Virginia Controversies

Telling Stories

This week’s readings cover a wide range of topics, from looking into the United State’s obsession with genealogical studies, to the myths of little known historical figures, and finally examining the influence and history of Virginia’s First Families. A Nation of Descendants, despite only being one chapter out of a larger book, provided such an in-depth history about genealogy in the U.S. that this one chapter can single handedly connect to nearly ever other topic we’ve talked about in this class. The obsession with heredity led to the creation of hereditary organizations that are still around today. Furthermore, genealogy has connections to the eugenics movement, to racial segregation, to Native American sovereignty, and so much more. I think this was a great reading to end on for our final blog post, because it encompasses so much of what we’ve been discussing all semester long.

The Lee Family podcast also tied into this reading because the Lees are one of those families that can trace their lineage back to the founding of America. I also believe it is a nice tie in from last week, when we were discussing the Lee Monument. Since we only had the class listen to this singular podcast, I’m very interested in seeing what they will find about some of the other first families we have selected for our in-class activity. While I have done some preliminary research of my own, I tried to leave things open so I can learn some things alongside the rest of the class.

The final reading for this week was the story of Elizabeth Van Lew. I was surprised to have never heard of Van Lew, especially since she played such an integral role as a Union spy during the Civil War. However, learning more about her abnormal history and her beliefs makes it easy to see why Virginia, who for years suppressed the winning narrative in favor of the Confederate “lost cause” would encourage others to forget one “Crazy Bet.”

Here are some sample questions we will hopefully cover during the discussion this week:

  1. What connections do we see between the practices or genealogy found in this chapter, and other readings from earlier in the semester? More specifically, how does racial segregation, the eugenics movement, Native American sovereignty, or another other topic we’ve previously discussed tie into this?
  2. What does Van Lew’s story tell us about the role of women during the Civil War and during Reconstruction?
  3. Robert E. Lee’s surrender is considered to mark the end of the era where Virginia’s first families dominated Virginia politics, economics, and history. Do you think this is true? Or has that control integrated into the Virginia Way?


Morgan, Francesca. “I Could Love Them, Too: Genealogy Practices and White Supremacy.” In A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in U.S. History, 19–51. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Ness, Robert Van. “First Families of Virginia: The Lees.” Virginia History Podcast, January 27, 2020.

Varon, Elizabeth R. “Elizabeth van Lew: Southern Lady, Union Spy.” In Virginia Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Cynthia A Kierner and Sandra Gioia Treadway, Vol. 1. University of Georgia Press, 2014.

One Comment

  • Sellers

    I honestly didn’t realize it would fit quite so well when I assigned it, but yeah, A Nation of Descendants was a great fit. I’m glad you used parts of this post in introducing the discussion you led.

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