By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
In times past, the study of family history was the arena of the upper class. Heraldry and genealogy were means to an end: to prove claims to land, titles, and offices. Therefore in America after the Revolution, genealogy was suspect-along with anything else that reeked of British class division and aristocracy.
All of that changed with John Farmer, who Americanized the study of genealogy. Born in Massachusetts in 1789, John Farmer was an antiquarian like many other New Englanders. He collected antiquities and books, and studied local history and the achievements of early Americans. He was also interested in genealogy. He corresponded with other antiquarians all over New England, and he led a new movement in which the study of genealogy was used to learn about and honor one's American ancestors. He was the first to make genealogy systematic; instead of relying on a coat of arms, genealogy for him meant researching one's ancestors in family Bibles and church records. Other New Englanders began to follow his lead.
He published histories of Billerica, Massachusetts and Amherst, Hew Hampshire; he also published A Gazetteer of New Hampshire. He also published the essential Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England; having since been revised and expanded, this work is still in use today. He published more than twenty genealogical books in all.
He died in 1839, but the other antiquarians with whom he corresponded and who had adopted his methods of systematic genealogical research founded the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the first genealogical society in America. The society was founded 1845 by five Bostonians: Charles Ewer, Lemuel Shattuck, Samuel Gardner Drake, John Wingate Thornton, and William Henry Montague. The original name proposed was "the New England Historical and Genealogical Society," but the Massachusetts Historical Society protested the use of the word "historical" in their name and so the society was called the New England Historic Genealogical Society instead. The journal of the society, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, has been published quarterly since 1847.
Today the society's library in Boston is home to more than 12 million records, and has a staff of more than fifty people. Every week, the society scans and digitizes one new database to be made available online. Its website has more than 100 million names in its databases. The legacy of John Farmer and those other early antiquarians is far-reaching, and their contribution should be appreciated by all who use the records of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and all Americans who enjoy learning more about their genealogy.