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Oh, what tangled family ties we weave

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 08:38 PM

Gardeners know that when they dig up a bush or small tree, they're likely to find roots tangled and hard to sort out.

Genealogists use the analogy of family trees and family roots, which can get just as tangled.

Understanding relationship terminology is critical to connecting ancestors and their extended families.

What's the difference between a half sibling and a step sibling? Half siblings share a parent. For example, John Smith has two sons but the two boys each have a different mother. They are half brothers because they share one parent. John's second marriage was to Mary Jones who had two daughters. Her two daughters and John's two sons are stepbrothers and stepsisters: They have no biological parent in common.

In earlier generations a lack of mobility narrowed spousal choices to men and women on neighboring farms or within a small town. It wasn't unusual to find two Jones brothers - Mark and George - married to two Thompson sisters - Maggie and Ann. The children of Mark and Maggie were double first cousins to the children of George and Ann. Regular first cousins have different parents but share one set of grandparents; double first cousins have different parents but share both sets of grandparents.

Families close and closer

It also was common for a widow to marry her late husband's brother. This made for dual relationships for the woman's children. For example, John Mills married Elizabeth Ryan. They had two daughters, Millie and Molly. John died and Elizabeth married his brother, Thomas Mills, who was a widower with two daughters Martha and Morgana.

When John and Elizabeth were married, the four girls were first cousins. After Elizabeth and Thomas married, Elizabeth's daughters also became stepsisters to Thomas' daughters. Thomas, who already was Millie and Molly's uncle, became their stepfather as well.

Say Elizabeth and Thomas went on to have their own daughter, Ann. She would be a half sister to each of the four girls.

Now try this situation for confusion. William Stansell marries Anna Roberts, daughter of the widow Margaret Hyatt and her late husband, George. Anna, who is two years younger than William, dies giving birth to their only child, Lilly. Needing someone to care for the baby, George marries his mother-in-law, Margaret. In this case Lilly's grandmother is also her stepmother. (The law in some places prohibited a man from marrying his mother-in-law.)

Confusing relationships

As if keeping all those relationships straight isn't enough, earlier generations sometimes used different terminology to describe them.

George Johnston wrote a will in which he left 200 acres of land to his daughter-in-law Mary Johnston. Inexperienced researchers would conclude that Mary had been married to one of George's sons.

Here is another possibility: Mary was the daughter of George's second wife Florence by her first husband, Thomas Carroll. Mary's actual name was Mary Carroll but growing up in the Johnston household, she began to use the name Mary Johnston.

George used the term in-law because Mary was his daughter through the law (rather than blood) when he married her mother.

It was not unusual for a man to refer to his mother-in-law or father-in-law as his mother or father. This can be easy to spot if he refers to a man as his father but the two have different surnames.

But when a man refers to "mother" and the woman has a different surname, a researcher must consider that she could be the man's natural mother who was widowed and remarried, or she could be his mother-in-law.

The lesson here is that researchers can't take relationships at face value in any document. This is one reason good genealogists consider all the possibilities, play the devil's advocate, and seek more than one piece of documentation for each event or relationship.

Just to muddy the waters, what about those fictive kin? Ever hear a relative say, "We always called her Aunt Sophie but she wasn't really our kin"?

Have fun fitting those "relatives" into the family tree.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wit

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