Genealogy and the Law Comments (1)

HLS Student. February 2, 2010

One of the great things about being at HLS is that so many of the students and faculty here have great connections. That means that we get all kinds of speakers giving presentations. Today I went to a brown bag lunch sponsored by Harvard Law School Latter-Day Saints Student Association. Suzannah Beasley is a professional genealogist who just happens to be a married to a law student. Suzannah owns her own genealogy company and has written several books on her own family history.

Suzannah walked us through the process of researching her own family history in order to demonstrate all the different sources of information that can be used to conduct one’s own family research. Interestingly, most of the documents that genealogists base their research on are legal. I was surprised to see how many public records are now being digitized. Census reports for example, are now available on sites like ancestry.com, which I also learned is the third most subscribed site out there. According to at least one survey, something like sixty percent of the population is interested in their family history.

Genealogists are not just interested in knowing who people’s ancestors are, they also want to know what kinds of lives they lived, who their friends were and what they did for a living. A lot of this research is done through the use of county records. A lot of counties kept stories about their residents documented and they can still be found today. Obviously we don’t do this anymore because there are just too many of us. Perhaps some day people will look back at their ancestors’ facebook pages and twitter feeds to find out what kinds of lives they led. County records are probably as skewed in their perspective on the way people lived as facebook is today but at least they help identify things like profession, friendships and perhaps family ties that aren’t recorded in other places.

Suzannah also demonstrated how useful deeds can be. It was once custom when recording deeds to include along with the deed a great deal of identifying information about the landowners. One example she showed us included where the family had come from, how many children they had, and what their birthdays and ages were.

Another very insightful research instrument is the probate system. Using wills, genealogists can identify how close different family members and friends were, to the extent that wills reflect the truth of these matters, and who depended on the decedent for care, etc.

So what this all tells me is that the legal system is pretty far reaching. Not only does the law have a great deal of influence on how we live our lives from day to day, but it also influences the way that our descendants will be able to find information about us years from now and the kind of picture that these documents will paint for them. I’m interested in seeing just how far back I can trace my family line and luckily, there was a librarian at the talk who mentioned that instead of paying the membership fee for ancestry.com, we could use e-resources (the Harvard Library system’s research sources) to gain access to some of the ancestry.com site’s features.

– Elizabeth

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