John Barrett Robb, Family Historian

What I Do, How, and Why

John McKee Gay
My ggGrandfather, b. 1797

My ggGrandfather, John McKee Gay

I am a professional family historian (“genealogist”) offering a full range of services to the public—from transcribing and interpreting ancient documents, through specific lineage research, to full-blown multi-family compilations over several generations. I am also available strictly as a consultant, to help less-expert family historians deal with specific knotty problems.

My particular areas of expertise include colonial Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New England, and their westward emanations into Tennessee, Kentucky, and the old Northwest Territories, and I am making a specialty of the difficult problem of linking mid-westerners in the first every-name USCensus of 1850, to their roots in the original 13 colonies.

My research is based largely on primary, or “best”, sources—the original documents themselves—at least for the key evidence. However, to the extent that considerations of time and money obtrude, I also make use of careful transcriptions, abstracts, and indexes. In my formal published reports, all asserted facts and conclusions are backed by scholarly citations to the source, and by informed and well-reasoned interpretative argument that takes into explicit consideration all ambiguous and contradictory evidence.

How Genealogists Become Family Historians

Webster’s defines genealogy as “an account of the descent” of a person or family from an ancestor, whereas history is said to “record and explain past events”. Yet even though genealogy seems to have a much narrower focus than history, it turns out that to render a true account of one’s descent, the genealogist must cultivate the same disciplines and techniques, and acquire the same kinds of specialized knowledge, as a professional historian.

My own story may serve as an example. I fell into this fascinating hobby when I decided to sort through several boxes of old albums and a few family papers I inherited from my Grandma Robb. These pointed back, as far as my Robb ancestry was concerned, to one John Robb of colonial Pennsylvania. Although these were the pre-internet days, I lived near a National Archives, and I had little trouble tracing my line back to the 1790 USCensus, in which I found no fewer than six households headed by John Robbs. Since only the names of the household heads are given in the early USCensuses, I could see no way of determining which was my ancestor.

I was eventually able to address this seemingly insuperable problem many years later, only after I had learned something about the history of the settlement of the Pennsylvania frontier, about the records left behind, and (not least), how to decipher and interpret them. Most genealogists seem to be satisfied to just copy someone else’s work out of a book, or from the internet, but I have always had a predilection for working things out for myself, and I have long since learned that in family history, only the very best secondary sources, the published products of the best amateur and professional genealogists, can be trusted to get things right, and then only most of the time.

I’ve also learned that to research a particular line, one must widen one’s field of study to encompass all families of the same surname, as well as the in-laws, neighbors, and family friends of members of the focus family, as indicated by the names found associated with them in the records. Thus, I had to learn as much as I could about all six of the 1790 John Robb householders, and to try to account for their ancestry as well. And although I have by now done enough work to support a reliable, evidenced, account of my own family line, I have inevitably become, somewhere along the way, a Robb family historian, interested in all the early Pennsylvania Robbs.

While most of us probably start out, thus, with the simple idea of learning more about our particular ancestors (or of merely “collecting dead relatives” as genealogists have traditionally been wont to do—and by the way, Laverne Galeener-Moore's amusing 1987 book of that title is worth looking up), we end up learning much more about their extended families and historical contexts than we ever thought we wanted to know. Yet only thus do the shadowy figures we claim as our ancestors begin to emerge as real people—often people uncannily like us—trying to make the most of the familial dispositions and talents, or wrestling with familiar family demons, but embedded in a fascinatingly different chapter of history.

Why Does Family History Matter?

In a nutshell, because each of us, as individuals, is very largely the product of our history—genetic, familial, and cultural—to a much greater extent than most ever suspect. Americans in particular like to think of themselves as self-invented, and to a remarkable extent, many are: yet a predilection for individualistic self-development is itself a trait that runs both in families, and in cultures. Or, where it surfaces in individuals born into more traditional cultures, it is likely to promote emigration to a more congenial cultural matrix, while others remain rooted.

Thus, even the most unique and individualistic of us is embedded in an historical context that extends far beyond our earliest memories. It is when certain of us begin to become aware of this, usually in late middle age, that the “genealogy bug” bites.

