Friday, August 7, 2009

Bookends Friday with Communities of Kinship

A genie friend once described Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier by Carolyn Earle Billingsley was "a giant kinship determination project," referring to the seventh and final requirement in the portfolio for the Board for the Certification of Genealogists. But actually it's not -- that hard genealogical work was already done before the book was written, and the underlying facts about the Keesee kinship group are not footnoted to a genealogical density.

Billingsley argues that historians will understand the past better if they pay more attention to kinship, and finding a rich lode of examples in her genealogical work on the Keesees. The point is that just checking to see who has the same surnames will not do, because we're talking "family" out to first and second cousins and people who marry second cousins. Her summary is better than mine:

The received wisdom of ante-bellum southerners migrating ever westward as rugged individuals or in nuclear families units is patently false -- the overwhelming majority migrated as family groups and formed settlements of kin. In a society with weakly organized or nonexistent institutions, families remained the main organizing principle in the everyday lives of antebellum southerners. Kinship groups also provided the social capital necessary for success, from shared emotional and physical burdens to financial capital or aid and even to survival at times. {147-48}
Of course, I didn't need much convincing and you probably don't either. What strikes me is that this book is (or ought to be) part of an ongoing conversation -- not about whether kinship matters -- but about how much and under what circumstances. Even in the Alabama-Arkansas-Texas frontier she describes, sometimes kin break off and go elsewhere; some stay behind. In one case a whole group of kin provides substantial security -- for a man whose kinship connection to them remains undetermined! {52-53}

And of course, from a Midwestern viewpoint, the question of comparison looms large. (Susan Gray's The Yankee West, which explores the ongoing tension between making money and maintaining family ties in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, seems like a good place to start.) How much different was the role of kinship to the settlement of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin as compared to the "Old Southwest"? Have any historians or genealogists taken up Billingsley's challenge and written articles and books I have either forgotten or not heard of yet?


Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for talking about my book and I liked what you said. One misperception that exists due to an error is that the documentation isn't up to standards. That is because the original draft explained that there was a link to a website with all the documentation, but somehow, in the revisions, that statement was removed. Due to the limitations of budgets in university presses, they could not and would not allow the extensive family trees with documentation that genealogists such as you and I require. My website is at, and there is a link to a version of the Keesee family tree with the documentation. The database is now over 8000 individuals connected to the Keesees (but not updated online) and all is documented. Alas, the emphases of historians is not that of genealogists such as ourselves, so I had to fall somewhere in the middle with the book. Regards, Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Ph.D.

Harold said...

Carolyn, thanks for the amplification! I figured that one way or another the historians might be uneasy about the footnote density genealogy requires.