Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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I never expected to become interested in genealogy. When I did, slowly at first and then in great gusts of extreme obsession, I thought I owed the fascination to my mom, a natural storyteller descended from a collection of idiosyncratic Texans. One of her granddads was a strident Dallas socialist; the other killed a man with a hay hook. Her father, Robert Bruce, is said to have been married thirteen times to twelve women. I figured this must be an exaggeration, but so far I’ve tracked down records of six wives, and his relationships tended to be short-lived — one wife shot him in the stomach just a few weeks after their wedding — so it seems plausible that there were unions I haven’t yet found.

I didn’t associate my mother’s stories with genealogy — didn’t see any real kinship between them and that packet of papers my father shared with me — until the day I idly typed my maternal grandmother’s name, Alma Kinchen, into Google. An old New England tree, stretching back to Cornet Joseph Parsons and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, came right up. Until then, I’d believed all my colonial ancestors, on both sides, were Southern.

Aztec genealogical tree, c. 1600, from Tlaxcala, in current-day Mexico © bpk, Berlin/Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Dietrich Graf/Art Resource, New York City

Aztec genealogical tree, c. 1600, from Tlaxcala, in current-day Mexico © bpk, Berlin/Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Dietrich Graf/Art Resource, New York City

Parsons, apparently my ninth great-grandfather, co-founded the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. His wife (and my ninth great-grandmother), Mary Bliss Parsons, was accused of being a witch there but beat the charges. According to the authors of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, Parsons was said to converse with spirits. She was also the foremother of a couple of female preachers in my maternal family line. This intrigued me, because eleven generations later, rather suddenly, my mom had found God and started casting out demons and reporting visitations from angels. She’d run a church out of our living room, attracting up to fifty down-on-their-luck worshippers to our house every week. (When my father did eventually file for divorce, it was because my mother refused to disband her congregation.) My mother didn’t know about her ancestors’ churches when she started hers.

A few years before I discovered our connection to the place, my sister moved to Northampton, to a house just blocks from the plot where the Parsonses once lived. Every time I visited her there, I felt (or at least, in the fate-infused view of history so prevalent among ancestry buffs, now told myself I had felt) a surprising sense of belonging.

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is working on a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.

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