John Farmer: Contributions to American Genealogy

Portrait of John Farmer, New Hampshire Historical Society

Founded in 1845, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is famous for being the first genealogical society in the United States. As we mark our 175th anniversary, we should reflect on the historical context in which the founders established NEHGS, and the developments in genealogical thinking prior to 1845.

One man associated with this new era of American genealogy was John Farmer. He has been called “the founder of systematic genealogy in America”[1] and “the most distinguished genealogist and antiquary of this country.”[2]

On the History section of our website you can find a tribute to John Farmer:

“The founders of NEHGS also acted to make permanent the systematic work of the first generation of genealogical researchers, especially as led by John Farmer (1789–1838). Before Farmer’s efforts, tracing one’s ancestry was seen by some as an attempt by colonists to social standing within the British Empire, an aim that was counter to the new republic’s egalitarian, future-oriented ethos.

As Fourth of July celebrations commemorating the Founding Fathers and heroes of the Revolutionary War became increasingly popular, however, the pursuit of ‘antiquarianism,’ which focused on local history, became increasingly a way to honor the achievements of early Americans.

Farmer capitalized on the increasing acceptability of antiquarianism to frame genealogy within the early republic’s ideological framework of pride in one’s American ancestors. In the 1820s, Farmer corresponded with various antiquarians in New England and became a coordinator, booster, and contributor to this burgeoning movement, which gradually gained a devoted American audience. Though Farmer died in 1839, his efforts in part led to the creation of NEHGS.”[3]

He was born on 12 June 1789 at Chelmsford, Massachusetts, the son of John and Lydia (Richardson) Farmer. He died on 13 August 1838 at Concord, New Hampshire. Farmer never had a family of his own but dedicated his life to historical study; he is best known for his compilations of various historical materials to create family genealogies and local histories, sources which we as genealogists still revere to this day. Farmer’s approach to genealogical work paved the way for the founders of NEHGS to create the society and encourage others to research their own family histories.

The importance of John Farmer’s work to American genealogical research was also illustrated by the fact that his memoir was published in the very first issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1847.

NEHGS holds many of Farmer’s works, which are housed in our rare books and manuscript collections.

  • John Farmer papers, 1810–1834 [manuscript]. These papers contain family correspondence, compiled genealogy on the Farmer family, and statistical, biographical, and historical notes relating to New Hampshire. The correspondence often contains data from abstracted records, compiled genealogies, biographical sketches, and/or local history notes.
  • A family register of the descendants of Edward Farmer: in the line of the youngest branch of his family (Concord, N.H.: George Hough, 1813).
  • An historical memoir of Billerica, in Massachusetts: containing notices of the principal events in the civil and ecclesiastical affairs of the town, from its first settlement to 1816 (Amherst, N.H.: R. Boylston, 1816).
  • An historical sketch of Amherst in the county of Hillsborough, in New Hampshire, from the first settlement to the present period (Amherst, N.H.: R. Boylston, 1820).
  • A Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England (1829): the Register memoir described this as his “great work.”[4]
  • B. Moore, A Gazeteer of the state of New-Hampshire (Concord, N.H.: J.B. Moore, 1823), a collaborative work.
  • Jeremy Belknap, The history of New Hampshire (Dover, N.H.: S.C. Stevens and Ela Wadleigh, 1831). Farmer edited this 1831 edition to include more biographical information than the original 1812 publication.
  • A catechism of the history of New-Hampshire, from its first settlement to the present period for the use of schools and families (Concord, N.H.: Hoag & Atwood, 1830).
  • A list of the graduates, and those who have received degrees, at all the New England colleges, from their foundation….forming a complete index to all the triennial catalogues of all the colleges in New England (Boston: Perkins, Marvin & Co., 1835).

A quote from Farmer’s 1847 memoir sticks with me as I reflect on his contributions to the study of family history.

“[he] well understood the general indifference of the public to pursuits of this nature. The direction of the living and moving crowd is onward; and he who busies himself in gathering up the memorials of the past, will be left behind-himself and his labors too generally unrewarded and forgotten.”[5]

While this may be true in some respects, the efforts of Farmer did make a difference in American genealogical studies and his efforts are not forgotten. The 175th anniversary of the founding of NEHGS is a perfect occasion to bring his accomplishments back to light.

Sources

  1. “Memoir of John Farmer, M.A., late corresponding secretary of the New Hampshire Historical Society,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 1 [1847].
  2. Nathaniel Lane Taylor, “Genealogist John Farmer Discovers his Ancestry,” Register 161 [2006].
  3. Francois Weil, “John Farmer and the Making of American Genealogy,” The New England Quarterly 80 [2007]: 418-19.
  4. Guide to the John Farmer Papers, http://digitalcollections.americanancestors.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15869coll32/id/2199
  5. History of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, https://www.americanancestors.org/about/history

Notes

[1] Nathaniel Lane Taylor, “Genealogist John Farmer Discovers his Ancestry,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 161 [2006]: 62.

[2] “Memoir of John Farmer, M.A., late corresponding secretary of the New Hampshire Historical Society,” Register 1 [1847]: 9.

[3] History of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. https://www.americanancestors.org/about/history

[4] Guide to the John Farmer Papers. http://digitalcollections.americanancestors.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15869coll32/id/2199

[5] “Memoir of John Farmer, M.A.,” Register 1 [1847] 18.

Michelle Norris

About Michelle Norris

Michelle holds a master’s degree in history from Salem State University, where she specialized in women in colonial New England. She completed her bachelor’s degree with concentrations in history and gender studies from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Michelle has a background in public history and has worked with the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, the Beverly Historical Society, and the Sargent House in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her research interests include women’s history, society and culture, early America, and the American Revolution.

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