Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why Genealogy? -- Reason No. 222 (October 10, 2013)

I have been reading The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty, a 1976 biography of the Rockefeller family covering the clan from William Avery Rockefeller and Eliza Davison, the parents of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (founder of the family fortune), through "The Cousins," who are the children of the five sons and one daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abigail Greene Aldrich (she of the Rhode Island Aldriches and daughter of U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich).  Since the book was published in 1976, "The Cousins" that the book ends with are the generation that includes John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, the senior U.S. Senator from West Virginia (now age 76).  This "family biography" by Peter Collier and David Horowitz is a detailed and lengthy 626 pages (including the Epilogue) and it is followed by an additional 104 pages of Biographic Notes, citation Notes, and a family genealogy chart.  I highly recommend the book for those with an interest in history or economics, and I definitely recommend the book for those with a generalized interest in genealogy!

I found The Rockefellers to be of interest to my genealogy research for a number of reasons, but one particular account in the book struck a familiar note for me and it became the prompt for this post about yet another reason why I think families should have (or encourage) at least one member in each generation to pursue and record as much as possible about the family's history. [While I have referred to other reasons for pursuing genealogy elsewhere on this blog (see, for example, my "Immortality" series and the posts here and here), my selection of "Reason No. 222" here is just a random way of indicating there are many, many reasons for "doing genealogy!"] 

In writing about the twenty-three members of the generation known as "The Cousins," the authors of The Rockefellers state,

                    Mitzi, Rodman, and a couple of the older ones have vague recollections of
                    great-grandfather -- the thinly delicate, parchment-skinned founder of
                    Standard Oil.  Yet for most, he was only an image in the old Pathe newsreels
                    the Family Office had spliced together in a kind of elaborate home movie to
                    show at Christmas parties -- an oddly Chaplinesque figure doffing his hat and
                    dropping dimes into the outstretched hands of children.
                    [The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty, p. 510]

My paternal grandfather died one month before I turned six years old, so I have some direct, personal experiences and memories about him; but my younger brother was not born until a little over three years after my grandfather died -- he never knew his paternal grandfather and thus has no personal, experiential connection to him whatsoever.  Similarly, my maternal grandfather died just three months before I turned ten years old and my younger brother was not yet nine months old.  For my younger brother, his concept of "grandfather" consists of images of men he never knew and occasional stories to which he is basically a by-stander.  By contrast, our two sons (now 27 and 29) still have a living paternal grandfather and their maternal grandfather died when they were both in their early 20s -- so they grew up with very close connection and lots of shared experiences with both of their grandfathers.  Their concept of "grandfather" is necessarily much different than that of my younger brother.  Not everyone is as fortunate as our sons and so what is usually the first and most immediate nexus with their family history/genealogy is lost or very shallow and ephemeral. And so THIS is yet another reason why we should all be interested in genealogy.

A family commitment to developing a tradition of recording and preserving family history (genealogy) allows family members to make connections to ancestors that might not otherwise exist -- even for ancestors as close and immediate as grandparents.  We who are the family genealogists of our generation have the interest and opportunity to develop, record and preserve the photographs, anecdotes, interviews, and now even the DNA data that will allow even remote descendants to have something more than just "vague recollections" or captured images of their ancestors.  We can help them establish something approaching a more real, concrete "relationship" between themselves and the otherwise almost mythical people who made actual DNA and social contributions to the intrinsic nature and indispensable qualities of who they are!
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The photograph above is a scanned image of the dust jacket from the author's hardback copy of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty ( New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1976).
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


  1. Yes! A very important reason to record our own recollections of family members we knew when we were children and older. My father passed away exactly a month before my younger daughter was born. Her only knowledge of him is photos, my own shared memories, and those of her older sister and aunts and uncles. How I wish my grandparents had talked about their own parents, and my father about his father who died many years before I was born. I think recording what we know leaves a legacy for those who come after. Thanks for an insightful post, John.

  2. Thank YOU for your kind words Nancy! I think many of us are drawn to genealogy for just the reasons you expressed in your comment and I thank you for sharing here. I cannot tell you how much I wish I had been able to coax my paternal grandmother into telling me all she knew about her parents. They were both born in Germany and came to the U.S. as young adults. I know very little about them and virtually nothing about their families back in Germany.