Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who are you really related to?

I frequently receive notifications from the large online genealogy family tree programs that they have found record hints for me. In most cases, these hints are listed as being for a specific person. Some of these hints have lately been giving me some pause for reflection on who I am really related to. For example, a recent hint was like the following:

Great-great-grandfather's half brother's wife's first husband's daughter's husband

Technically, I can follow the lines on my family tree and see this person. I am certainly not discounting the value of record hints. They are extremely valuable. But am I related to my Grandfather's half sister's son-in-law?

Relationships are culturally determined. From time to time, I talk to people who did not know their parents or any of the "blood" relationships. I grew up in a family where we associated with my mother's relatives but had little or no contact with my father's relatives. As I became more and more involved in genealogical research, these dynamics became more of an issue with me. Why did we have a relationship with some "relatives" and not with others? As I learned more, I discovered the existence of possible family conflicts and other situations that probably influenced the interaction between family members. Now, as I grow older, I see the same types of situations develop in the families I associate with.

But these social and culturally based relationships or the lack of a relationship are only part of the story. We now have the ability through the electronic family tree programs to specify our social relationships to a degree that was likely impossible only a few years ago. I am literally deluged with possible family relationships through the online family trees and DNA testing. My multiple DNA tests have also markedly redefined who I am "related" to. In my case, for example, I now have 138 DNA matches from and 401 DNA matches from Out of the list from, I only recognize one or at the most, three people that I have ever met or had any contact with. Many of the people listed as DNA matches have not linked a family tree to their DNA results and have no family history research interests or even any public family history content information and so I am unlikely to ever discover who they are and how we might be related. The fact that someone is a third or fourth cousin does not help me a lot.

When a DNA test or a family tree match tell you that someone is a "close" relative what does that mean? If you happen to be a person who falls into the category of adopted or abandoned at birth, DNA testing may help to establish some familial relationships. But for most of us who are swimming if a larger pool of relatives, the apparent relationships established by sharing family tree data or by DNA are puzzling rather than helpful. Should I contact these people and try to establish some sort of social or cultural family relationship?

In my own case, my social relationships with family members extends to my own children and grandchildren, some of the siblings of my family and my wife's family. and their descendants. Your own family relationships may extend further or be more limited. But as a genealogist, I have had contact with a pool of more remotely connected relatives. I have found valuable genealogical contacts with people who are not blood relatives at all. In one case, I had an extensive correspondence that included visits with the daughter of the first husband of the second wife of one of my great-uncles. We shared a mutual interest in preserving photos and artifacts from my great-uncle and his immediate family.

How you define these relationships and what you do about the definitions is highly personal but no matter how those relationships are defined today, they are likely to begin changing and be different in the future due to the notices that keep coming from DNA test results and family tree matches.

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