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Donald Lines Jacobus and the Making of American Genealogy

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Abstract:

The historian Samuel Eliot Morison (1887–1976) described genealogy and genealogical societies as “essentially a drawing together of the older American stock against their polyglot competitors” (fn 1). Indeed, before social history and the Roots phenomenon reinvented ancestor research in the 1970s and opened it up to African Americans and ethnic whites, many genealogists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did just that. Faced with the uncertainties of an era marked by immigration, old families of Northern European descent sought refuge from social change by identifying and celebrating their ancestors, particularly those that participated in the Revolutionary War. Beyond recognizing genealogy’s early anti-immigrant bias, scholars haven’t paid much attention to it. This failure to explore genealogy is certainly tied to the way in which 19th century historians worked to professionalize their field by distancing themselves from genealogists and local historians. But the study of genealogy has much to say about how Americans have employed history and memory. This paper will use the career of professional genealogist Donald Lines Jacobus (1887-1970) to examine the development of genealogical practice in the 20th century for what it can tell us about the place of the past, heredity, and the family in American life.

In genealogical circles, Donald Lines Jacobus is known as the “Dean of American Genealogy.” Beginning his career as a professional genealogist when he was a teenager, Jacobus went on to author numerous genealogies, establish and edit the journal The American Genealogist, and write genealogy’s first how-to manual, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession (1930). In honor of his contributions to the field, Jacobus was the first person elected to the National Genealogical Society's National Genealogy Hall of Fame. Jacobus promoted a scientific method of ancestor research that replaced reliance on oral tradition and time-honored pedigrees with primary source documentation. It was an approach made possible because of enormous efforts to preserve and index early church records and grave stone inscriptions carried out by patriotic and heraldic societies, government agencies and religious groups (particularly the Mormons) during the very years that Jacobus was starting his work.

As dedicated as he was to its practice, Jacobus struggled with the implications of genealogy, suggesting that even for its most committed practitioners, genealogy could be problematic. Jacobus endorsed eugenics, but knew the difficulty of tracing bloodlines and did not believe scientists had enough experience with family research to make their claims. He privileged biological family, researched his family tree, and remained devoted to his widowed mother throughout her life. But he also never married or had children and instead treated neighbors and friends like they were blood relatives. His favorite hobby was charting the descendents of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (Ferdie and Izzie as he called them), demonstrating that as serious as genealogy had became for him, it was also bound up in fun and fantasy.

1. Samuel Eliot Morison quoted in Christopher Bickford, The Connecticut Historical Society, 1825-1975: A Brief Illustrated History (Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Society, 1975), 73.
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Greenfield, Briann. "Donald Lines Jacobus and the Making of American Genealogy" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508984_index.html>

APA Citation:

Greenfield, B. G. "Donald Lines Jacobus and the Making of American Genealogy" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508984_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: The historian Samuel Eliot Morison (1887–1976) described genealogy and genealogical societies as “essentially a drawing together of the older American stock against their polyglot competitors” (fn 1). Indeed, before social history and the Roots phenomenon reinvented ancestor research in the 1970s and opened it up to African Americans and ethnic whites, many genealogists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did just that. Faced with the uncertainties of an era marked by immigration, old families of Northern European descent sought refuge from social change by identifying and celebrating their ancestors, particularly those that participated in the Revolutionary War. Beyond recognizing genealogy’s early anti-immigrant bias, scholars haven’t paid much attention to it. This failure to explore genealogy is certainly tied to the way in which 19th century historians worked to professionalize their field by distancing themselves from genealogists and local historians. But the study of genealogy has much to say about how Americans have employed history and memory. This paper will use the career of professional genealogist Donald Lines Jacobus (1887-1970) to examine the development of genealogical practice in the 20th century for what it can tell us about the place of the past, heredity, and the family in American life.

In genealogical circles, Donald Lines Jacobus is known as the “Dean of American Genealogy.” Beginning his career as a professional genealogist when he was a teenager, Jacobus went on to author numerous genealogies, establish and edit the journal The American Genealogist, and write genealogy’s first how-to manual, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession (1930). In honor of his contributions to the field, Jacobus was the first person elected to the National Genealogical Society's National Genealogy Hall of Fame. Jacobus promoted a scientific method of ancestor research that replaced reliance on oral tradition and time-honored pedigrees with primary source documentation. It was an approach made possible because of enormous efforts to preserve and index early church records and grave stone inscriptions carried out by patriotic and heraldic societies, government agencies and religious groups (particularly the Mormons) during the very years that Jacobus was starting his work.

As dedicated as he was to its practice, Jacobus struggled with the implications of genealogy, suggesting that even for its most committed practitioners, genealogy could be problematic. Jacobus endorsed eugenics, but knew the difficulty of tracing bloodlines and did not believe scientists had enough experience with family research to make their claims. He privileged biological family, researched his family tree, and remained devoted to his widowed mother throughout her life. But he also never married or had children and instead treated neighbors and friends like they were blood relatives. His favorite hobby was charting the descendents of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (Ferdie and Izzie as he called them), demonstrating that as serious as genealogy had became for him, it was also bound up in fun and fantasy.

1. Samuel Eliot Morison quoted in Christopher Bickford, The Connecticut Historical Society, 1825-1975: A Brief Illustrated History (Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Society, 1975), 73.


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