Among the British and European elite, family trees were important since they legitimised the succession of property and titles. There was less interest among working people. Migrants to New Zealand often lost contact with their relatives at home and some forgot the family stories.
Those who remembered family history were usually older. As the number of older people in the population increased, and as people lived longer in good health after retirement, there were more people likely to be interested in family history.
Social change made people more remote from their ancestors’ lives and hence more curious about them. The increasing attention to Māori culture made Pākehā more interested in their own identity, and the Māori emphasis on whakapapa was a model.
New Zealand Society of Genealogists
The growing interest in genealogy among Pākehā New Zealanders was reflected in the founding of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists in 1967. In 2016 there were 89 branches and area contacts and almost 6,000 members. Many were older women – women are often the keepers of the family record.
The spread of genealogy was also assisted by the greater availability of genealogical sources. Libraries began to collect in one place material of use to genealogists such as street directories and electoral rolls. A number of guides to family history in New Zealand and genealogical magazines appeared.
Most important was the extraordinary increase in the availability of genealogical sources on the internet – birth, death and marriage records, shipping records, land records and historical newspapers. The content of archives and official registers was increasingly digitised and available online or through data CDs, free or on a user-pays basis. The internet made it possible to make contact with previously unknown distant relatives whose family research overlapped.
These resources made it possible for genealogists to do much research from a computer without having to visit libraries and archives.
DNA and ancestry
DNA testing services emerged to identify genetic groupings (‘haplotypes’) and their association with particular surnames (for males’ Y-chromosome DNA) or remote ancestors many thousands of years ago in Europe and even earlier in Africa (for females’ mitochondrial DNA).
DNA testing can tell us that some of the people whom we thought were ancestors are not our biological kinsfolk, and can also identify previously unknown kinship connections.
Surprises in the family tree
Genetic data has revealed some interesting findings about historical people. It has suggested that Queen Victoria was not the child of her mother’s husband at the time of her conception. DNA testing also suggested that the US President Thomas Jefferson may have fathered children by his black slave Sally Hemings, who may also have been the half-sister of the president’s wife.
Genealogy and history
In the past academic and professional historians used to disparage genealogists as ‘granny hunters’ who clogged the reading rooms of archives. Genealogists were critical of historians as only interested in the grand sweep of political history. However as historians have become interested in the social history of ordinary people, they have recognised the competence of many genealogists and drawn on their work. Genealogists in turn have drawn on the work of historians to enrich their understanding of their ancestors’ lives.