Are you and your child cousins?

Posted: November 30, 2013 in Ancestry, Genealogy, Uncategorized

Some aspects of genealogical relatedness.

It might seem an odd question to ask, but are you your child’s cousin? The answer, perhaps rather surprisingly, is that you well might be. In fact if you go back far enough the chances are high that you are. The only question being how far back you have to go. Understanding why illustrates some interesting features of family history and history in general.

In an article in Family Tree magazine I wrote about how many ancestors we have. The fact is that the numbers don’t keep on doubling in each generation (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents etc), but rather at some point the number of our direct ancestors stops expanding and goes into steep reverse. The reasons for this have to with ‘cousin marriage’. Our ancestors married cousins of various degrees, and not just that but when they, just for example, married a second cousin they were most probably related in multiple other ways to their spouse as well, not just in one way.

One of the upshots of this is that any particular ancestor you have might be your ancestor several times over but via different routes. Your 6th great grandmother could be your direct ancestor by three or four quite separate routes. The frequency that this happens in your own family, and the timescale over which it happens, will depend to a large extent on whether your family came from a small, possibly remote, and certainly rather closed community, or not. The more cut-off or remote a community is, the more different degrees of cousin marriage would have been prevalent and thus the sooner in the past you are likely to find some people being your ancestors more than once by different routes.

Saxton's 1577 map of Lancashire. 'Meoles' is top left

Saxton’s 1577 map of Lancashire. ‘Meoles’ is top left

I’ll take one example from my own family. My paternal grandmother was called Mary Seddon. She came from a long line of farmers in the Lancashire parish of North Meols (pronounced Meals). The resort town of Southport developed there in the nineteenth century, but prior to this North Meols was for many centuries a small, isolated and very cut-off farming, fishing and smuggling community. There were only a limited number of families and they continually intermarried. These families included the Linakers, Blundells, Aughtons, Bakers, Hootons, Gregsons,  Rimmers, Abrams and Seddons; all of whom appear in my own family history. Indeed not only did these families marry each other, they also married within the same family, quite often first cousins with the same name! Nearly all the marriages were between cousins of some degree and involved several distinct relationships between the spouses. Because the community was so small and closed (people twenty miles away said they didn’t understand the accent), this inbreeding can quite readily be spotted in the records. Whereas with a family in a much larger or more open community, like a big city, this type of cousin marriage is likely to have been much less frequent and significantly harder to spot when it did occur.

On this side of my family I can clearly identify several cases where a direct ancestor is an ancestor by several distinct routes.

But what about a parent’s relationship with their child? Obviously you are your child’s parent by definition – the closest kinship relationship. Your own parents were your child’s grandparents and so on. Yet your child has another parent as well. It is because you might be related to your spouse or partner that your child can also be your own cousin. The ‘degree’ of the cousin relationship being determined by how far back you have to go till you and your spouse find common ancestors. With first cousins it’s quite clear. If you married your first cousin this means you share a common pair of grandparents. In turn this means that your child will be a first cousin ‘once removed’ of both you and your spouse.

In closed communities like North Meols where there were more often than not multiple cousin relationships between couples, then almost invariably any child will be a cousin of some degree of both of his or her parents – say a ‘2nd cousin once removed’.

Alberbury Shropshire

Alberbury Shropshire

In my own family this suggests that up until the time of my grandmother’s own parents (called Richard Seddon and Margaret Blundell), all parents and children in this line of the family were pretty certainly ‘cousins’. I can prove that this was the case. Yet North Meols did start to open up, and more and more people came in as Southport developed, including my Lewis family which arrived from Shropshire in about 1871. When my Southport-born grandfather married Mary Seddon and they had a son (my father), was he a cousin of some type of his own parents? In order for this to have been so my paternal grandparents’ lines would have needed to have crossed sometime back in history. Was there at some time a union between these lines of this Lancashire family and this Shropshire family? Over the period of time I can trace, roughly 400 – 500 years, I can’t see any such union, although it’s still possible. Yet if we were able to look further back into history we would very probably find some very ancient such union. While North Meols and western Shropshire were both pretty closed societies they weren’t hermetically sealed. But the fact remains that my father was not a cousin of his parents over any reasonable timescale. The same is even truer of the relationship between me and my daughter, because my wife isn’t even British.

What’s the answer for you? Is your child your ‘cousin’? If you and your partner come from the same small and relatively closed community then you very well likely are. You might not have to go back very far to prove this. If, however, you and your partner come from separate or much more open communities, or even from different countries, then any cousin relationship with your child would probably be only of immense antiquity or wouldn’t for all practical purposes exist at all.

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