What is a “gateway ancestor”?

Once upon a time, when the internet was still a way for scientists to talk to each other, a “gateway ancestor” was someone in your family tree who linked you to known genealogies, or the aristocracy, and enabled you to add a great deal of information.  Almost invariably, a gateway ancestor would be from a family who had money and land, which makes tracing their path through life pre-1837 so much easier.

I came across the expression gateway ancestor for the first time in Anthony Wagner’s popular book English Genealogy, and he described a few of these who had been linked to known genealogies for kings and aristocrats, some in England, and some known to have gone to America in the 17th century.

With the introduction of the internet and online family trees, the expression has necessarily become looser.  The gateway ancestors that Sir Anthony described, were linked into families that had been studied for centuries, and whose family trees had been tweaked and corrected over that time.  Nowadays, one can log into Ancestry or MyHeritage to begin a family history and find very quickly that other people are researching their family history and have managed to take their researches a long way back.  It is tempting indeed to simply accept the work that has been handed to you and add it to your tree.

However, the family trees on online sites are not the same as the established genealogies for landed or aristocratic families.  Many people researching a family line will simply assume that a person with the right name and date of birth is the right person for their family tree, without considering that a family established in Derbyshire for centuries with land and houses, would be unlikely to decamp to Essex for twenty years and then return to Derby.  It’s possible, especially during the civil war or a time of plague or famine, but it needs careful investigation.  Upping sticks from Derby to London and staying there from then on is a common pattern, but having one ancestor out of place in a family which is strongly bonded to a particular county, is not something to accept without further research.

People make mistakes.  I’ve even seen examples where someone has obviously copied the genealogy for an aristocratic family, but has jumped a generation, having a 60 year old woman giving birth, for example, or someone’s daughter being born after their own death.  If a man, that can happen, but only within 9 months of the death of course.  If a woman… there’s a mistake.

Finding a gateway ancestor is a wonderful thing, but whether on Ancestry or in Burke’s peerage, genealogy always needs checking out.

The image illustrating this post is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is attributed to Sita Ram.  It shows a view of a mosque and a gateway at Motijhil and was painted circa 1814-1823.  In common with other American Museums, copyright laws in the US (unlike the UK) don’t allow an individual or institution to claim copyright in a photograph, if the whole of the image is an out-of-copyright image, so it is identified as a public domain photograph.  I wish our copyright laws would be altered to have the same rule, as many museums and other organizations rely on the fact that they can charge a fee for a photograph of an out-of-copyright painting, even when the object or image concerned is owned by the nation.

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