Every generation the number of grandparents we have doubles. Add in Uncles, Aunt’s, Cousins and In-Laws and soon you have a rapidly growing family tree. It’s not long before it feels overwhelming and you might find yourself tempted to start excluding certain individuals from your research. But if you start pruning out step families and in-laws you’ll never have a complete understanding of your family tree.
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Who in my family tree, should I research?
Our time is precious and so it’s understandable that you might make the decision to focus solely on your direct line – your grandparents (and all the greats). Perhaps you might look at the children of your direct ancestors, but only up to the point where they get married. After all, you have only so much time and you have to draw the line somewhere?
Whilst understandable this approach is a mistake – and not just because your collateral lines can provide you with vital clues. You can read more about that here.
Beyond the clue hunting, neglecting the exploration of your more peripheral ancestors can mean that you fail to develop an true understanding of their lives. Isn’t that what tracing your family tree is really all about? Aren’t we all seeking to understand our ancestors better? How can we do that if we are neglecting half their family members?
What is a family anyway?
You only need to google “definition of family” to find that the answer to this seemingly simple question is complex.
Perhaps that’s no surprise, as family is not defined by something physical. It’s defined by our feelings and relationships. How many of us have close friends, or god-parents that we consider “part of the family”? Or biological members of our family that we have never met or do not get on with.
Clearly family cannot be defined as just those we have a “blood” relationship with. Personally I have a large and complex immediate family consisting of “full” siblings, halves and steps. In fact, technically my step relations are “ex-steps” and I have a new step family (half of whom I’ve never met). Regardless of the status of my parents relationships, I am close to all my siblings – step, half or whatever! I mention this as evidence that blood relationships don’t really define us. Similarly, I have 3 Sisters-In-Law all of whom I consider “family”.
Complete Your Family Tree With Step Ancestors
We might think of “blended families” as a modern phenomena but of course they are not! Have you examined your family tree to see how many “step” relationships it contains?
I have many direct ancestors that were widowed and re-married. One ancestor outlived 3 wives (see here). I also have ancestors that separated from their 1st spouses and lived (as if married) with their 2nd partners. I bet you do too.
Despite the commonality of step-parents and step-siblings, these individuals often languish neglected within our family tree. They are not direct ancestors and it’s hard to find the time to research everyone.
But, neglecting to explore their lives means ignoring individuals that have a huge impact upon our direct ancestors. How important are your extended family to you? If you have step-parents, what is your relationship with them like? If your descendants ignored these individuals how would this impact their understanding of you? How can we understand our ancestors if we do not look at the lives of all the individuals that made up their “family”.
How can we explore family relationships?
Short of discovering a diary, it is hard to find your ancestors’ voices. The chances (for most of us) of finding a recording that explains their thoughts and feelings is pretty slim. But luckily there is a wealth of records that have survived that might just give us some clues.
You may have to read between the lines but these records can provide fantastic clues about our ancestors familial relationships:
- Birth Registration: Along with the names of parents (or at least a mother), birth certificates also contain the name of an informant. Personally, in the English records I’ve purchased this has always been the parent BUT certainly in Irish records I’ve noticed that the informant is sometimes someone else also present at the birth. This might be the midwife, or a family member supporting their relative during the birthing process. Perhaps a trusted and much beloved sister.
- Marriage Records: Who did your ancestors choose as their marriage witnesses? Presumably, wherever possible, they chose people they loved. Close friends. Family. What does their choice of witness tell you?
- Death Records: Who registered the death of your ancestor? Were they noted as present at the death? Who might have been caring for your ancestor during a sickness or old age?
- Graves: Grave stone epitaphs may of course provide clues about family relationships but so too might other records. Some cemetery registers include details on the purchaser of a burial plot. This might not be the deceased themselves.
- Wills: A will is probably the closest most of us will get to discovering a direct written recording of our ancestors thoughts and feelings. Who was included in your ancestors will? Or perhaps more interestingly, who was missed out?
- Census: Who was living with who and when? If an elderly step-mum moved into the family home of her step-daughter, then what does that suggest about their relationship?
- Occupations and Apprenticeships: I have ancestors that worked with their in-laws. Members of the family may have worked together in teams to combine wages, for example, miners, agricultural labourers, straw plaiters, peddlers. Alternatively, might a father have helped a son in law get a job? Or perhaps might a daughter have met her future husband through her father’s occupation? Likewise, apprenticeship records offer clues. Did an Uncle (father to only daughters) take on a nephew as an apprentice? Did a step-father teach a step-son? See my story on my ancestor Thomas Burgin INSERT LINK for a great example.
- Crime: If you find your ancestor in a criminal register, make sure you look closely at who else was arrested. It would not be uncommon for family to commit crimes together. Perhaps with one person stealing something and another selling it on. This would have involved a lot of trust. Conversely, wherever possible explore who might have “shopped” your ancestors in for committing a crime? Were they a relative? Not all family members get on! Lastly, if you are lucky enough to find information on a trial then look closely at the relationships of all parties. I found that witnesses in the trial of my ancestor were not particularly impartial. One of them married one of the defendants.
- Newspapers: Newspapers are an amazing under-utilised resource. Your ancestor does not need to have committed a crime in order to be found amongst it’s pages. Nor are obituaries the only type of article that might reveal information on your ancestors relationship with his or her family. I found an article about my elderly ancestor hurting their arm after falling off a ladder. Talk about a slow news day! Really the possibilities are endless.
Examining Step-Parents & Step-Siblings
It’s important to remember that your step ancestors did not spring into existence the moment they entered your direct ancestors life.
The step families within your family tree had lives outside of their new family unit. This is important to explore if you want a deeper understanding of your ancestors.
Let’s take step-mothers as an example. Were they widowed at the time of marrying your ancestor? Or younger than their new husband? Or did they get married later in life? Did they bring any children into this new family unit? What strain might more children have put upon family finances?
When did the step-parent enter the family? Our ancestors often re-married quickly after the death of a spouse, sometimes within days or weeks. Whilst this might seem shocking to us today, it’s important to remember that our ancestors did not have the financial support systems that we have today. Often re-marriage was a necessity. What benefits might your step-family have brought to the ancestral home? Someone to mother children? Someone to provide financial support? What benefit did your step-parent gain from entering this new family?
It would also be a mistake to presume that your ancestors did not know your step relations until such a time as they began courting. Check census records and research collateral lines. You might well find that your step ancestor is a cousin or that two separate families often inter-marry.
I was inspired to write this post after watching Joanna Bourke’s lecture on the evil queen (step mother) in the fairy tale Snow White. See: https://youtu.be/gAxrI1aqR0c
The following article in the New York Times gives an interesting analysis of the complexities of an ex-step family: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/04/fashion/-step-family-trees-with-tangled-branches.html