Sunday, June 3, 2018

Genealogy, Family History, and History … From Particular to General

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been digging out new material to expand and revise my On This Day (OTD) blog articles. One recent search reminded me of a couple points that we sometimes “under-appreciate.”

First of all, genealogical data can provide a valuable addition to other forms of historical research. Of course, genealogy is a specialized type of history anyway. And “family history,” which encompasses more than a succession of “begats,” is clearly a subset of history in general.
Family Group, 1898. Library of Congress.

A substantial fraction of my OTD blogs are biographies, which usually start with information from histories of Idaho published in 1920 or before. Most of those people were still living when their bios were published. That being the case, I often turn first to genealogical sites ( and/or the LDS to learn more about my subjects. Those sites pull together a wealth of different sources. For my blog biographies, the census data and death records are the most valuable, but almost everything there can help.

Here’s an example from my current book project, the biography of pioneer criminologist Luke S. May. The matter involved May’s protegé, Edward C. Newell. A letter from him to May told me he was headed to Europe on the steamship Bremen on July 17, 1936. It also said he planned to stay until the following spring. And, indeed, I next found him back in New Hampshire in the spring of 1937. (A letter written many years later told me where he had gone on the Continent.) Good enough, right?

But internal remarks in the “spring” reference suggested he had been back in the U. S. for quite awhile. To make a long story short, further research at the genealogical site turned up his name on a passenger list – Steamship Bremen, departed Southhampton, England on October 16, arrived in New York on October 23, 1936. (He never said why he returned early, but tensions were high in Europe at the time because Germany had re-occupied the Rhineland in March and the Spanish Civil War flared into violence in July.)

City directories are another valuable resource. Census data sometimes tells me that a person changed locations, and jobs, over the span of a decade. The directories then allow me to narrow down the time when the person made the change. (Downside: The books are issued yearly, but some may be missing from the archives.)

I’m sure I’m “preaching to the choir” for some (many?) of you out there, but: If you’re not using genealogical resources to supplement your other historical research, you’re missing a bet.

The second point has to do with a matter of family history where our “modern” perspective can lead us to miss a key point. The issue came up during my revision of the OTD article for July 3. My references said that Idaho Territorial Governor Edward A. Stevenson (1831-1895) was a cousin to Adlai E. Stevenson (1835-1914), Assistant Postmaster General of the United States. (Later, Adlai was Vice President under Grover Cleveland.) For various reasons, I wondered how closely they were related. (Having the same last name does not always indicate a close link.)

As you might expect, genealogical information for Adlai was readily available. That traced his lineage back many generations to ancestors living in the Scottish borderlands. Around 1715-1720, Adlai’s direct line ancestor moved to Ireland and then, about twenty years later, the family came to the United States. They settled in Pennsylvania before moving on to North Carolina. Over a couple more generations, they moved to Kentucky, where Adlai was born, and then Illinois. (After the Revolutionary War, they used the Stevenson form rather than the original Stephenson.)
Adlai Stevenson, ca 1880.
Library of Congress.

The lineage of Edward A. Stevenson proved more difficult, so I turned to the family trees posted on That finally did take me back four generations in his line, but no location was listed for the oldest ancestor. Two other problems arose. First, none of the names or dates in Edward’s line matched up with those for Adlai’s line. Also, where Adlai’s early ancestors settled in North Carolina and Kentucky, Edward’s ended up in New Jersey and New York, where Edward was born.

So, as a test, I “invented” a common Stephenson link back in Scotland. The genealogy software responded with the information that Edward and Adlai were, at best, fourth or fifth cousins. In a “modern” view, that connection seemed pretty tenuous, even if they did share the same last name.

However, I also came across a key observation in one of the many biographies related to the Adlai E. Stevenson (1900-1965) line. The Baker reference had the passage:
Even as the Stephensons changed locations, their remembered attachments to kin served as a protective shelter in the boundless terrain of their new country. They were a clan, and they carried with them to America an inherited sense of blood relatives – past and present – as a “derbfine,” an ancient arrangement recognized in the laws of northern Britain and Ireland that “encompassed all kin within the span of the last four generations.” They referred to themselves as “our people” and meant by that an extended family whose younger generations carried the names of their forebears and whose dead were remembered in story and legend.

Several times, the author reinforced that persistent remembrance of family. They didn’t need genealogical charts, the information was woven into their lives. So, as I say in the revised blog: There was no such thing as a “distant” cousin; they were simply “family.” Moral: As we read old histories/references, we need to keep in mind that those generations had a far different concept of family than we are used to now.

Reference: Jean H. Baker, The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York (1996).

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