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Genealogy: Figuring out Relationships-- Aunts and Uncles, Greats and Grands, and Cousins! Oh, My!

Updated on January 16, 2017
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Liz inherited the family history notes from an aunt, and was hooked on genealogy. The hobby connects history to family for her.

Who else is hiding in your family tree?
Who else is hiding in your family tree? | Source

So Many Relationships!

Once you start digging, you begin to realize how interconnected we all are. You’ve probably heard the concept of “six degrees of separation,” which postulates that among any six people, at least one or two of them will have a mutual acquaintance.

There has been some research done to find out whether this is actually true. It's also often called the "small world theory." What are the chances that you will meet a random person who is also known to an existing friend or acquaintance of yours? What are the odds that you will find a relative in such a roundabout way? It happens! And, the size of the circle of connections is shrinking, thanks to social media.

Even in your daily travels, you never know when you might meet a relative you either didn’t know before, or discover that someone you do know turns out to be a relative. It happened to me! A lady I knew from the parents’ group at my kids’ school and I were at a party thrown by a mutual friend. My mother was also there. I introduced my friend to my mother, by first and last name, and she stopped, asked, “Do you spell your name this way?” and proceeded to rattle it off letter-perfect. Mother and I were both flabbergasted! “How did you get that right? No one does!” (It’s a three-syllable French name!) Turns out, it was my friend’s own maiden name! We did some further research, and we turned out to be distant cousins!

Find Out How the Theory is Examined

What Kind of Aunts and Uncles Do I Have?

Well, there are really only two. “What’s that,” you say? “Only two? I’ve heard family talk of many more; some of the families were quite large.”

Yes, well, we are not speaking of quantity, but of classification. To begin with, we all presumably know that the brothers and sisters (siblings) of our parents are our aunts and uncles. Just plain aunts and uncles.

And, we all know that the parents of our parents are our grandparents.

Now, when we go back a step in time, to those grandparents (four of them, remember?), their siblings are your grand aunts and grand uncles, but ‘just plain’ aunts and uncles to your parents. Got it?

Back up one more rung on the family ladder. Your grandparents parents, then, are your great-grandparents. Similarly, their siblings are your great-grand aunts and uncles.

Remember it this way: you have to be grand before you can be great! And then you are both great and grand!

Those Whom You Know

As discussed in my first article, it is your aunts and uncles with whom you will wish to speak to delve into the family history. These are the relatives you are likely to know in person; that is, unless your entire family is very widely scattered.

Many people are also lucky enough to know at least one of their cousins, if not several. Some folks even lived near enough to each other that they grew up and played with their cousins. They become good friends; almost like extra brothers and sisters. In this way, much family history is shared; that is, you grow up just knowing it, because of the close interactions. Consider yourself lucky if such was the case for you.

For me, most of my cousins lived three thousand miles away, across the country. The ones who did live nearby did not live near enough to be playmates, nor were they my age. Due to the fact that my parents had what is commonly called a "May-December" relationship, (meaning one of the pair is significantly older than the other), my local cousins were my mother's age; my aunts and uncles my father's age.

I knew them all well enough, as to who they were and how connected to me, but I was too young at the time to even think of the topic, let alone ask interview questions. There was one cousin we would visit now and then, and it wasn’t until I was an adult working on this hobby, and she long gone, that I finally figured out the exact relationship.

Speaking of Cousins—There’s That Dreaded “Cousins Tangle!”

As most folks know, our cousins are the children of our aunts and uncles. And that’s as far as many people care to entertain the matter. After all, it’s just too confusing! All those numbers! And removals! What’s that about? You get to remove a cousin you don’t like?

Well, no. I’ll make it as easy as possible. It can, indeed, get quite confusing, so we’ll go just one step at a time, starting with the basic and most obvious cousins—your first cousins.

Those are the children of your ‘just plain’ aunts and uncles.

Just as you are niece or nephew to those aunts and uncles, so are your parents aunt and uncle to your cousins, who in turn are nieces and nephews to them.

Clear as mud? Good. Mud can be fun.


Basic Cousins Chart

Cousins are numbered, down through the generations
Cousins are numbered, down through the generations | Source

There are many charts out there to help determine the level and type of cousinship, but the one I like best was shown to me some twenty years back by a distant cousin. It’s shaped like an upside down cone, or if you prefer, a ‘Christmas tree’ shape. (See above.)

For clarity, I’ve left it empty of names, and used only the designations at each level. This chart uses a descending format, with the “common ancestor” at the top, and going down the generations from there, each step being a more distant cousin.

Each 'child' line represents the offspring of the line above. Of course, to work on your own, you'd enter the names.

