Downward Mobility

I’m procrastinating. I’m working an article and have gotten to the point where I’ve done all the interviews. I know what the article should look like. I just have to write it up. And I’m finding any excuse to NOT do it. Because first drafts are hell.

One of the ways that I’ve been procrastinating these past couple of days is by looking for ancestors on Ancestry.com.

These genealogy websites were all started by the Mormons who are obsessed with knowing who their relatives are, because when the world ends, I think we’re supposed to locate the souls of our relatives and go live on a separate planet or something. Whatever. It’s a cool tool. It’s crowd sourced information, like wikipedia, and it makes this former academic very happy to live in the age of the Internet.

I’m super lazy about this genealogy stuff. I’m certainly not going to go back to old churches in Ireland to find the baptismal accounts of the peasants who were my ancestors. So, there’s lots of branches that lead to a dead-end pretty quickly.

Except for my dad’s grandmother’s side of the family. Ancestry.com traces her parents and grandparents and grandparents back for hundreds of years, because her mother’s mother were royals in England and Scotland. Once you find a branch of your family that is descended from people who owned land and had titles, the lineage lines are clearly drawn and documented.

My 10th great grandparents were lairds of castles in Scotland and England. They were hanging out with Robert de Bruce. (That picture is of Sir George FitzGerald, “The Fairy Earl”, 16th Earl of Kildare, my 10th great-grandfather.) James II executed someone in my family. If I keep going back, Steve tells me that I’ll probably find that I’m descended from the Normans and from there, it’s a straight shot back to Charlemagne.

Steve’s been playing with this program for the past year and he’s tracked one branch of his family to Charlemagne this way. It’s probably very common.

Sure, the Scotland Lairds are interesting and all. When we go to Scotland this summer, I think we’ll go visit one of the crumbling castles of my ancestors. But I’m more interested in how my great-grandmother, who came from such noble lines, ended up as a housewife in the Southside of Chicago married to an alcoholic worker in the steel mills.

For thousands of years, that side of the family maintained its wealth and privilege, and over three generations slowly became poorer and poorer. By the time they got to the mid 1800’s, they were still doing okay. My dad’s grandmother, Ellen Keefe Norton, grew up in Iowa in an upper middle family of a landowner. She went to finishing school. But she married an alcoholic worker on her father’s farm, who had a side business as a barroom fighter. Later, he worked paving the roads of Chicago and sweeping up at the steel mills. He had a fourth grade education.

My dad wrote about his grandfather for The Atlantic many years ago.

And then if you look at her family tree, there were about three generations of women marrying down or younger sons getting smaller estates in Ireland.

Looking lower on the family tree to my living extended family, we’re a mixed bag. Some are doing pretty well with 10 percent incomes and graduate degrees. Other cousins never recovered from the past with its potato famines, immigration, bad marriages, alcoholism, illness, and borderline Aspergers syndrome. One cousin is already dead. Others never finished high school.

In the past, elites preserved their status for their children with property and inbreeding. Today, we do that with carefully tended savings accounts and education and connections. And probably inbreeding, too. I wonder how stable those systems are.

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29 thoughts on “Downward Mobility

  1. For the record, we Mormons, as a church, became obsessed with genealogy because of doctrines which taught us that our eternal salvation was connected to the salvation of our ancestors, God’s kingdom being one where extended families were (at least potentially) saved and exalted together. So finding out who your ancestors actually are was the first step. Temple work, being baptized for those who had died and lacked the opportunity to do so during this life, eternal progression, etc.–lots of other teachings were tied up with this, and yes, if you were the sort of Mormon who believed in every stray word uttered by any prophet, planets did come in there somewhere. But basically, it all started out with the idea that being saved wasn’t an individual thing, but a family thing. For whatever that’s worth. Glad you’re getting a kick out of it all, Laura!

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    1. Thanks, Russell, for the info. A old boyfriend came from a Mormon family, but had a weird relationship with his family/religion, so I only have a bastardized understanding of church doctrine.

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  2. Many genealogists tend to be somewhat skeptical of claims to be descended from royalty. Apparently, during the trend of interest in genealogy in the 20th century, a lot of shysters would create falsified genealogies. This was (according to my uncle) particularly common among people with interest in American colonial ancestry. For example, see this: https://www.geni.com/people/Eva-van-Sicklen/6000000029404192239 My uncle is pretty adamant that Seclin had no relation to the progenitors of the Van Siclen line in Dutch NY.

    “I’m certainly not going to go back to old churches in Ireland to find the baptismal accounts of the peasants who were my ancestors.”

    Why not? It’s fun! I’ve actually been in the church where my GGG-grandmother’s uncle was a priest and where she was married. But actually, many records are online. If you need help, I do it for free for friends. Well, also for people I don’t know. There’s actually nothing more relaxing than building a tree.

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    1. “Apparently, during the trend of interest in genealogy in the 20th century, a lot of shysters would create falsified genealogies.”

      I’m a big Florence King fan, and she has some hilarious stuff about this. I can’t remember which books it’s in, but back in the early 20th century, people loved creating genealogies that somehow had them descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie, Cleopatra, etc.

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      1. I just think around the eyes the painting resembles you uncannily. I thought maybe there was a program that let you turn photos into old paintings. It would be fun if it was a painting of an actual ancestor.

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      2. Tulip said,

        “I just think around the eyes the painting resembles you uncannily.”

        It is uncanny. The hair does a lot of work, though.

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  3. My family still has lots of land. Between Trump’s trade wars and global warming, it may not be a very good store of value.

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  4. One of my distant forbears on the Merrill side was hanged by the British as a troublemaker in North Carolina not long before the Revolution got started. So at least I come by it honestly.

