Monday, 4 March 2013

Who is family?

Traditional genealogies focussed on a single pedigree, or bloodline, that showed the line of descent linking the client to his (preferably rich and powerful) ancestor. Females were necessary for the process of producing progeny but, unless she had a very powerful father, there was no reason to include more than the individual concerned. The idea of including references to the mother's ancestors was not only too difficult, it was simply unnecessary.

Modern family historians have gone beyond the surname obsession and recognise that ancestors on the distaff side are just as worthy of study. Our understanding of our family history is now immeasurably richer than in times past because of this; but the amount of research required has grown even more.

For all practical purposes, each family historian has an "infinite" number of direct ancestors to be researched. Even if you have located every one of your ancestors after a particular point, when you step back in time by one generation you add as many unknown ancestors as you have researched to date. It is an inverse Xeno's paradox that really does mean that you can never finish.

So why would anyone choose to research people who are not their direct ancestors? A collateral ancestor is someone related but not in your direct line of descent such as an aunt, uncle, or cousin. They are people with whom you share a common ancestor. Collateral ancestors in the current or recent generations may be personally known to you. They are the people you refer to collectively as the relatives or the relations with affection or sometimes exasperation. Remember "you can pick your friends but not your relations". You may learn about other collateral ancestors when you find that someone else is researching "your" 2xxgreat grandfather. Your common ancestor may form part of many different collateral lines. A few of those lines may seem worthy of further investigation.

But some of us cast the research net even wider. The term "tangent line" can be used to refer to a line of descent that touches one in which you are interested. Think about the younger brother of great grandfather's second wife. He has no genetic or legal connection to you in any way, but if he is rich or famous or evil or outrageous enough, then he can exercise a fascination that draws you into his story.

In my case, it is enough that these passers-by in the stream of history are puzzling. One of the powerful motivations for me as a family historian is problem-solving. If I encounter an individual or family group with information that is incomplete or inconsistent, then I want to resolve the issue. Whether the people involved are direct or even collateral ancestors does not really influence my level of enthusiasm.

I know it seems very disrespectful to my many-times great grandparents, but sometimes heading off on a tangent is just more fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...