If we are fortunate enough to have known our grandparents as people, or other relatives of their generation, then we probably have a certain sense of being part of an extended family, or even of a set of interlocking “allied” families. And in fact this is the common experience of people who have grown up in small towns with settled populations, where it seems that every third person you meet on the street is at least a distant cousin, courtesy aunt or uncle, or family friend. Of course, to certain anomalous members of these small-town families, the constant reminders of being embedded in a familiar matrix not wholly congenial may eventually prove intolerable and provoke an individual emigration to some exciting, diverse, and preferably remote big city.

Yet however much we may be inclined in our youth to repudiate certain unfortunate family attitudes and traits, it is a common observation that as we age and reach full psychological maturity, we almost inevitably, and often contrary to our will, become more like our own parents. It is as though we are finding ourselves guided in certain directions by forces beyond our power to grasp. I am not referring here, though, to the direct instrumentality of a higher power, because I think there are more mundane, scientifically accessible forces at work.

For one thing, as infants and impressionable children, we unconsciously absorb attitudes and behaviors from the people around us that will accompany us and guide us through life. And the people most usually around us are—the members of our own family. Since our parents were once children themselves, it follows that these attitudes and behaviours can easily replicate over many generations, all below the level of conscious awareness, and thus practically immune to any criticism we may receive from outside the family—although we will probably learn well enough from painful experience the desirability of presenting ourselves as “normal“ people.

It may be objected that each new family foundation represents a coming-together of two sets of attitudes and traditions, and that this should rapidly tend to homogenize and normalize distinctive family patterns. There is some validity to this observation, but I think it loses much of its force when the powerful factor of selectivity in mating is considered. If the views and attitudes of the partners don’t sufficiently mesh, the marriage is not likely to last, or be productive of many children to perpetuate the family patterns.

Even more important to the persistence of family patterns: “the genes will out”. Indeed, the more deeply I research particular ancestral lines, the more impressed I become by the survivability of genetic traits over many many generations. One indicator of this is that generation-skipping often seems more the rule then the exception, with children frequently growing up to resemble certain grandparents, in some ways, more than their own parents, even though they may have had little or no personal acquaintance with those grandparents. Occasionally, too, there are striking “throwbacks”, the sudden re-emergence of a particular trait, not only of observable physiognomy, but of mind and character, which last occurred, say, in a great- or even great-great-grandparent largely lost to living memory, or if preserved at all, only in handed down stories, or in a few ghostly family photos.

Anyone who has ever browsed with attention through an old family photo album is likely to have been occasionally struck by eerie resemblances of long-forgotten family members to living descendants previously thought unique, but it is only when the family historian has done his work well enough to have resurrected something of the life history and personality of such remote forebears, that the true shock of recognition occurs, and awakens ones desire to know more.

Then too, the accumulating recent studies on the fates of identical twins reared apart, has not only reinforced the idea of genes as destiny, it also opens up the window of genes as possibility. The different circumstances in which the twins were often raised, caused a differential flowering of their latent potential.

“Nature” versus “nurture“. Which is primary? I think nurture typically re-inforces nature. That is, families develop the particular attitudes and behaviours which their genetic constitution favors, as though to make the best of a good thing. And the choice of mates further reinforces many of these same patterns—although it also opens the door to sometimes unexpected diversifications that are themselves latent in the genes. As my knowledge and understanding of my own ancestors grows, so too does my sense of relatedness to them. I have even developed a sense of being, as it were, their representative in contemporary times. A fanciful conceit, perhaps, but I think our ancestors have a lot to teach us about our undiscovered selves, about the selves we were perhaps meant to be, or might have been.

It is our most recent ancestors, no doubt, who have the most to tell us about ourselves, but by making the effort to resurrect long-forgotten ancestors in the context of their times, we may discover a window on those times through which we may peer with a special clarity owing to our common genetic and traditional inheritance. History may thus come to life for us in a very personal and vivid way.

One final point. We have generally been taught by conventional history to regard certain outstanding personalities, the leaders (or premier thinkers and artists) of their time, as the driving forces of historical change, and a leader can certainly stand up in the trenches and yell “Charge!” and change the outcome of the battle thereby. But it is the people who follow him, or who don’t, and what they do subsequently on their own initiative, who ultimately determine the course of history. I think that leaders are important, but that they typically emerge (with a certain inevitability) from amongst the lost-to-history “little people”, to exhort them and show them the way to accomplish some inchoate collective purpose, which we may best discern, perhaps, by learning to look at the events of the past through the eyes of our own more ordinary ancestors.