    On the other side, family legend has it that x-great-grandmother drove her own oxen over the mountains into Tennessee before the Carolinas separated. That’s too early to be a plausible date for white people to have been crossing that way (she would have been ahead of Daniel Boone, for one), but chances are good that my people have been in those areas as long as any non-indigenous folks.

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  5. Steve’s been playing with this program for the past year and he’s tracked one branch of his family to Charlemagne this way. It’s probably very common.

    Not joking. It has been apparently mathematically proven that everyone of European descent is descended from Charlemagne. (and everyone else alive a thousand years ago.)

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/05/07/charlemagnes-dna-and-our-universal-royalty/

    Their results, published today in PLOS Biology, both confirm Chang’s mathematical approach and enrich it. Even within the past thousand years, Ralph and Coop found, people on opposite sides of the continent share a lot of segments in common–so many, in fact, that it’s statistically impossible for them to have gotten them all from a single ancestor. Instead, someone in Turkey and someone in England have to share a lot of ancestors. In fact, as Chang suspected, the only way to explain the DNA is to conclude that everyone who lived a thousand years ago who has any descendants today is an ancestor of every European. Charlemagne for everyone!

    https://gcbias.org/european-genealogy-faq/

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    1. One of the big problems of the DNA research is helping people with their feelings after NPE, not paternity expected… you go back six generations and in that time, SOMEBODY fucked a stable boy! Elizabeth the Great of course had to because Peter III was impotent… Now, those of my ancestors who I knew seem very straitlaced, so of course none of this applies to ME!

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      1. My mother does genealogy. She came across a will that leaves out one child with no explanation (changeling). The group did dna tests (not me) and everyone descended from the changeling is different from those descended from the other children. The changeling’s birth was during the civil war when the mother’s husband was off fighting. Apparently, not his kid. Apparently everyone knew, so need to explain in the will.

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      2. I met with a woman yesterday who found out via DNA that her sister was her half-sister. I’ve narrowed down her father to 1 of two brothers. One of the brothers ran an underground abortion business and was arrested for it, which might be why I can’t find him in the 1940 census. His acknowledged kid is currently a public defender.

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  6. Nice headshot. You look like a senator. I got one this fall and it’s pretty bad. They used make-up to give me some color and made me look like a corpse that has make-up on it.

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  7. Wendy is right about 20th-century shysters making up false genealogies, but the “straight shot back to Charlemagne” is even more problematic than that, because medieval and early modern people often had much bigger reasons than bragging rights to falsify their family trees. Considering there are Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies that trace some kings’ lineage back to the god Odin, a bit of skepticism is probably warranted.

    When I was a kid, some mail-order company tried to convince my grandparents, the children of Eastern European dirt farmers, to buy a fancy “family crest” to hang on the wall. We laughed, but there are still companies out there making these things up and selling them as if they’re historical.

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  8. Jeff S. said,

    “When I was a kid, some mail-order company tried to convince my grandparents, the children of Eastern European dirt farmers, to buy a fancy “family crest” to hang on the wall.”

    Fun fact: Poland at least was OVERRUN with impoverished rural gentry who would indeed have had real coats of arms. But those people would be very aware of their ancestry and wouldn’t need anybody telling them what it was.

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    1. Funner fact: All of those gentry could vote for king.

      Much funner fact: The share of the Polish population that could vote for king was larger than the share of the British population that could vote for parliament.

      (Caveats: 1. They were voting in the local assembly for delegates to the national parliament that would to the actual electing of the king. People who live in a country with an Electoral College should cast no stones. 2. Population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to be particular, as the Lithuanians generally suggest we should. 3. The funner fact was true until either 1795 or 1832, depending on how you look at these things.)

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  9. Passing down property to preserve the family fortune worked because the property was income producing. As long as the future generations were smart enough not to lose the land, it could create income. These days financial assets can fill the same roll. It’s probably easier to blow through the financial assets though. Easy to make a few bad investments, especially if you inherited your money and want to prove you’re just as smart as your parents.

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    1. It’s pretty common to go broke with agricultural land. It’s very easy to borrow against the value and even easier to forget that high crop prices are always a temporary thing. You have to pay taxes and operating expenses even when the crop doesn’t earn a profit that year. If you don’t save operating capital from the good years, or at least stay debt free, you’ll not be able to hold the land.

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    2. MH said,

      “It’s pretty common to go broke with agricultural land. It’s very easy to borrow against the value and even easier to forget that high crop prices are always a temporary thing. You have to pay taxes and operating expenses even when the crop doesn’t earn a profit that year. If you don’t save operating capital from the good years, or at least stay debt free, you’ll not be able to hold the land.”

      Right. And things were somewhat different in past centuries, but people still got themselves into difficulties with agricultural land.

      I’ve beaten up on Thomas Jefferson here before for being such a financial nincompoop–but it wasn’t just Jefferson.

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  10. I remember an article similar to the Charlemagne story that was a bit more depressing. The point was that during most of history, downward mobility was a major demographic rule; the poor simply had so little that their descendants died off, and were replaced by bourgeoisie-turned-poor, who in turn were replaced by nobility-turned-bourgeois, and so on. As a result, most anyone alive today may have poor or working-class ancestors back to 1500ish, but further back than that their ancestry gets increasingly “rich” due to poorer medieval people’s inability to survive.

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    1. The literal survival bias:
      “Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process . . . .”

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    2. Well, a few generations back, my amateur family tree starts showing families with 10 – 18 children per generation. Some branches were quite healthy, in that most children lived to start their own families.

      No fortune can be divided by 18 every generation.

      Large estates were a road to wealth in Britain due to primogeniture and the Corn Laws. The repeal of the Corn Laws, the competition of imported grains, and then the institution the “estate duty” toppled that system. https://taxfoundation.org/downton-abbey-and-death-taxes/

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