Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America by François Weil (review)
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Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. By François Weil. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 304. $27.95 cloth)

In Family Trees, François Weil offers a clear, coherent overview of genealogical practices in the United States, well-researched and illustrated with examples and anecdotes drawn from primary sources. Early colonists largely used genealogy as a means to claim social status, although some settlers valued familial roots as affirming kinships and enslaved peoples sought to preserve family histories through oral tradition. By the antebellum period, Americans began to apply genealogy as a science, supporting ideas of self-worth and familial significance, although often in a manner at odds with their rhetoric of republicanism and democracy. Following the Civil War, genealogy was reinvented as a tool to assert racial and ethnic superiority, contributing to the embrace of eugenics. An expanding proportion of the population expressed interest in their roots, leading to the development of professional genealogists and a growing market for genealogical instruction, aids, and resources. The social upheaval in the mid to late twentieth century facilitated the further transformation of genealogy as a practice open to all Americans, particularly with the growth of Internet sites and genetic testing. Taken as a whole, the work highlights ways Americans employed genealogy to define individual and collective identities.

Weil addresses the multiple meanings of genealogy while delineating the shifts and transformations of genealogy from an elite status-oriented practice to a widely embraced commercialized market. As a survey of genealogical practices over centuries, the work focuses on particular themes and events, while at best only touching on [End Page 164] others. Chronologically, attention is centered upon the nineteenth century, and three aspects receive special attention throughout the work: genealogy as a hierarchical practice versus republican and democratic values; as a collective practice; and as reflecting a rising commercialization. With respect to genealogy and collectives, Weil notes the development of practices documenting and defining first family lines and then larger ethnic and racial identities. By the turn of the twentieth century, “many Americans established a racial link between ancestral pride and a newfound sense of national superiority” (p. 128). Partly in response, other citizens organized an ever-growing number of ethnic and religious historical and genealogical societies. The discussion of collective genealogical identities, from the earlier local antebellum to the nationalistic in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is one of the strengths of the work. Likewise, Weil traces the emergence of professionals and genealogical markets over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting instances of fraud and falsification on the part of genealogists and professionals.

Most of the work focuses on the activities of Euro-Americans, particularly those of British descent. Weil pays attention to the intersection of genealogy and race. While tracing colonial elite approaches to family history, he incorporates discussion of alternate modes among enslaved African Americans, although the section is minor and may leave readers with as many questions as answers. The analysis of modern interest in genealogy among Euro-American and African American communities is more extensive and successful. Weil devotes attention to the cultural phenomenon of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) and the television miniseries based on it, which engendered and reflected widespread interest in family history. He acknowledges criticism of Haley’s work but points out that “[f]lawed as it was from the point of view of professional historians and genealogists . . . Roots inspired its readers” (p. 197). Following Roots, Weil sketches the impact of Internet resources and genetic testing on diverse communities, ending the work with a complex analysis of genealogy in the mainstream.

Genealogy has not received extensive scholarly study despite being [End Page 165] a popular pursuit over the years. Ultimately, Weil’s work is a welcome survey of the pursuit of family history in the United States. Scholarly rather than popular in tone, it rewards persistence and close reading.

Alea Henle

Alea Henle is an archivist, historian, and librarian and has taught courses at the University of Connecticut and the University Wisconsin– Madison. She has published articles on library history and is currently developing a digital resource tracing visitors to an antebellum historical society.


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