Until recently, I’d never given much thought to my family history. The idea of compiling your family tree always seemed vaguely narcissistic. But then I came across a podcast called Heavyweight, hosted by American humorist Jonathan Goldstein. Every week, Goldstein delves into people’s backstories, identifying and (hopefully) resolving issues that had been lurking, usually problematically, in their past. One such episode was called, rather ominously, “The Elliotts”.
As Goldstein explained, the Elliotts were, from the 1300s to the 1600s, one of the most infamous of the Scottish Border clans, also known as “reivers”, who made their living by raiding and pillaging along the border between Scotland and England, stealing crops and livestock, burning buildings and generally sowing chaos and terror. So nettlesome were they that in 1525, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, put a curse on them, a comprehensive indictment that condemned to damnation not only the head of every single Elliott in Scotland but “all the hairs of their head, their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
“I curse their cowsheds,” he continued, “their cabbage patches, their ploughs, their harrows … I curse their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock … I curse them standing and I curse them sitting. I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds.”
He then concludes by asking the Almighty that Clan Elliott “be condemned perpetually to the deep pit of Hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world.”
When I first read this, I thought, “lucky I don’t own a plough”. (Or a barnyard.) But the curse also gave rise to a range of emotions, including curiosity, and even misplaced pride. I’d always known that I had an innate ability to annoy people, but I liked to imagine that somewhere in the deepest reaches of my DNA there remained some chromosomal vestige of a genuine, whisky-drinking hellion, someone capable of tormenting the Catholic Church itself. I didn’t know it then, but I had glimpsed, if only for a moment, the singular appeal of genealogy, peered sideways into the rabbit-hole of my family history, and thought, “I wonder what else might be down there?”
I’m not the only one. Once an amateur pastime practised in the dusty basements of public libraries and community centres, genealogy is now a mainstream pursuit, the stuff of reality TV shows and suburban living rooms, with easy access to DNA kits and online archives bringing alive, metaphorically speaking, one’s long-dead relatives. Genealogy companies like 23andMe and LegacyTree have thrived; in 2020, Ancestry, the world’s largest genealogy company, estimated that 30 million people around the world had taken a take-home DNA test.
“I call it ‘the genealogical drive’,” says Julia Creet, a professor of English at York University, in Toronto, who has produced several books and films on genealogy, including the 2016 documentary, Data Mining the Deceased: Ancestry and the Business of Family. “Humans have an innate urge to know where they come from. Understanding our beginnings is a metaphysical project, an existential quest driven by the desire to make sense of our place in the world. By reaching back into the past and connecting ourselves to history,” she adds, “we can manage our anxiety over our sense of insignificance”.
Genealogy is an age-old pursuit. Almost every culture has a creation story, a lineage it believes sets them apart, and in some cases gives it the right to rule others. The Incas claimed to be descended from the sun. The Chinese emperors were “sons of heaven”. The pharaohs traced their origins to Narmer, the first king of a unified Egypt, who lived as far back as 3273BC.
The value that different people place on their pedigree says a lot about who they are. In America, it’s a huge deal to have your family go all the way back to the Mayflower, the ship that transported the first pilgrims from England to the New World, in 1620, establishing what was in effect a colony of Christian fundamentalists. Many Australians, on the other hand, would love to be somehow connected to the First Fleet, the majority of whom were pickpockets and horse thieves.
What seems universal is the hope, however furtive, that you are related to someone “important”, whatever the word “important” might mean to you. (Back in the mid-2000s, Ancestry offered a Find Famous Relatives feature, but it’s since been discontinued.) My maternal grandmother sometimes let drop that her great great aunt, Lady Violet Saville, was said to have been a mistress, in the late 1800s, of King Edward VII, as if covertly sleeping with a corpulent chain-smoking playboy was something to be proud of.
Ancestry research has long been bound up with fraught ideas about race and class, and pseudo-scientific beliefs around eugenics and caste. Governments have a habit of using genealogy to discriminate against certain ethnic groups, as Australia did with the White Australia Policy. The Nazis were big fans of genealogy, which they used to root out Jews and gypsies.
But the most avid genealogist is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “We are a very family-oriented church,” says Paul Bennallack, from FamilySearch in Australia, a global genealogical archive operated by the LDS Church. “We believe that we are a part of one human family, all children of God. We also believe that families can be together after this life, including our ancestors. So we naturally want to know who they are and learn about them.”
It’s also a way to save more souls. “We believe that baptism is necessary for people to enter the Kingdom of God,” says Bennallack. “For those who have passed away and weren’t baptised, it’s important they get that opportunity, so if they choose to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in the next life, their baptism has already been performed. But before we can do that, we must identify those ancestors through family-history research.”
