In On writing it all down: 2. Paper family trees I talked about the difficulties of recording siblings on a family tree – namely that they do take up a lot of space on an already crowded page.
It got me thinking that siblings and extended family are really important. Most genealogists, in tracing their families, focus mainly on the direct lines. This is understandable, and for me too they are always the priority. But that doesn’t mean we should neglect our ancestors’ brother and sisters, and even cousins.
For one thing, research around the lives of siblings can be just as useful for providing the sort of background that I talked about in On getting more from the records. Can’t find much on your ancestor? Check out one of their siblings and see what they’re up to around the same time. Not foolproof, but often very interesting! This is particularly true if your ancestors’ tended to all work in the same industry or live in the same areas. Which leads me onto the next point...
Sometimes, researching a brother or sister in more depth can provide the vital key to getting over a brick wall, or solving a niggling mystery. It stands to reason that the more avenues of detailed information you have about all members of a family, the more leads you have to check. If you’re wondering about an ancestor who seems to have disappeared into thin air, check the census records for their siblings, or one of their children who isn’t in your direct line. Are there any likely candidates in those households? I also tend to keep a record of visitors and lodgers to a household and search for them if all else fails... you never know!
On a similar note, if you try to keep at least a vague idea about the other descendants of your direct ancestors, you’re far more likely to someday come across someone whose family history is connected to your own, who can help you as much as you can help them. They’re a resource equally as valuable as any document you’re likely to find and just as likely to help you solve a mystery – remember, so much of family history is about what is remembered and passed down the generations. Imagine if that distant cousin is in possession of a family photograph you’ve never seen, or the family bible with a list of dates that isn’t recorded anywhere else.
Most of all though, I think it’s wrong to reject siblings as somehow unimportant, because they have inevitably had an impact on your ancestor’s life. I know just from my own family that extended family often played a key part in raising a child or looking after someone in old age, even into the twentieth century – if this isn’t a major contribution to the health of the family tree, I don’t know what is!
Think about your own siblings and how important they are to you. Then imagine that one day a descendant of yours is researching you, but dismisses your brother or sister on the grounds that ‘they aren’t my direct ancestor’. I certainly don’t like this thought – without my brother I wouldn’t be me, anymore than I would be without my parents!
Previously, I’ve argued that genealogy isn’t just about getting as far back as possible (length), it’s also about the depth of your knowledge – finding a story and understanding the background. I’d like to add to this and say that it is also about breadth – remembering that you are not the only descendant of you ancestor, and that chances are there are distant relatives also living in the world today who are equally a part of your family’s history .
As always, let me know what you think...
Next time: making maps...