Browning was not just any genealogist. He specialised in tracing royal descents for the Gilded Age magnates of the American East Coast and in 1883 he published the first fruits of his research, a volume simply entitled Americans of Royal Descent.
The compiler of this collection of genealogies of American Families traced to Kings, wishes it distinctly understood that he holds himself responsible for only the accuracy of their transcriptions, as they have been reproduced from recognized authorities; from privately printed family histories, and information supplied in manuscript by the families themselves,
and appearing in a genealogy of his mother’s family simply as “Charles Henry Browning, of Philadelphia, Pa.” His initial one hundred and twenty copy print-run must have been successful, for a second edition appeared in 1891, this time entitled Americans of Royal Descent: A Collection of Genealogies of American Families Whose Lineage is Traced to the Legitimate Issue of Kings (no bastards here). In 1898 these were supplemented with The Magna Charta Barons and their American Descendants, whose faux-blackletter title-page still embodies the social and cultural pretensions of fin-de-siècle American society:
After Browning came a host of publications on the same topic. Frederick Lewis Weis’s Ancestral Roots and Magna Charta Sureties were, in many ways, updated versions of Browning’s two works and went through many editions between the first publication of Ancestral Roots in 1950 and its – so far – final incarnation (edited, after Weis’s death, by Walter Lee Sheppard) in 2004. Since then Gary Boyd Roberts has produced two editions of a compendium of these descents, The Royal Descents of 500 (later 600) Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States (1993-2004) and is working on a third, while Douglas Richardson’s Plantagenet Ancestry (2004) and Magna Carta Ancestry (2005) continue both the tradition and the topical division begun by Browning in 1883 into the twenty-first century. The major genealogical journals regularly publish articles on newly discovered descents from royalty for early American immigrants and regular readers of soc.genealogy.medieval will be familiar with the controversy and, at times, acrimony, which can surround discussions of the validity or lack thereof of these pedigrees.
To observe the phenomenon is one thing, to understand it another, and I don’t pretend to do so. When it began in Browning’s Main Line Philly it seems to have been about aggrandisement, about a class of nouveau riche proving that they had the pedigrees to go with their money and were the match for any old world aristocrats they happened to come across (whether the old world aristocrats cared is another story). Now, though, in its popularity across social strata in America it seems to be about something else and I wonder if it’s continuation into the modern era might have something to do with another American fixation which Europeans are especially apt to comment on: the determination with which we hang onto immigrant ethnic identities long after we’ve been stirred into the deracinating melting pot of American culture. I wonder if royal descents, like claims to being Irish, German, or Italian when our parents and grandparents were born in Chicago or New York or Philadelphia, are part of an American attempt to reach back to the European past and make a connection with their increasingly shadowy origins.
What do you think? I’d love to see comments from Americans who have proven royal descents for themselves. What motivated you to undertake the – let’s face it – remarkably time-consuming research to study this sort of pedigree? What about it interests or fascinates you?
 1880 U.S. Census, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, E.D. 127, page 180C, enumerated 5 June by Edward J. Aledo, 118-165, 1632 Spruce Street.
 Browning Family Papers, Finding Aid, Library of Congress; Charles H. Browning, Americans of Royal Descent (Philadelphia, 1883), 17.
 A parallel publication appeared in England in the same year: the first fascicle of the genealogical entrepreneur Joseph Foster’s The Royal Lineage of Our Noble and Gentle Families (London, 1883). Neither refers to the other and whether there was, indeed, some reciprocal influence or they simply represent the Zeitgeist of their Age remains unexplained. We Moderns, however, may at least be entertained to see the royal descent (from Edward III) of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper on page 90 of Foster’s work.
Copyright © 2013 Kelsey Jackson Williams