Now What? Extended Outlook

By Emily Anne Croom Premium

Q. How important is it to research collateral relatives? And what are they, anyway?

A. Collateral relatives include your ancestors’ siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins and even in-laws. The importance of researching these relatives varies with the project, but studying them is always appropriate.

When you research collateral relatives, you often learn more about your own ancestors. A diary or family Bible may contain details on extended family, with dates, places and ancestral names. Collateral relatives often migrated together and settled near one another, and sometimes intermarried, named children for one another, worshipped and went to war together, and were buried in the same vicinity.

If you plan to produce a comprehensive family history, you should include the collaterals as much as possible. In 1966, my grandmother gave me a copy of a South Carolina woman’s 1906 family history. When I began studying it, the book gave me insight I wouldn’t have had any other way. You see, she’d been raised by her maternal grandparents — my fourth-great grandparents. Her stories of growing up in their household helped me view them as real people, not just names on charts.

The technique of “cluster genealogy” broadens the scope even more. Ancestors didn’t live in isolation, but in a cluster of friends, neighbors, associates and extended family. While trying to identify the parents of one 19th-century teenager, I studied the two women who lived with him. Were they his relatives? The three had different surnames. Finally, the older woman’s deed and will revealed she was the teen’s grandmother; the other woman was his aunt. I immediately knew which deceased woman was his mother because I’d accumulated extensive material on the family. Church records in another state finally confirmed his parents’ names. If I hadn’t targeted the cluster of the teenager’s “associates,” I still might be trying to identify his parents.
From the July 2008 Family Tree Magazine