Carolyn Earle Billingsley's Web Site

The Formation and Significance of Kinship Groups in Early America

When Europeans moved to the Americas, they had to rebuild kinship groups, which were the basis of their social, political, economic, and religious lives. Learn how such groups grew and prospered, and how to use this knowledge in your genealogy.

Intended Audience:
All levels, but probably best suited for Intermediate or Advanced

Outline of presentation:

Kinship's role in shaping political and economic power has long been recognized. In fact, it was imported from England and other European societies. Most societies and cultures have long been founded on a system of kinship; family has always the first and longest-lasting type of societal organization until after the Industrial Revolution and the founding of modern states. Because kinship's role in gaining and holding political, economic, and social control has long been recognized, the data on this topic is particularly rich and is of great significance to genealogists. Because the individuals and families genealogists are tracing were parts of kinship groups, itís important for the genealogist to be aware of the details of kinship group formation in America.

  • The place to begin if youíre going to learn about kinship in the American colonies is with Bernard Bailynís Pulitzer-Prize winning study Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the American Revolution.
  • Changing demographics are indications of the colonies making the transition to families and kinship groups by shortly after 1700.
  • Marriage is the nexus of kinship, and since people usually married someone nearby (which ultimately included relatives), most areas eventually became saturated with kin.
  • During the colonial era, the influence and pervasiveness of kinship networks was not confined to the South.
  • Even in military life, another example of a political power structure, kinship groups were extraordinarily active, both in early New England and in the South.
  • The impact of kinship on political, social, and economic power was strikingly similar throughout the colonies.
  • This concept is reinforced in Merrill D. Peterson's Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. Peterson writes that "the structure of politics in Virginia consolidated power in a close-knit gentry class. . . . The House of Burgesses [has been described] as one huge cousinship. . . . Jefferson . . . was a member of the club and could always count half a dozen or more blood relations at the Capitol."
  • All the facts demonstrate that kinship played a large role in social, political, and economic relations during the colonial era. Political dynasties were the norm, and the web of family relationships assuaged interclass conflict, mitigating tensions that might have been expected to arise in unequal power relationships throughout colonial American society.
  • In the antebellum period, there is some evidence that in the Northeast, where more urbanization and stronger, more organized institutions outside the family existed, the power of kinship groups diminished during the nineteenth century.
  • Slaveholding planters formed networks of families and used their control and ownership of ever-increasing networks of slave families to strengthen their control of southern society.
  • But it was not only white families that formed kinship groups. Lorena Walsh's work provides major insights about the links between free and slave kinship groups.
  • And as people moved across the country, kinship groups continued to form and changeówhen an individual moved, it was virtually always in the company of a host of family: kinship groups stuck together.
  • Kinship groups split and re-formed over time and space, yet none of their moves or changes took place outside of a group of kindred.
  • These changing boundaries are not always obvious, either to the present-day researcher or to the contemporary members of the group.
  • People in early America recognized that their success was dependent on their inclusion within a group of kin and they stuck together.
  • Nor were young men the only heads of families migrating to the frontier. Many examples could be proffered to show that migration was not exclusively or even mostly a young man's venture.
  • The complicated pattern of migration for the kinship group as a whole is difficult to comprehend in its entirety.
  • Given the membership of early and antebellum Americans in these kinship groups, it is impossible to truly examine either migration or settlement patterns without taking kinship into account.
  • The story of migration and the resultant settlement patterns is the story of groups rather than individuals, relocating the stereotypical rugged individual seeking "elbow room" largely to the category of myth.
  • Telling the story completely calls for using genealogical methodology to identify groups whose dynamics were based on kinship, the locus of which, at least in early southern society, was marriageóthe exchange of children between families. These bonds between families formed the social capital that facilitated successful migration, settlement, prosperity, and even at times survival.
  • With awareness of the existence of kinship groups and of their characteristics, genealogists can enhance their research and more successfully knit together their family trees.
  • Moreover, by reading the types of books listed in the bibliography, particularly if itís about a particular area of interest, the genealogical researcher will learn a great deal about the social history affecting their ancestors.