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invisible writing

Editorial Notes

Generic Surnames are Rendered in All-Caps

On this site when a surname appears with all its letters capitalized it is meant to stand, generically, for all possible spelling variants of that surname. Thus, I avoid the awkwardness and inadequacy of constructions such as “Dennison/Denniston” or “Dennis[t]on”—inadequate because these two variants only scratch the surface of the spelling possibilities. In referring to individuals by surname, or to individual instances of a surname in the records, I shall of course use either the standard spelling for that individual (as I know it, or suppose it to be), or the specific literal spelling as I find it in the record.

The particular generic spelling I have adopted for each surname is in most instances the most common modern spelling of the name, as determined by its prevalence in the most recently available US or UKCensuses.

Embedded Quotations & Punctuation

I deliberately deviate from the usual, but unfortunate, American editorial convention of placing terminating punctuation inside quoted text when said punctuation isn’t part of the text itself. I follow the British rules instead, though not to the point of adopting their ‘inverted commas’ in place of our good old “double-quotes”. Hiding the commas denoting a series like “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D,” is also rejected in favor of the much clearer “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”. This example also shows the semantic desirability of using the final comma of such a series, lest the separate elements “C” and “D” be mistaken as an inevitable pair.

“Scotch-Irish” not “Scots-Irish”

On this site, and in all my writings, you will encounter the term “Scotch-Irish”, and not “Scots-Irish”—which I regard as a creeping pedantry. The modified term violates long-established usage, and raises the question of whether the person using it means to refer to a different class of persons than the historical people who migrated first, from Scotland to Ireland in the early 17th century, and then on to America in the next. This people called themselves “Scotch-Irish”, or just “Irish”, and it is a fundamental scholarly principle, as well as a common courtesy, to respect the form and spelling of a name of a person or place asserted by the people to whom it pertains.

If it be objected that “Scotch” is slang, so too are many thousands of words that the most impeccable and erudite writers set down every day.

If it be objected that the Scots nowadays prefer to refer to themselves as “Scots” rather than “Scotch”, I note that “Scotch-Irish” is an American term, deeply embedded in our history, and if the Scots themselves have meanwhile created the neologism “Scots-Irish” to refer to certain of their emigrants, then we should properly italicize this new term to “Scots-Irish” like any other word borrowed from a foreign source. Thankfully, no one has yet attempted to bowdlerize the equally American term “Pennyslvania Dutch” (used to denote the fellow pioneers of the Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish) to “Pennsylvania Deutsche”, even though these German immigrants probably didn’t coin the terms themselves, as did the Scotch-Irish their moniker.

“Scotch-Irish” is a compound noun, and as language expert Steven Pinker has pointed out in The Language Instinct (1994), the parts of compound nouns are not (contrary to the writings of many language mavens) subject to the usual strictures of grammar; why then should their parts be subject to ex post facto revisions in spelling or form? As language maven and novelist Kingsley Amis points out in his own language book, The King's English (1997), unless we are prepared to give up “Scotch whisky”, or speak of butterscots, or hopscots, or Scots Pine or Fur (or for that matter Scots Tape), we have no business tinkering with the established term “Scotch-Irish”, or (I would add) gratuitously imposing political correctness upon our defenseless Scotch-Irish ancestors.

Some More Ancestors

Maude Katherine (Orth) Robb, 1890

Maude Katherine (Orth) Robb
My Grandmother, aged 12, 1890


William Arthur Vawter,  abt 1915 Dr. Charles Gordon Fuller,  abt 1902

William Arthur Vawter, abt 1915   &   Dr. Charles Gordon Fuller, c1902

My maternal gGrandfathers

John George Robb in his 1903 Olds
My gGrandfather, aged about 60

John George Robb & Sons, abt 1899
John George Robb & Sons, abt 1899
(my Grandfather Ray, is at right)

JBR, Mom, & best friend Eric, 1943
JBR, Mom, & best friend Eric, 1943

JBR couchant, at 1, 1943
JBR couchant, at 1, 1943

Last updated 11Jul2013
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