I have just been reading Val Greenwood’s The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy, in which I came across what I think is a very interesting point. She said; “Perhaps the one thing that would improve the quality of research being done, more than any other single factor, would be a concern for complete families rather than just direct lines.” What she meant of course was that more research should be done regarding collateral kin and associates, but this of course is easier said than done. This type of research involves working with many different records in quite large numbers, and one must be able to instantly recognize what is of value in each, and what is not. It’s difficult enough sometimes researching direct line descendants, but what she said I think is also quite true.
Studying ancestors in their full context has evolved from simply looking for siblings to searching for important companions as well. But it doesn’t just stop there; in-laws, associates, and friends are then placed within their own geographical, cultural and sociological elements. The benefit of this type of genealogical research is that it places your ancestor and his associates in their historical content as well as developing them as individuals. Sometimes known as “cluster genealogy”, it can be very demanding, but equally as rewarding.
There are certain principles however that can make a full genealogical study such as this a little easier. Understanding the relationships between different parties, and how those relationships play out and affect each person, can help genealogists to solve the hardest genealogical problems. The key is in remembering that the relationships between people are important, not just names.
Some Helpful Principles and Their Genealogical Inferences
One thing that sociologists have discovered is that the strongest family ties are between women, the most enduring bond being between mothers and daughters. The implication of this principle for genealogists is that; the best family sources for your genealogical study are probably those related to people with a different surname than the one you’re researching.
Regarding Western society, studies have shown that ties to the family of the wife are stronger than those of her husband, unless the husband’s ties are connected to his occupation. How this is important to genealogical research is that: besides understanding the blood ties between family members, a researcher must also comprehend the business and economic dynamics of family relationships.
It has been shown that immigration or other geographical mobility does not break the social relationships among family members. This information can be especially useful when researching records that may have been destroyed by a fir, floods, or neglect. In such cases; the records detailing the various relationships of family members may have been maintained by a person outside of the geographical location in which you are presently searching, someone removed from the area of destruction.
It is also important to understand the language of the era in which you are researching, as terminology for family relationships may have been different from those used today. If a family relationship is misinterpreted, it could sabotage an entire family tree. For example the terms daughter-in-law and son-in-law at one time meant a child of a spouse from a previous marriage.
Always remember that genealogy is as much about relationships as it is name gathering. People are joined not just by blood, but by law and emotions as well. If you limit your research to only blood relatives of your ancestor, you may miss out on critical clues and important documents.
Sometimes the legal records created by family members who had no heirs, beneficiaries, or descendants can be more useful than those who did. Never overlook a family member, and obtain all the information and data that you can regarding every ancestor.
In colonial times it was assumed that after marriage, spousal relatives became the same as your own. For example, the wife’s nieces and nephews would become the husband’s, and he their uncle. This is a common assumption, but presumptuous in genealogy.
These principles of course can be applied to any genealogical search, but are especially relevant when researching collateral kin. A good practice is to search all the records of any families you think you may be connected to. It is easy to complain that pursuing every collateral line you encounter will produce an impossible amount of surnames to manage, but with modern technology – computers and software – it is made much easier. A last tip is to learn more about the community of the people you are researching. Every culture and community produces records outside of those required by governments. Find those records, and you will undoubtedly find more ancestors and their associates.