Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History

2d ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2006. 896p., hardcover. Index, illus, maps. $34.95. ISBN 0-8063-1771-7.

When a new edition appears of a genealogical reference book I have found especially useful, I don’t necessarily, automatically, buy the new edition. If the updated information is primarily new addresses and phone numbers, but the meat of the book has stayed essentially the same, . . . well, one can always look up that sort of thing on the Internet. The first edition of Herber’s fine work — which has already acquired the label “Bible of British genealogy” — appeared in 1997 and ran to 674 pages of extremely thorough discussion of sources for research in Britain. The second edition, published in association with the Society of Genealogists, is fully one-third longer. After paging through it at a conference, I counted up my pennies and bought it. And I haven’t regretted the expense.

While most of my own family lines are what some would call “Old American,” their progenitors having arrived here before the 19th century, the same is not necessarily true of many of the in-laws and friends on whose behalf I have carried out research. And even though our legal system owes much to the English common law, there are decided differences between the bureaucratic history of Britain’s unitary form of government and our own federal system. Until comparatively recently, Britain’s principal record-keeping body was the civil parish, and while many of the old volumes from the “parish chest” are now held by the Public Record Office and its branches, they are still organized by the old jurisdictions. Britain never had “public lands” open for claim and settlement, so ownership of real property was traditionally proved by a thick stack of successive title deeds and conveyances. This system, too, has been modernized, but the family researcher will need to understand the older system. The novice British researcher is often told that unless his 19th or 18th century ancestor was wealthy, or at least middle class, there’s no point in searching for a will. And while it’s true that earlier British laws of inheritance spelled out how one’s interest in real property would descend to one’s heirs (by primogeniture, usually), even a workingman had personal possessions and the tools of his trade that he could leave to whomever he wished. One of my own ancestors appears to have arrived in the New World as part of the British military contingent sent to fight “The War of Jenkins’ Ear” (my favorite name for any war, any time . . .), and even though that was in 1739, I was amazed to discover how complete the surviving regimental records were. The author will lead you through that maze, too. In fact, there is no area of recordkeeping, governmental, religious, or private, that Herber does not give consideration to. He’s a lawyer by training and he possesses the trait of making careful distinctions between matters that appear similar but are actually different. He’s also a very talented wordsmith with the knack of clear and concise explanations of sometimes complex topics. Throughout the book, he strews examples and anecdotes from his own well-researched family as examples, most of them thoroughly down to earth. This is not the sort of work most people would read straight through (though some of us enjoy doing exactly that), but you should keep it in mind when you discover that link to a British lineage.

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Published in: on 8 April 2010 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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