‘When government agencies began putting things like births, deaths and marriages online, it made things so much easier.’
The LDS Church now has the largest physical ancestry archive in the world, with 3.5 billion documents held on microfilm and stored in a dry, environmentally controlled vault 200 metres below Granite Mountain, in Utah, behind doors designed to withstand a nuclear blast. In 1894, when the church began the archive, tracking down such data was a Herculean task, with researchers worldwide scouring every imaginable source: public libraries, births, deaths and marriage registries, graveyards, school and parish records, court documents, migration lists and military records.
“In some parts of Africa, where written records aren’t as common, the church even relies on oral genealogies,” says Bennallack. Through FamilySearch, the church makes this information available to anyone, regardless of tradition, culture or faith.
A number of secular organisations, including in Australia, have also digitised and opened up their archives, democratising genealogy like never before. “When government agencies like the National Archives began putting things like the migration records and births, deaths and marriages online, it made things so much easier,” says Ruth Graham, CEO of the Society of Australian Genealogists. “You used to have to go to libraries and look through microfiche and old newspapers, but now you can do it at home, sitting around in your pyjamas.”
It also helped turn the field into a global industry, what Julia Creet calls “Ancestry.Inc.” The past 20 years have seen companies like MyHeritage, Ancestry and 23andMe leverage billions of ancestry records in order to sell customers their own family histories. Ancestry began as a company called Infobases, in 1990, when the founders Paul Allen and Dan Taggart began selling the Church of Jesus Christ’s genealogical publications on floppy disks from the back of their car. In 2020, Ancestry was bought by the private investment company Blackstone for $US4.7 billion.
Like so many good businesses, the genealogy companies have perfected a kind of corporate alchemy. They are essentially science and tech companies, selling DNA kits and using proprietary search engines to mine data. But many market themselves like new-age retreats, as portals to self-actualisation. As the Silicon Valley-based 23andMe tells customers: “Welcome to you!”
‘Once you start learning about people who were your family, it gets into your heart and head, and you start to identify with them.’
The impact of DNA research on ancestry has been a boon to law enforcement, which increasingly uses it to crack cold cases. But it also carries risks, even with privately held databases. In 2017, Ancestry leaked the usernames, email addresses and passwords of 300,000 registered users. In 2020, GEDmatch, a family-history site based in the US, exposed more than a million customer profiles to police, against their owners’ wishes. In an age of mass data breaches, it seems almost inevitable that such information could be used by health insurance companies to deny coverage to people whose DNA data reveal pre-existing conditions.
In 2004, the BBC aired a documentary TV series called Who Do You Think You Are?. The program, which used genealogists and historians to trace the family histories of celebrities and public figures, soon became an unlikely hit, with the format exported to more than a dozen countries, including France, Holland, the US (where it’s called Finding Your Roots), Poland (Sekrety Rodzinne or Family Secrets) and the Netherlands, which opts for the somewhat more prosaic Verre Verwanten (Distant Kinship).
The show has also proved popular in Australia, where it first aired in 2008, on SBS TV. (The program is sponsored in Australia by Ancestry.) Genealogy purists might scoff, but the show’s research is robust and labour-intensive, and can reach back hundreds of years. Journalist Jennifer Byrne, who appeared on the program in 2019, was found to have a direct bloodline to King Edward III of England, who reigned in the early 1300s.
The show also traced presenter Cameron Daddo’s ancestry back 34 generations, to the 900s. “The effect can be quite transformative,” says the program’s producer, Maxine Gray. “Once you start learning about people who were your family, it gets into your heart and head, and you start to identify with them.”
But family histories are like old rugs: you never know what you’ll find when you peel them back. When television presenter Grant Denyer took part in 2021, he discovered, among other things, that his three times great-grandfather, Charles Kennard Ward, had committed incest with his daughter, Mary-Ann, in South Australia in the 1870s. Mary-Ann gave birth to a child (who subsequently disappeared from the historical record). In retaliation, Mary-Ann burned her father’s haystacks, for which she was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labour. When news of the incest emerged, however, locals petitioned the court to release her. Instead, the magistrate halved her jail time.
Ancestry is full of such unpleasant surprises. “If you get a percentage of an ethnic group you didn’t know you had, it might mean that someone up the line isn’t correct,” says Ruth Graham. “In other words, that it isn’t the right father on the birth certificate.”
There’s a lot to be said, then, for not looking back. Life is short, and bloodlines are long. How much time do you want to spend discovering connections? And what would it mean, anyway? That rabbit-hole of genealogy? One day I might crawl in there, but right now, I’m too busy trying to find my way forward.
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