• Karen McNeill is a family historian at a bank serving clients with $ 75 million or more in assets.
  • She helps trace family lines and uncover intergenerational health issues and business legacies.
  • Here’s her story and what her job looks like, told to freelance writer Perri Ormont Blumberg.

This essay as told is based on a transcribed conversation with Karen McNeill, a 46-year-old family historian from Oakland, Calif., About her career path. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m SVP and Senior Family Historian at Ascent Private Capital Management of US Bank. Ascent works with high net worth clients with $ 75 million or more in assets.

I have a bachelor’s degree in history and in French, a master’s degree in US history, and a doctorate in history, all from the University of California at Berkeley. I had always planned to be a teacher, but when the

recession
struck in 2007, I started working in historical preservation. I have proposed properties for the National Register of Historic Places, inspected properties for planning purposes, and documented properties as development issues arose in the State of California. I have also taught history and architectural history at universities in California.

I never thought I would work for a bank, but when I discovered the opportunity to create a program that applied business and family history to real life situations, I knew I had found my ideal job. I started working with US Bank in 2013, helping families explore their past so they understand the present and can better plan for the future.

I have one of the three “typical” days

  • Research Days: I fill out family trees, comb through historical documents, examine census records, wills and other vital documents, read newspapers and browse photos to compile a family story. I also read outside to better understand the people on the tree.
  • Presentation days: I meet with families in person or, more commonly now, virtually to share the research and stories I have discovered. The documents are uploaded to a website like Facebook, and I organize them so that a family can “choose their own adventure” through their story.
  • Educational days: I attend family reunions and retreats and work with generations on issues such as, “Where are we from?” And “What are we going to do with this material?” We discuss the themes of my research that are interesting or striking and the values ​​that have stood out over time to help shape their future and determine the legacy they wish to leave.

I was working with a man who was a fifth generation American

He had long heard stories of his great-great-grandfather’s “Wild West Adventure”, an epic bear-hunting trip to Alaska, and a river named after him.

a vintage family photo from 1912

The McNeill family in 1912.

Courtesy of Ascent Private Capital


I found out that his great-great-grandfather had indeed gone bear hunting in the Outer Peninsula of Alaska. He had learned to fish from the natives and lived among them. His travel guides were so impressed with his adaptability that they gave a river its name, and his travel logs were so detailed that they helped inform National Geographic maps of the area.

The family were honored and humbled that their ancestor had played such an important role in mapping the area, but there was a negative side effect: the maps helped others discover the area, and it was soon overrun with tourists. The family were so proud of the history that they decided to help preserve the area for the future.

I like it when families have “aha” moments where they make a connection with their past.

For example, a seventh generation member of a family had known for a long time that there were mental health issues in his family. When I researched family history up to the 19th century, the family were shocked to see evidence of a long history of mental illness, but the discovery also made it clear that it was something the family needed to talk about now.

vintage family photo from 1936

McNeill’s family in Havana, Cuba in 1936. His grandmother is the brunette looking sideways, sitting directly across from the bartender.

Courtesy of Ascent Private Capital


Another family I worked with had a history of smuggling during Prohibition and evading authorities throughout the 1920s. This revelation initially generated a bit of laughter, but it also brought to light the the deep instability that the children of the bootleggers experienced as their parents kept the family on the run.

The creator of wealth has emerged from this chaos. He was loved and respected at home and at work, but also known as rigid in his expectations and short-tempered. Her children hardly knew their grandparents, uncles and aunts or cousins.

By understanding the context in which the wealth creator grew up, his descendants were able to shake off some resentment around his more difficult traits and impossible expectations. They better understood his desire to succeed and ensure the stability of his family. And they found great inspiration in his journey from poverty to plenty.

I am also more and more involved in futuristic technologies, especially artificial intelligence and augmented reality

With AI, historians record interviews with family members and upload those files to a program that allows someone to ask Alexa or Siri a question: “When did you meet mom?” – and the program plays relevant parts of the recording with dad.

a vintage family photo from 1912

McNeill’s grandmother in her great-grandmother’s arms, standing next to her great-great-grandmother in 1912.

Courtesy of Ascent Private Capital


With augmented reality, a family member can put on a special pair of glasses and browse through documents and family history in a more tactile way. The only futurist in the bank works with me, the only historian on this, and it fits perfectly.

Expertise is not enough to be successful in this role

An academic may find it difficult to engage in conversations, essays, or styles of presentation that are not steeped in archives, monographs, historiography, or theory.

Passion is not enough either. The amateur genealogist may have great research skills to complete the family tree but lack the in-depth knowledge to turn information into meaningful stories about risk, reward, resilience, suffering, creativity, traditions, generosity or sacrifice that will nourish the generations who will be seeking to understand who they are, where they come from and how they want to engage in the world. It is essential to be curious about any subject and open-minded to the worldviews of others.

Finally, empathy, humility, and good listening create a safe space to engage in deep, in-depth, and fun conversations.

It takes a lot of effort to document family and business histories, but no one ever regrets doing it once it’s done.

If a family does not go through the history exercise and the business is sold, there is often a vacuum around the identity of the family.

stack of old letters

Letters from the McNeill Family Archives.

Courtesy of Ascent Private Capital


I recently worked with a family who sold their lumber business after almost 100 years, but forgot to collect photos and other artifacts before closing the deal. When they went to pick them up from headquarters, the locks had been changed. This whole story was gone.

To avoid such situations, they must find a workaround on how the business was built, where the family’s wealth comes from and the values ​​that helped build it.