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Gateway Ancestors

What is a Gateway Ancestor? In tracing any extended ancestry beyond, say, one hundred years ago, we see ancestors clumping into groups, sharing a single geographic location (perhaps the Connecticut Valley, or the Casco Bay area) or a common economic or ethnic identity (say, working-class Irish immigrants in New York City, or wealthy merchant barons intermarried between Newport and Baltimore). Further back in time, as new ‘clumps’ of similar ancestors appear, each new clump is connected to the rest through a single ancestor whom we can call a ‘gateway’. So in broad terms, a gateway ancestor is any individual with known or traceable ancestry in a specific group who intermarries into a target group, and therefore adds a new set of ancestors to his or her descendants in the target group. For example, every immigrant from one country to another is a potential gateway, if his or her descendants can then trace ancestry in the first country. Gateways can also occur within a single geographic area, when someone moves from one distinct social group into another, across relatively distinct religious, economic or racial barriers.

In American genealogy this term is commonly used for immigrants — and usually colonial immigrants —who provide descendants in the New World with significant traceable ancestry in the Old World. In this case, while one may descend from many immigrants, only those whose ancestry is known and traceable can be considered gateways. More narrowly, though, the term in the Americas to distinguish immigrants with traceable lines to royal ancestry in England or Continental Europe. These are the gateway ancestors targeted in Gary Boyd Roberts’s justly popular compilation Royal Descents of 500 Immigrants to the Unites States (forthcoming in a much-revised version). For countless Americans, whether they know it or not, and countless others of European ancestry, these gateways provide a tangible personal link to the medieval world, in the form of descents from medieval kings, queens, popes, crusaders, troubadours, heroes, villains, and saints.

What does one do when one identifies such a gateway in the tree?

I became aware of my first gateway within weeks of my first acute attack of the genealogy bug, when I first began to track my ancestors on blank pedigree-chart sheets at the NEHGS library. One immigrant ancestor, it seems, had a descent from King Edward I (the immigrant ancestor shall remain nameless, because the gateway turned out to be a false one — that’s another story). It was only after a few cycles of finding such apparent gateways and then finding their disproofs that I realized the statistical prevalence of gateways: sooner or later, a gateway is likely to turn up in any sufficiently bushy New England family tree.

What I found was one line of descent from a medieval king to the colonial immigrant, filled with members of the English peerage. I began to look up these people in the Turton’s Plantagenet Ancestry and similar works (including the new Europäische Stammtafeln), to fill out other lines of descent to the immigrant gateway. I xeroxed pages and highlighted as many direct ancestors as I could find in these, pencilling in the cross references to jump from one page to another. I had over a hundred pages from Turton and from Europäische Stammtafeln, which still sit on a shelf with a fat binder clip.

But did I want to enter all these people in a database? I decided against it (at the time I was using a Hypercard stack I had written myself to keep track of my ancestors). I decided to limit the database to people in North America, merely placing an annotation in each gateway’s note field for pre-colonial or royal ancestry. In the years since I have made a few exceptions: for people for whom one or two generations only are known, I have added English parents and great-grandparents. But once I hit a connection to an earlier gateway line, I merely included a note citing the published authorities, and perhaps mentioning some of the more interesting connections.

This choice requires some explanation. Especially since I am a professionally-educated medieval historian, why wouldn’t I make a database of my medieval ancestors? Perhaps there is more than one motivation at work. At the time I first made this decision, I perhaps shared the historians’ disdain for genealogy: I didn’t want to get into an obsessive genealogical pursuit of medieval people with whom I was already acquainted as a historian: perhaps one approach would taint the other! But my preference for citing an authoritative printed treatment of a particular gateway, instead of (perhaps imperfectly) recreating it in my database, also reflected another habit as a historian: when one is writing an article on a particular subject, one does not want to expand the scope infinitely to cover all related subjects, especially if those subjects have been treated elsewhere. Don’t dilute the focus. A good article knows its scope, and provides authoritative pointers to other people’s work on various related subjects. I am trained to be interested in knowing where to find something if I want to pursue it later, rather than to reproduce that information in my own voice.

Our Thirst for Royal Connections

In the old Ancestral File, and now in various WorldConnect databases, and all over the net on individual pages, one finds medieval ancestries for real and alleged colonial gateway ancestors. These are misleading at best and usually completely error-riddled. Among specialists, there has been call for a careful, authoritative, publicly consultable database of medieval nobility (which ultimately would include links to modern people), but this has not yet materialized.

Traditionally, the obsessive quest for illustrious connections is one of the things that has given genealogy a bad name: historically, genealogy has been used by those who want to set themselves apart from others by membership in a privileged class: the Daughters of the American Revolution and other groups were founded to distinguish middle-class Americans in the later 19th-century from members of more recent immigrant groups (Irish, Polish and so-forth).

Sure, every immigrant from one country to another is a potential gateway, as is (within one geographic area), someone who moves from one distinct social group into another (an interracial pairing, or a significant example of upward or downward social mobility). The relative importance of a gateway ancestor, for research purposes, depends on (1) the amount of new and traceable ancestry a gateway brings into the target population, and (2) the number of descendants that gateway has, which insures a large interest base. Based on these two factors, early immigrants with traceable royal ancestry are the most talked about gateways, but not really out of any class-oriented prejudice. Among early immigrants from Europe to the Americas, individuals with noble connections are likely to be traceable to a vastly larger number of ancestors, and thus sustain more interest and offer more connections as ‘gateways’. In contrast, others whose parentage might be known, may still only provide three generations of ancestry, perhaps back to the beginnings of the parish registers and no further: obviously, gentry connections are a ‘gateway’ which is quantitatively superior (for ancestor collectors) as well as offering greater likelihood that someone may be able to learn about specific members of that tree. Thus the prejudicial desire for such ancestors should not be equated simply with elitism.

Non-American gateways

Among early American colonists, ‘gateway ancestors’ can distinguish any immigrant of *known* ancestry from the vast majority whose English origins are unknown; or, further, any individual of traceable noble ancestry from those whose ancestries fizzle out with the creation of parish registers in the 16th century. For those with non-US ancestry, there will be other common gateways in the demographic history of their ancestral populations, such as colonial South American immigrants with the same characteristics as above (any traceable ancestry, or traceable noble ancestry), or early settlers in Australia, etc. Within the medieval period, the term is used for exogamous marriages where a spouse from a different social group brings in new ancestry (for example, the various Byzantine ‘gateways’ into Western royalty in the High Middle Ages, or the Burgundian gateways that bring Carolingian ancestry to the Iberian royals in the early 12th c., etc.). Simply put, the more ‘gateways’ of all types that one can find in one’s ancestry, the more diverse and multilayered will be one’s discernible tree.

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  1. [...] Martin Hollick over at the Slovak Yankee has a photo of a gateway ancestor we share. A gateway ancestor is an ancestor who gives descendants a treaceable path back to a new ancestral population, most [...]

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