Dudley Saltonstall was 38 on his first major voyage as captain. John Paul Jones was 30.

In short, while there is some variation, ancestors between 16-mid 40s are likely to have active military service.

What if I can’t find a document that names my ancestor’s parents? Can I still join a lineage society?

Lineage societies generally want one original document that names an ancestor’s parents to make a parent-child connection, such as the child’s birth certificate. Yet, not every ancestor has such a document. In that case, can you still join a lineage society?

Most societies allow the submission of what they call an analysis to make a parent-child connection. (In academic genealogy, it would be called a proof argument.) The standards are slightly different than they would be in academic genealogy. Societies typically want direct evidence of a relationship or documentation of a circumstance in which the parents you name are the only possible parents for that ancestor.

The most common types of analysis connect a child to their sibling and the sibling to the purported parents. In these cases, there is often a death certificate for the sibling naming their parents. While no such document exists for the ancestor, other documents may connect them to the sibling. They are perhaps named in an obituary. While evidence of a sibling relationship isn’t as strong as direct evidence of parentage, it does still make a connection – and many societies will accept it as such.

If you want to use an analysis in your application, be sure to review it with your society’s registrar or historian. Every society has its own standards. No guarantees about acceptance can be made in advance.

Why make a time line?

The period between the late 18th and early 19th century was a period of great migration in the United States. Families were moving from New England to the Midwest, from the Atlantic Seaboard into the South, and more. Yet, because European settlements were relatively new, there are few centralized, indexed records.

A time line – a year to year account of your ancestor’s movements – can help you pinpoint where they were living when an event likely occurred. I was delighted to discuss time lines (and how to make them) in a mini session as part of a July 14, 2023 webinar. It’s available for free for a week here.

How do I tell a document relates to my ancestor?

In the last post, I discussed how genealogy websites are helpful in identifying sources that might relate to your ancestor. I also noted that a source might be identified based only a name match. How do you tell which sources actually belong to your ancestor?

There are a few questions you should ask:

  1. Was this source created in or does it discuss a period in which my ancestor was alive? An ancestor who died in the 1830s won’t have a Civil War pension, but they might show up in a 20th century family history book.
  2. Was this source created in or does it discuss a location in which my ancestor might have lived? Pay attention to travel patterns for the time period in which your ancestor lived. An ancestor isn’t going to have multiple cross country jumps every year in the 1880s. Travel wasn’t that easy. However, they might have made the same trip across multiple years.
  3. Do family members recorded on this source match what we know about my ancestor’s family? Don’t just look at your ancestor’s name; check the family members as well. If you know your grandfather’s siblings and none of them are listed, it’s possible the source refers to a different person of the same name.
  4. Does the source record an activity that would be likely given my ancestor’s age? A 70 year old wasn’t typically an Army private; a teenager probably didn’t hold public office. Your ancestor’s age can provide a good hint as to whether the source does or does not belong to them.

Looking beyond the ancestor’s name and birth date can help you confirm that the source actually relates to your ancestor.

No, the genealogy website cannot tell you your ancestors…

I’ve been hearing variations on the same comment a lot lately. Many people have a working assumption that a genealogy website can tell them their ancestors. It’s an understandable desire if you’ve always wanted to learn more about one branch of your family. Unfortunately, it’s not true. That’s also not what the sites are set up to do.

Most genealogy websites have the same basic purpose: they are sharing records that can help you learn more about your ancestors. If they offer hints, they’re using an algorithm that takes the information you’ve already provided and identifies other records that might relate to your ancestor. Sometimes that connection is made by name; sometimes by locale; and sometimes by the fact that someone has identified a specific record as likely belonging to your ancestor.

These systems are not set up to tell you which records they’ve identified are likely to belong to your ancestor. That’s why you’ll see a Civil War pension file as a hint for an ancestor who died by 1830. The algorithm has identified that the name on the file is the same as your ancestor. It cannot tell that your ancestor was already dead and couldn’t have fought in the Civil War. You need to do the sorting yourself.

They also can’t tell you which sources are likely to be reliable. Have you heard the terms “primary” and “secondary” information? They help us determine who likely the informant is to actually know the answer to question. Your parents provide primary information when discussing their own marriage date: they were there. Someone discussing the marriage date of a Revolutionary War ancestor is providing secondary information. They were not there, and the date may or may not be accurate. These are a just a few of the aspects you should consider when evaluating a source.

Genealogy websites are an excellent resource, but be sure to evaluate the hints they provide about your ancestors carefully. They cannot identify your ancestors for you.

Men of what age were likely to have served as soldiers during the American Revolution?

It’s a good rule of thumb that if your ancestor was “of age” during the American Revolution, they likely participated in the Revolution in some way. Yet, many of us look for soldiers. How do we determine which ancestors were likely to have fought?

Local law can actually be a hint. Connecticut, for example, required militia service between the ages of 16 and 60. While younger and older men may have served, it was far less likely that they would do so. They weren’t actively training and may not have had the physical strength to keep up with the rest of the unit. Look for your state’s historic statutes to find the law in force at the time of the War.

While you’re doing that, don’t forget to check for exemptions. Traditionally some forms of public office provided an exemption from militia service, as did other roles. Your ancestor might have been of age but legally not required to serve.

How can Revolutionary War claims help me document my ancestor’s service?

The American Army had limited resources going into the Revolutionary War. They borrowed goods, supplies, and even food. People had their homes and business damaged by the American Army – or the British. Many of those who lost money or property as a result later filed claims against state governments.

These Revolutionary War claims files can help establish your ancestor’s activities during the American Revolution. In order to receive money, an ancestor had to document why they were owed money. That meant providing receipts, detailed accounts of their movements, and more.

Different states store these records in different locales, but they are generally filed with the records of the state treasurer or comptroller. New York’s – at least those that survived the 1911 Capitol fire – are detailed in this catalog entry. Those claims from Connecticut that have been indexed are interfiled with the Connecticut Archives collection.

Happy hunting!

What’s an SS-5 and how does it help my lineage society application?

Depending on where you lived, if you were born before the 1910s, you may not have had a birth certificate. New England required them as early as the 1640s. In the South, it was much later. Yet, lineage societies request “proof” of an individual’s birth.

An SS-5 can often be submitted instead of a birth certificate. When Social Security came into effect into the 1930s, an individual needed to apply for a card in order to be eligible. When they did so, they completed an SS-5. These applications, which catch many of working age as of 1936, often list the date and place of birth of the applicant as well as the names of their parents. As the individual is completing the form themselves or providing the information, it can be considered reliable to the extent of their knowledge. A significant number of ancestors will not be documented: an individual had to work outside the home to be eligible, and an exception to the original law meant that domestic and farm workers were not included. These exceptions were closed as time went on, but beware of them when documenting earlier ancestors.

A deceased person’s SS-5 can be requested here:https://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html . It helps to know the Social Security number, many of which can be found using the Social Security Death Index (this index is no longer regularly updated).