Now, About Those Removals

As we’ve seen, you can’t ‘remove’ family members (at least not legally); you’re stuck with them all; the good, bad and very bad.

In its simplest terms, think of a removal of cousins simply as a next generational step down the tree.

So, your first cousin’s children would be your first cousins, once removed. Their children, in turn, would be your first cousins twice removed, and so on.

It works at all levels. People who are third cousins are third cousins once removed from their offspring; and third cousins twice removed from the next generation.

I’ve used a couple of different tree charts for better clarity of this. The first one shows ‘just plain’ cousins; the second one addresses the removals. It gets much too jumbled up to try and show it on a single chart.

Chart of Removals

Each 'removal' represents a step down to the next generation.from your own place in the chart
Each 'removal' represents a step down to the next generation.from your own place in the chart | Source

The “Other” Cousins

You’ve heard of them: kissing cousins, quasi cousins, back-door cousins, etc. The thing is, the removals issue is complicated enough for most folks to deal with. So here’s the truth of the matter: these ‘other cousins’ are not cousins at all.

Well, except maybe the ‘kissing cousins.’ Depending on regional usage, these might be very close cousins, with whom you grew up, and would hug and kiss on meeting.

The other definition is that they are second, third or fourth cousins, or cousins of a distant enough removal that it would be legal to marry them. (Though, that might be weird, like marrying someone your grandparent’s age, or grandchild’s age, depending which way it went). First cousins are not allowed to marry.

For the rest, quasi (pronounced as ‘kwah-zee’) cousins are no relation to you at all. They may be a close family friend, or related to another family member but only by marriage. I can offer an example from my own childhood. Within our family, to be silly, we pronounced it as 'kway-zee,' and ultimately, it became 'crazy.'

As I mentioned, we lived across the country from my cousins who were my own age, or nearly so. We visited them only about eight times when I was growing up, and I got to meet and know all of my mother’s side of the family. (Luckily, my father worked for an airline, so we got discounted tickets; otherwise, I might not have even had that contact.)


Another kind of 'kissing cousin?'
Another kind of 'kissing cousin?' | Source

At my grand aunt’s home, I would sometimes get to play with a young girl who came to visit. She was not related to me, but to my aunt’s husband. However, it was much easier to call her cousin than to say that she was the ‘step-grandchild of my aunt.’ The girl was actually the granddaughter of my grand uncle, who was actually only an uncle by marriage. There was no blood tie between this young lady and my aunt.

However, my ten-year-old mind insisted otherwise: “Casey is related to auntie, and so am I, so Casey must be related to me as well,” I wailed. I was so upset that my dear grand aunt invented a very convoluted relationship, such as that I was her second step-cousin four times removed, or some other such nonsense. There is no such relationship, but I was happy with that, so, “Cousin Casey” it was.

There was another such person connected to the family, and we simply called her “Cousin Evelyn,” even though she was no blood relation to us. Dear family friends like this who share in family events are often given the courtesy title of cousin, aunt or uncle. You have to be careful when researching to be sure.

And Now Those Steps

Most of us know what step-relations are. It happens when a couple marries, has children, and then for whatever reason, whether by the death of one or the other spouse, or by divorce, that marriage ends, and one or both persons marry someone else. The new spouse is the stepparent of the existing children.

Any new children they have together are the half-brothers or sisters of the existing children. Step is not the same as half.

It reaches to grandchildren as well. As seen in the story about my quasi cousin, Casey, she was the step grandchild of my grand aunt. Her husband had been married once before, and Casey was his daughter’s child.

In Laws and Outlaws

I hope you have no outlaws in your family. But we all have in-laws. At least, if we are married, we do. Our mother and father in-law are, of course, the parents of our spouse. And, in turn, we are their daughter or son in-law. Likewise, their other children are our brothers and sisters in-law.

Ah, we can enter the in-law club if a sibling of ours marries. We can then become brothers or sisters in-law to the siblings of their spouse, even if we ourselves are not married.

Simple enough. But, beware of a mighty trap in your research!

There was a time, not so awfully long ago, (depending upon your own age perspective), that they used the term ‘in-law’ to mean the same thing as we now mean by ‘half-sibling.’ This can crop up as recently as the last forty or fifty years, and that can get very confusing!! So be careful to check the parental lines before you accept the designation!

That’s All, Folks!

That about wraps up the relationships aspect. If you just came in here, you can go back and pick up my article about how to get started with the search.

Moving on from there, I've devoted an article as well to figuring out complex relationships, while the family group sheet shows how to keep track of each family unit of parents and their children. Then we advance to how to use census data for researching your history.

© 2017 Liz Elias

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