Clear cutting in the genealogical forest

Alicia Crane WilliamsWhen I was in school thirty plus years ago, there was a lot of discussion about the differences between history and genealogy – usually with genealogy getting the short end of the stick. The gap between historians and genealogists narrowed once we realized that we all use many of the same sources for similar ends. The differences are in our goals. The historian is trying to interpret the life of communities and does not really need to deal with the details of individuals. The genealogist is dealing with individuals on a fact-by-fact basis and may not feel the need to understand the larger community. To an historian a genealogist might appear to “not see the forest for the trees,” and to a genealogist an historian might “clear cut” the trees they have been nurturing in hopes of finding the forest!

It therefore amused me greatly when I discovered a small example of this history-genealogy difference while reading Divided We Stand, Watertown, Massachusetts, 1630-1680, by Roger Thompson.  Divided We Stand contains the case of Susannah Woodward (the woman I mentioned in Something else inventories can tell us), and I have been enjoying the Watertown forest, where Susannah Woodward was at the center of a high profile paternity case in 1671. She insisted the father of her child was Thomas Hastings, while Hastings’ family insisted it was John Chadwick. In the end, the settlement of the case had a lot to do with the political and social alliances of the town, which fits right in with Thompson’s study of the community.

However, my genealogist’s ears began to burn at Thompson’s statement that Susanna’s son was named “John.” Just John, no surname despite the ambiguity of the court case, which leaves the possibility of the child being given the surname of Hastings, Chadwick, or Woodward!  He was named Thomas Hastings.  Yup, “Thomas” not “John,” which is confirmed by a source citation right in the book. So here is a case where the historian “clear cut” the details about young Thomas Hastings since it had no bearing on the larger story being told.  But it sure does have bearing to Thomas’ descendants.

Despite that, I highly recommend that genealogists read Divided We Stand, and as many historical treatments of the communities where their ancestors lived as possible.  Nurture the trees, but remember to also look around at the view.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

7 thoughts on “Clear cutting in the genealogical forest

  1. I’ve really enjoyed your articles in Vita-Brevis, Alicia. A fine addition to NEHGS. I’ve found some of my best genealogical discoveries in reading town histories

  2. Good contrast between genealogist and historian. So how would you label someone like me who is researching history to understand my ancestors resulting from genealogical research? Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from and what was their contribution to the locations in which they lived? How (Indian paths, river, Erie Canal) and by what means (foot, wagon, boat, train) did they migrate from one location to another and for what reasons? Specifically, by researching town and church records I’ve developed quite a set stories about my ggg grandfather Jonathan Skinner and his influence in western MA (Partridgefield/Dalton/Hinsdale) and upstate NY (Pompey, Onondaga, NY). More on his son Stephen, a blacksmith, prominent businessman and land owner in Barre Centre, Orleans, NY (see Wikipedia for “Skinner-Tinkham House”), and then Stephan’s role as one of the pioneers in Rockford, Winnebago, IL and involvement with formation of the Court Street Methodist Church. And Stephen’s sons Henry Mead Skinner and the Pike’s Peak gold rush, and James Butler Skinner, blacksmith, inventor and owner of the Steamer “Rockford”. And more recent ancestors for whom much more detail is available.

    As I weave the warp (“threads” running lengthwise) of genealogical facts with the woof (“threads” running crosswise) of historical facts I’m creating a SKINNER Family Quilt large enough to span 400 years. I guess you could call me a “historealogist” or a “geneaorian”

    1. Ric, To me there is no line between historians and genealogists. A genealogist is simply an historian with a specialty — nobody argues that David McCullough isn’t an historian because he specializes in writing biographies! Your Skinner “quilt” is exactly what is fun about genealogy. My mother was my influence in compiling our family quilt. She was the last in the line of her family and inherited all of the papers and furniture and “stuff,” which she passed on to me with a story to go with each piece. Now all I need is the time to sew the quilt together! Keep up the good work.

  3. My husband is descended from Thomas Hastings born 1652 in Watertown who must have been one of the subjects of the paternity case in 1671. He had another son Thomas by his wife Anna Hawkes born 1679 in Hatfield, MA. My husband descends from him through his daughter Tabitha. Wonder what happened to the Thomas Hastings born c1671?

    1. Susan, According to Bond’s “Watertown” (p. 285), Thomas b. 1671 was the son of Thomas b. 1652 before his marriage to Anna Hawkes. Thomas (1671) lived first with Deacon John Morse, then with William Hagar, Sr. and his son Samuel Hagar until he was 21. He married Sarah Tarball in 1693, a girl from Newton, and went there to settle. His will was dated 1737 and mentions five children.

  4. I dont know where to properly post this. But its a true story. My husband is a john alden through ruth.. I am a higgins through richard higgins whom once lived with john alden.. my good friend and neighboor is a perigreen white decendant. Funny. My mothers side is also a andrews whom was persecuted In plymouth whipped and stripped naked. Her husband took her to long island . But funny how things are
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