History of Genealogy

   “How far back does genealogy go?” a beginner might ask. And at first thought, Biblical references might come to mind as evidenced by all the chapters of begats. Family descent was important to the ancient Hebrews, in part because Hebrew males had to prove descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses, in order to hold the Levitical priesthood. The first eight chapters of the book of I Chronicles give genealogies from Adam down through Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs. I Chronicles 9:1 reads, “so all Israel were reckoned by genealogies…”

   The ancient Greeks employed genealogy as much as their neighbors, but their goal was to prove descent from a god or goddess. This was sought in order to achieve social status. Genealogy had a recognized place in Greek history from the 5th century, but was very unscientific by modern standards, consisting largely of material found in epic poetry. The two great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were the major epics of Greek antiquity. While the poet may have written about fictional characters, archaeological discoveries of the last 125 years have shown that many of the events Homer described were not fictional.

   The ancient Assyrians also kept records, using a form of writing called cuneiform to inscribe clay tablets. Some 20,000 such tablets were unearthed in the palace library during archaeological excavations in the 1840s.

   The ancient Egyptians kept records of their pharaohs and dynasties. The term dynasty is defined by Webster as “a succession of rulers, members of the same family.” The well-known King Tutankamen was a ruler in the 18th dynasty.

   The ancient Chinese had a succession of dynasties, with the names of the emperors and other rulers all carefully documented. The first was the Qin Dynasty, from 221-206 BC, and the modern name of China comes from that ruler’s name, Ch’in. The last Chinese dynasty was the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911.

   Chinese religions promoted active ancestor worship, so descendants had need to know the identity of their ancestors from this religious perspective. Confucius taught responsibility for ancestors, and ceremonies to honor these ancestors date back to his time (551? - 479? BC). Some Chinese people today have genealogies that date back a thousand years.

   The Maori people can repeat their pedigree back to about 1200 AD, when their ancestors first arrived in New Zealand, coming in canoes from other Pacific Islands. Not having much room for baggage, they carried their history in their memories as long oral traditions.

   The Inca people managed to have a genealogical record despite having no written language. Living along the western coast of South America in the 5th century AD, the nine million Incas believed that their emperor was a descendant of the Sun God. And the emperor chose his administrators from among his sons and other close relatives. Only pure-blooded Incas held the most important governmental, religious and military offices.
    Among North American Indians, totem poles were sometimes a genealogical record. For centuries, totem poles were landmarks in the villages of Northwest Coast peoples. These tall poles, carved from wood, traced the histories of families and clans much like a family crest or family tree. Each figure on the pole was a symbol of a family characteristic, an event, or a totem, a power of nature to which the family had a special relation. Totems often took the form of an animal or spirit.
     The Haida people, a group living on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, carved a mortuary pole when a high-ranking member of the community died. The Haida carved and erected a mortuary pole to commemorate that person’s life and the scenes and faces on the pole depict the deceased’s life.

    During the Middle Ages in Europe, questions of kinship and descent became of great political importance. This was especially so when the hereditary transmission of fiefdoms of land had become established. Many privileges of the nobility and gentry depended on birth. A candidate for knighthood had to furnish proof of ancient nobility. 
     In more modern times, many can with fairly reliable documentation, trace their British origins back into the 16th century. Thanks to a 1538 edict from King Henry VIII, it was required that ministers keep records of christenings, baptisms, marriages and burials. Certainly, the law was not fully complied with for about 50 years, but between the late 1500s and 1837 (when civil vital registration became law), these church parish registers are the main records one will find on one’s British ancestors.

      In roughly the same time period, the lands that would become Germany began to keep similar records. The Scandinavian countries followed suit. This record keeping was first inspired, or required, by the Catholic Church and then, as countries broke with Catholic tradition, they kept the part of the tradition pertaining to the keeping of sacramental records and incorporated it into their new churches. In most countries, church parish registers pre-date any civil record keeping.

       Britain has some very, very old records that could be considered a sort of genealogy record: the Doomesday Book (1086), the Magna Carta (1215), Exchequer Rolls (from 1152), Chancery Rolls (from 1199), Patent Rolls, Manor Court Rolls, and Fleet of Fines records (from 1190-1833). The College of Arms, established by royal charter in 1484, kept the heraldic records.

        In America’s colonial days, most settlers were British immigrants who wanted to preserve such customs as the keeping of records. During the earliest years, the churches kept the vital records; later the towns took up the practice.

         The first known civil law requiring vital records to be kept in the Colonies was passed in 1632 by the General Assembly of Virginia. This law required that ministers or wardens of each parish appear in court annually on 1 June and present the records to the clerk of christenings, marriages and burials for the preceding year. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted similar legislation.

          After the Revolution, new interest was added to genealogy because people were anxious to establish connection with the heroes of the Revolution, or the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, or the members of the Boston Tea Party, etc. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was organized in Washington, DC, in 1890, to preserve the memory of those who fought for American independence and to foster patriotism. Eligibility for membership is based on direct descent from a man or woman who actively participated in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Dozens of other hereditary societies have come into being, following the DAR’s lead.

          Did you know that the first genealogical society in the world was founded in 1845 in America? The New England Historic Genealogical Society was chartered in that year, two full years before a similar society was begun in England. 

From: http://www.familychronicle.com/HistoryOfGenealogy.html