Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier
Alabama Review, Jul 2005 by Glover, Lorri
Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier. By Carolyn Earle Billingsley. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. xi, 215 pp. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8203-2509-0. $19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8203-2510-4.
Before earning her Ph.D. in history, Carolyn Earle Billingsley worked as a professional genealogist. Communities of Kinship blends her two crafts, and with this monograph she seeks to reveal how genealogical methodologies can advance historical analysis of southern families and culture. Billingsley argues that kinship lay at the center of antebellum southern life but remains under-analyzed by scholars studying the history of the region. According to her, only by expanding their use of genealogical approaches can historians fully appreciate the power of kinship in virtually every aspect of antebellum southerners' lives.
Billingsley begins her book with an extensive exploration of the terms and theories of kinship, pointing out that while historians occasionally invoke kinship in their descriptions of the early South, they seldom rigorously reconstruct kin networks in the way that genealogists do. Few scholars, she maintains, go beyond marriage records or surname matches in their analyses of kin. And without using genealogical approaches, she posits, scholars can never fully appreciate extra-nuclear family bonds. These ties to a wide array of consanguine, affinal, and even fictive kin mattered far more in the antebellum South than in the North or in contemporary America, according to Billingsley, because fewer public institutions existed in the early South. Family, broadly conceived, fulfilled a host of functions-practical, political, and spiritual-and formed the foundation of life for most antebellum whites.
In order to test these theories, Billingsley traces the kin ties of the Keesee family, from which she is descended, from their Tidewater roots in the eighteenth century through the erosion of their family power in the postbellum Southwest. Thomas Keesee was born in Virginia in 1778 and died in Arkansas in 1861. In the intervening years, he and numerous members of his nuclear and extended families moved to Tennessee, then Alabama, and finally Arkansas. Some of his descendants eventually migrated to Texas. At every move, they traveled with and settled near kinfolk. Thus the repopulation of the Southwest by whites depended on kin support. Neighborhoods and kin networks became synonymous, as migrating southerners lived physically surrounded by relatives. On occasion, members of the family separated, with some migrating farther west and others remaining behind. But "none of their moves or changes took place outside of a group of kindred" (p. 71). Billingsley includes a number of charts of neighborhood ties and migratory maps to convey visually the information collected in her database of the Keesee family and to reinforce the point that kinship drove westward settlement. Kinship similarly lay at the heart of religious identity. As with communities, kin and congregation usually overlapped on the southern frontier. Although members of the family changed denominational affiliation, they seldom did so without kin influence.
Deeply immersed in family ties, the Keesees appear in Billingsley's narrative as acquisitive and upwardly mobile. They sought inclusion in the planter elite and achieved that status by cooperating with their relatives and pooling their resources. Members of the Keesee network understood that economic and political power went hand in hand in the early South, and they used their kinship ties, particularly strategic marriages, to rise in their communities. Kinship identity, argues Billingsley, informed social status. An individual might not own substantial land or slaves himself, but he could claim a planter identity by virtue of his family membership. Kinship thus enabled the Keesees to expand onto the southern frontier, to build communities and congregations, and to join the ranks of the dominant planter elite.
Much of this, Billingsley's final chapter explains, came undone after the Civil War. Confederate defeat ended slavery and thereby undermined the wealth and power of planter families such as the Keesees. Moreover, the South experienced greater institutionalization after the war, and larger numbers of banks, schools, and government agencies made kinship less vital in the postbellum era. Although the ideas in this chapter, as with the earlier ones, will not appear terribly innovative to most southern historians, the rigor of the research methodology is impressive.
Billingsley will probably not succeed in convincing scholars to elevate kinship to a "category of analysis complementary to and potentially as powerful as race, class, and gender" (p. 1). But her work does reveal that the Keesees (and probably all southern whites) defined family broadly and relied on kin extensively. She argues convincingly that genealogy offers some useful and underutilized tools for professional historians.
University of Tennessee
Copyright University of Alabama Press Jul 2005
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved